Internationally known sculptor infuses his work with force


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Kenneth Snelson, whose steely, wiry sculptures blend tension and geometry, loved building model airplanes, boats and cars while growing up in Pendleton, Ore.

As a young man, he studied accounting, architecture, design and law before deciding to be a sculptor. After a stint in the Navy during and after World War II, he attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina on the GI Bill. A desire to study with Bauhaus architecture professor Josef Albers attracted him to the experimental program.

"I was very good at what was required in Albers' class because I had built model airplanes all my life. This was a small college. There were only 50 students," the 86-year-old sculptor recalled in a recent telephone interview from his home in New York City.

Mr. Snelson gives a free talk at the Carnegie Museum of Art at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. He will discuss "tensegrity," the joining of geometry and engineering to create dynamic, force-filled sculptures that he calls "constellations of form."

"Forest Devil," a sculpture Mr. Snelson constructed here in 1977, was moved last summer from Mellon Square Park to the art museum's back entrance. The 18-foot-tall and 35-foot-wide sculpture made of stainless-steel tubes and cables weighs 1,500 pounds.

Exhibited at a 1977 event called Sculpturescape, the $70,000 sculpture was a gift to the museum from its women's committee and stood in Downtown's Mellon Square Park for more than 35 years. Then last year, while the park was undergoing restoration, "Forest Devil" was moved to a grassy traffic circle at the Oakland museum's back entrance. Philip Stewart Jr., a sculptor and conservator who serves as a technical facilitator for Mr. Snelson, reassembled the sculpture last summer.

While a student at Black Mountain College, Mr. Snelson assisted one of his teachers, R. Buckminster Fuller, an American architect who popularized the geodesic dome. Mr. Snelson found him mesmerizing.

"I was fascinated by all this geometry. He turned the whole school on, Fuller did. Everybody signed up for his class that summer," Mr. Snelson said.

Fuller loved having an audience.

"He didn't require anybody to do anything but sit and listen to him. He wanted us to know that we could change the world if we did things his way. He was a proselytizer. The world could be saved by technology, economic use of materials and the geodesic dome."

Mr. Snelson, whose father ran a camera shop in Oregon, made his way to New York, where he supported himself by working as a union cameraman.

"The movie business was my Medici. All you got was a few days shooting as a freelancer. When I was shooting movies, I was making $300 a day in the 1950s. That was a fortune," he recalled. "I was able to make art and work only a few days."

In the 1950s and '60s, the art market was quite different, Mr. Snelson said. He remembered hearing one of his contemporaries, Dutch artist Willem de Kooning, muse about how to price a painting and wondering aloud if he should charge by the square inch.

Today's art market, he said, is different because a handful of "young artists get hot very fast. When I came into the world of art, it was more like a calling, in the sense that nobody was getting rich with it."

Mr. Snelson also reflected on his brief involvement with designing sculptural cladding for the top of 1 World Trade Center, a skyscraper built on the former site of the World Trade Center's towers, which were destroyed in a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

"I knew people at Skidmore Owings Merrill. They called me one day because they were working on the design for the top of the building," Mr. Snelson said, adding that he designed a tower that looked "a bit like a unicorn's horn."

The architectural firm asked him to be a consultant on that facet of the project. "So my name got attached to this. The tower was supposed to be a transmission tower for electromagnetics, television and radio and cable."

Time passed and the architects were faced with "doing this 300-feet addition to the building to get to 1,776 feet. Nobody was very happy with how that turned out," the sculptor said.

Mr. Snelson said he told the architects, "I don't like the way this thing looks, and I don't want to get blamed for it."

He went so far as to have his brief involvement with the tower removed from his Wikipedia page.


Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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