Kenneth Snelson

(b. 1927)

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Black Mountain College

Josef Albers (1888—1976) German-born American artist, designer, and teacher


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(1927– ).

Sculptor and photographer. Known primarily for elegant abstract structures of apparently free-floating tubular elements, he also takes extreme wide-angle photographs of gardens and urban infrastructure. The sculptures, which employ wires or cables to hold the tubes in position, depend for their effect on forces of tension and compression. Shiny stainless steel and aluminum have been favored materials, although he has on occasion worked with other metals or with such combinations as bamboo and rope or string. Many of his finest works reach monumental scale and are intended for outdoor locations. Although the success of Snelson's method depends upon his considerable analytical skills, he designs individual pieces intuitively. Generally asymmetrical, they often suggest organic growth in their complex, muscular organization. Born in Pendleton, Oregon, Kenneth Duane Snelson studied at the University of Oregon in Eugene for two years before heading to Black Mountain College in 1948. Then a painter intending to study with Josef Albers, he changed direction upon encountering architect Buckminster Fuller, who set him on a course of discovery concerning natural forces that shape the visible world. Within months, he began making delicate structures that initiated the evolution of his characteristic work. Although Fuller's inspiration was decisive to the young artist, Snelson claims with plausible justification that his innovations proved critical to Fuller in conceptualizing the theoretical basis of his famous geodesic domes. After leaving Black Mountain in 1949, Snelson continued his studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Bauhaus-oriented Institute of Design in Chicago and then in Paris, where he studied with Fernand Léger. He later also took engineering courses to sharpen his understanding of structure. In 1952 Snelson moved to New York, where he supported himself for about fifteen years by working as a cinematographer. Until the middle of the minimalist 1960s, Snelson was regarded more as a quirky engineer than as a sculptor, although he had achieved his mature, airy style by around 1960. However, before the end of the decade, his unique formal purity began to attract numerous clients. A futuristic blend of Brancusi's Endless Column (Târgu-Jiu, Romania, 1937–38) and constructivism, Needle Tower (Hirshhorn Museum, 1968) rises sixty feet above its base, presenting a gravity-defying arrangement of interrelated tubes that appear to be independently suspended in space. They diminish in size as they ascend, enhancing the effect of height. Also integrating perceptions of space and mass, Snelson's emphatically horizontal photographs are taken with a special camera that can accommodate as much as 360 degrees of vision. Since around 1990, he has also explored space and form with computer-generated images.

Subjects: Art.

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