Transcribed by Jolene Mechanic.
This is Connie Bostic. We’re in the Studio of Bonesteel Films in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s July 22nd, 2008, and we’re speaking with Kenneth Snelson. Can you tell us a little bit about your early life?
My early life. I grew up in Pendleton, Oregon which is in the Northeastern corner of Oregon. My mother came from the Bronx and my father was managing a plant, Morganstein Laundry in the Bronx. He had always been in the laundry business. She was waiting for a streetcar and he had a car, and it was a pickup. This was in 1920. And so, then he was looking in various laundry journals, I guess because he had always wanted to own his own plant and the place he found was in Pendleton, Oregon. And so, that’s how he got there and she got there, and I got there. So, this casual meeting in the Bronx is how I ended up in Oregon. Anyway, this small town, Pendleton, was known for horses and the Pendleton Round Up Rodeo, and so, the atmosphere, more than other small towns I think was really quite colored by that famous rodeo. And so, when I was growing up all of that stuff wasn’t really very much of an interest to me but it was the environment.
I liked to make things from an early age. I think the truth is in part that because there was normal family bickering upstairs and we had a basement and I could go down there and make things, like model airplanes or whatever, and bring them upstairs and I’d get praised and the noise would stop. So, it became a useful mechanism and as a result I was one of the smarter kids in school. My dad, by the time the depths of the Depression, decided to open up a camera shop because he’d always liked photography. It was a strange enterprise because there weren’t people in Pendleton really who were that much interested in high-end photography. But he had a love of these wonderful cameras and that’s really what this camera shop was about. My dad was getting franchises and so all during the 30’s and into WWII our camera shop had cameras that nobody else in the country had anymore because they were all sold out: German cameras, largely. So, I grew up learning everything about all the different kinds of cameras, because he would permit us to take a roll of film when a new piece of equipment came in, and then there I was turning 17 just at the time the war was winding down but we were still at war in the Pacific and this was in 1945; and when I graduated from high school it was necessary to join the service or be drafted, and so I joined the Navy and I was in for just 13 months before they got rid of all of us. I got in 2 months in before the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened. And so, I did a year of service, which was very easy in Washington DC in Naval Intelligence, and was discharged 13 months later with payment for a full 4 years of school under the GI Bill— which was just incredible looking back on it now. At the time it was just the way things were, and you expected the government to be paying for your college education. I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to take in college but everybody in that small western town in Oregon went either to the University of Oregon in Eugene or Oregon State College in Corvallis. Oregon State was more directed toward engineering and farming, and so the liberal arts college was University of Oregon, which is where I went. My older brother was already there, and he said, “Kid, business. Business is work because everything is business.” Well I signed up for business school and it was just God-awful and it went with accounting and I lasted about 2 months in that awful world and then I decided well, maybe I should take English literature. I had a wonderful English teacher and so I signed up.
I changed majors, I think, either literally or nominally 4 or 5 times until finally I heard some upper classmen talking about architecture in a way that I had never thought of buildings. I mean it never occurred to me that you design buildings and put thought into what they’re being used for, I mean they were just buildings. Also, the important part about small towns in America—Robert Rauschenberg also talked about this—I think the expression [Robert] used was that in Texas there was no art, and that really is true, too. So, it was not only naïve youngsters who had a limited knowledge of architecture but art in general was totally out of the question. It wasn’t even something one thought about being; I mean artists were people who were born with a sort of aura and we’d never seen anybody like that in Pendleton. So, at the University of Oregon, signing up now for architecture, I was in a class of basic design and I realized overnight that I wasn’t interested in designing mail chutes and plumbing. I liked the spatial stuff, this wonderful exciting world of putting things together in three dimensions. But you didn’t become a sculptor at University of Oregon because the painters were the intellectuals. They were the bright people. And, I quickly met friends who were painters and I became very excited about painting.
And so, then I spent 2 years studying painters, painting with a wonderful teacher named Jack Wilkinson who was just the right person to introduce people who had no art background to the reasonable logic of art—especially geometrical art, and since I had worked with these model airplanes which were all geometry, his teaching was very exciting. So, it really was just like a great wonderful revelation, and unlike kids who grow up say in New York City and they have the museum, they have the Metropolitan, they have the Guggenheim, and so forth, it was so terribly exciting to be there, I mean I could almost cry.
C – So you started out as a painter. What happened?
Yeah, so after the second year, Bauhaus was part of our vocabulary. I mean there was Kandinsky, there was Feininger and there was Klee, and the Alberses—all those wonderful people. So, I was looking through a book about the Bauhaus in the art school library and I found there was a place called Black Mountain College that Josef Albers had gone to when he left Germany, so I looked into it. It was totally off the wall, nobody had said you should go to Black Mountain, this was out of a book, just a mention. So, this was at the same time I began to realize that the GI Bill didn’t care where I went to school and there were people going to Europe, there were people studying hairdressing, there was everything, you know actors, acting, in fact there have been people like Tony Curtis who have talked about the GI Bill as really being a source. He wouldn’t have been an actor if it hadn’t been for the GI Bill. Rod Steiger was another one. So, the GI Bill was this incredible gift, and that’s what got me to Black Mountain. I talked another student, Roger Lovelace, into going with me and he had a car, which was a big advantage. So, we drove across the country in Roger’s Chevy and that was the beginning.
C – You were there in 1948. The de Koonings were there that summer, Ray Johnson was there, Cage and Cunningham were there, Ruth Asawa was there, Arthur Penn, Pat Passlof, Ken Noland, and you were very young, and most of these people were very young, what was that like?
What was that like? Well, they were simply the people who were at the school that summer that I was there. I didn’t know what role Bill de Kooning was playing in the New York art world. The kind of painting that was going on in New York was really foreign to us. San Francisco had also, I think, the kind of painting that would have turned into Abstract Expressionism, or maybe it was in effect that, but the expression that we used at the University of Oregon, since we were all very structural, was such that what they were doing in San Francisco was the difference between painting and paint. So, when I got to Black Mountain the de Koonings didn’t resonate with me one way or the other, and besides I had gone there to study painting with Albers. But Albers did not accept people in painting until they had gone through the discipline of his basic course. So, there I was, going through another basic design course because the one at the University of Oregon was also sort of structured around the Bauhaus with different vocabulary. I got in Albers’ color course—his foundation course, it’s called. Because I had spent my childhood making model airplanes I was very, very good with simple materials. All the things you need to make a model airplane are what I was dealing with in the foundation course with what are called problems. The wire problem. I don’t know what the problem was with wire but anyway, you did what you could do, and I was really good at that. There were no more than eight or ten in that small class. We placed our work at the end of the week, whatever it was, folding paper or something, around the edge of the floor and they were anonymous in effect because there was no label on them. So, he picked out some pieces of mine and he said this is the work of a sculptor, which was news to me because I had shunned sculpture at the University of Oregon in favor of being an intellectual, a painter. So, at the end of about two weeks, he asked me if I would help a new architecture professor who was just arriving put up his show because he was going to have a talk that very evening. And it turned out to be a man named Buckminster Fuller. Some of the faculty may have known the name because Fuller had gotten publicity for his Ford D car at the Chicago world’s fair and so forth, but he wasn’t a household name. When Albers asked me to help him assemble his show, I thought I was gonna be putting roofs on little house buildings or something. I had no idea.
Fuller had come down from New York pulling this airstream trailer. And in the trailer were all of his paraphernalia, and I helped him put these things together and it was simply a matter of “hold this while I put a bobby pin through here” or something. They were primitive things, they were made of cardboard and wire and celluloid and glass marbles and things like that. I was fascinated by it, but I didn’t have any idea what this stuff was about. And it was typical Fuller that he wanted to do a talk that very evening. He did not want anyone in the school not to know who Buckminster Fuller was, even for a day. So, here he had driven down from New York, and with the man’s remarkable energy anyway, he gave a long talk that very evening, and since nobody knew what to expect of this architect, it turned out not to be about architecture, it turned out to be about all of the various subjects that he would go through in all of his lectures, fundamentally about technology in various approaches that he would present in order to make his argument about how the world could be saved by technology if you just do it his way. So, since I had come in as the monitor as it were, I stayed monitor, and so for the rest of that summer I became a Fullerite. I think there were like 54 or 56 students there at the time, and somebody said that for every four students there was a professor. So, there were all these people you named: Richard Lippold, Cage and Cunningham, Fuller, Albers and the whole gang.
Everybody went to Fuller’s class. I think it was called comprehensive designing or something like that. I’ve got some photographs and they show Fuller talking and some other people sort of looking blankly. The fact was this man would talk to anyone, anytime, whether they understood what he was doing or not. He had to entertain. As Isamu Noguchi said about Fuller, when he came in a room, nobody else was there. And that’s really the way he was. He talked in the daytime and in the evening if he could corner some faculty members. They realized that he would talk endlessly so they sort of avoided him. Now, I mean there was nothing conspicuous about it but they would arrange to have something going on or something. So, I became a kind of sounding board. Very often in the evenings I would listen to his talking. Now, the background to this is that my mother was a nonstop talker. And so, whether I really was listening, or whether I looked as if I were listening, it didn’t matter. But that was my mode, so I became the perfect summer ear for Bucky, and I was very excited about his ideas and I was especially excited about the geometry because it came right through with the Albers geometry, with Jack Wilkinson at the University of Oregon, and so by the end of that summer I was talking about staying on and working with Natasha Goldowski and presumably Max Dehn.
But let’s see, I was in the Brown Cottage in fact. Do you know the brown cottage? And the science building, which was a tiny place anyway, burned to the ground. Not only that, but the place was just not the same without that summer crowd. It was very much a downer, so I decided to go back home. I went back to Pendleton, and that was drearier. All of the magic of that summer was just lingering. So, I started to make little models of one sort or another. I started to play with sculptures that were made of medical swab sticks, you know, little dowels and wire and threads and folded cardboard and stuff. I mean I’d learned a lot about folding paper from Albers’ folding classes, and I started making these things and one series of them turned out to be very helpful because they were based on that little balancing tower where the man sits on a point and the two weights are down below and you put them on top of something and he wobbles. And I was doing something like accumulating stacks of those, each one smaller on the top, a little tower and so they were all supported by what was below and they would sort of move like a spinal column. And at one point I began to replace the little hinges that joined one to the other with threads. And when I completed that, there was something quite obvious and that was that the degrees of freedom that permitted it to move could be restricted and tied off by putting additional threads that would tie those little parts one to the other. So, what it resulted in a magical looking thing in which all of the solid parts supported one another simply by a structural use of threads, this strange looking Indian rope trick really. I was in correspondence with Fuller, and a number of letters that I wrote to him and the letters that he wrote back to me are at Stanford. I was kind of a protégé in both our minds by that time.
And so in the winter of ’48 I decided that I should be an engineer. This was the influence of Fuller. So, I went to Oregon State College for one trimester, and that was really a disaster. I just really hated it. And, so, I mean I kept waking with the frost on the window in the cold winter in Oregon and thinking, “I’m going to Portland to join the Merchant Marines!” But then I got a letter from Bucky saying that he was going to be back at Black Mountain the next summer with a group of students from the Institute of Design in Chicago. And so, gladly, to restore something, I went back there. It was quite a different feeling. In the first place, Albers was gone, and this new group of students wasn’t like art students; they were people who wanted to make domes, to be able to create commerce or something. They were all very nice people, but I didn’t feel like they were Black Mountain types. And in fact, that summer there was a lot of friction because they were almost by force in a clique because they all came from the Institute of Design in Chicago. They were all design students, or industrial design students and there was resentment, back and forth. There was a party given that summer and they came dressed in this sort of outlandish garb— they dyed some bandage cloth, and made sort of an Indian costume. And they had hats which I think said something like JC on them because people had been accusing that group of being followers of ‘Jesus Christ Bucky’ and it was a very icky moment. And Bucky was embarrassed by it and the next day he tried to mend the damage that was done because they had made sort of a “screw you” declaration with these costumes: “we’re who we are and you can ridicule all you want,” or something like that. Bucky wanted everybody to know that he was not Jesus Christ, he was the most ordinary of men.
C – Some ordinary man. Some of the best photographs ever taken of Fuller and students I think are the ones that you took at Black Mountain, and so your interest in photography was a long standing thing and that’s what you continue to do today, is that right?
Right, well Bucky had brought with him a camera. I think was a crown graphic camera, a three and a quarter by four and a quarter camera I remember, and I took a number of pictures for him. Do you have another question? Because I mean, I’m just going on.
C – go On!
Ok. In any case, what I neglected to put in here was the important ingredient as far as my time is concerned. I had made a plywood model that had two ‘X’ elements. The X’s were about like this: they were joined only by fishing line. And this is what I brought back with me to Black Mountain. I showed this to Bucky out in the midday light. He was fascinated by it. I had sent him pictures but I think that he hadn’t understood the pictures. They were just small black and white pictures, and so he obviously was quite fascinated by this and he said, “Ken, may I keep this?” Well, I liked it and I didn’t really intend to part with it, but I wasn’t too reluctant to part with it either because I thought, “well, he’s my teacher and I’m flattered that he likes it.” So, the next day he said that he had figured out that the structure that I had built was interesting but wrong, that the X’s should be more like a tripod with three legs and a post coming up that represents the central angles of a tetrahedron. And since he knew everything about everything, I went to Asheville, and I bought curtain rods. And the idea was that those curtain rods ought to meet at their points like this and stabilize because it was in effect for balls to make themselves into a tetrahedron just like a stack of oranges, three and then one on top. But they didn’t stabilize in that way, and so I had to make some celluloid little cages for the curtain rods and then tie this whole thing together with thin wire. . . I bought these curtain rods and made this structure using these celluloid little joining things, and it suddenly became Bucky’s structure. I didn’t have a clear sense of it at the time at all, and I took his picture with the camera that’s become a famous photograph of his gleefully, joyfully holding this thing out and by god he said to me at the time, “would you like me to take your picture?” And I was a bit, can I say pissed, about it? I was! So, I didn’t want to participate in this thing. I felt instinctively that I had been preempted or something.
Another thing happened that summer: a Canadian girl named Joy Ballon. I came there pure, and Joy corrupted me. And so, anyway, I was having this wonderful time with Joy. She was Joy. And what was curious about it was that Bucky and Joy slowly, or rather quickly, became annoyed with one another for what they wanted of me. Bucky felt that this student who had been so faithful and employable and adaptable the year before was being distracted I think. I mean Bucky would say, “Joy’s a perfectly wonderful person, but I was seeing her the other day and she was just standing there, just looking at her feet, very strange.” And so, Joy on the other hand would go with me and with everybody else in the college that summer to Bucky’s talks, and she came out one time and she said, “You know Ken, when I’m in there listening to him, I think I should save the world, and when I get out here, outside, I realize I don’t know how.” Which was what happened a lot. And so, anyway, by that summer I had already become, how can I say, sort of [a] defrocked Fullerite. And there were a couple of little incidents that were insignificant to anybody else, but they sort of made me realize that I was, among other people, sort of being used. And he expected that of people, because his message was that his voyage to save the world required everybody to participate and his was the main personality that ought to be dominant. And he said to me one time…
[(Oh really? Again? About what, some heart problems,) off camera. . .]
What was I talking about?
C – oh, you were talking about there were several other little incidents that might not have been important to anybody else but they were important to you.
Yeah. Ok. No, there was a lot of realization. I had fully accepted or else tried to fully accept the year before, all of the things that Bucky was talking about. And I began to realize that so many of them are just unlikely, just peculiar, I mean for instance, he would show a cube with the diagonals on it to a class and he’d say that “man has not known before that inside of a cube there are two tetrahedral interlocking.” And now, people began to joke that Fuller discovered the triangle. Because he would tell us these things and we were ignorant kids! I didn’t study mathematics, higher geometry and so forth, and so that was what Bucky did was to turn people on, young people especially. The math teacher there, I’ve forgotten what his name was, was a German mathematician who kept saying, “All this is known, I have it in my little black book,” and of course all this stuff was known but Bucky was a marvelous salesman, and so he could convince you by his labyrinthine way of discussing these things that it had a totally different meaning from what you would have gotten in math class. He gave it a totally different coloring, and that’s what excited people about being with him, but when you start to unravel it I think it reminds me of a scene in a movie long ago called The Snake Pit, when a girl who’s been nursing this rag doll, was clutching to it and she begins to unravel it, and unravel it, and unravel it and finally she finds it’s nothing but a string of rags. And in a certain way, it’s not a perfect model, but it is sort of how Fuller inspired people. There’s a Bucky Fuller exhibition right now at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which is going on to Chicago. This show has a lot of things in it and they wanted to use the two models that I spoke of for that show, and I said, “Ok, but you’ve gotta make sure that I get credit for it.” Oh, they wanted to do that, they wanted to do that. And when I saw the way it was presented, they had neglected to say on the large structure that the origin of it was me, so I got into a debate with them and they finally agreed to do it.
But Bucky had this grand, grand ego that as Noguchi said, he was the only one in the room. In Bucky’s mind he was the most important human being alive, but he didn’t act that way. George Nelson called it Bucky’s “phony affability” And people now who are researching this show said to me, “You know the part that I don’t get, they talk about charisma, I just don’t see it.” In the room, people had charisma obviously because he had all of those STM people later on, enormous audiences filling the thing with Bucky with his grand screen up there and they were all very turned on.
So, it’s hard to understand the man behind the curtain. And he was extraordinary and for the first summer I was totally sold; the second summer, with the help of Joy and a lot of other people, I began to get a clearer picture of him. But to clarify about the second summer, the group that called themselves the “sphere-ists,” the people from Chicago, I think there were twelve of them, and that’s why they got this disciple label. Martinez was one of the guys, and he was, I think, either half Native American, or Mexican, I’m not sure. He was a big strapping guy, and a very sweet man and one day I walked into the men’s room in the studies building, and Martinez had a cup made of a half of an octahedron. An octahedron’s got two points and if you position it a certain way you can make a cup out of it. He was filling it with water, because he wanted to find out whether Bucky’s description of the octahedron made the same amount of volume as a tetrahedron. It was wonderful, but he was embarrassed because whatever the outcome of this thing, he was revealing to another disciple that he had doubts. So, he was the Luke of the Lukewarm of, I suppose, disciples. But I’m just drawing a picture of the way that the “sphere-ists” came into Black Mountain as accompanying Bucky. They did make that dome that summer that he’s pictured with. All of them hanging from this thing. That was a group called the “spheres.” I’ve forgotten all of their names. They were a nice bunch of kids, but they weren’t Black Mountain types.
C- So, you were there though the summer before when the first dome was attempted. Talk a little bit about that.
Yes, right, that’s a legendary thing. Well, one of the first ideas that Bucky introduced was that he was trying to replicate what nature does. So, when a plant is planted from the seed, and watered, and the sun draws it up and it feels the atmosphere to find out what things are and where the sun is and so forth. So, it grows, but it’s very, very weak at the beginning, and it becomes strong as it develops. And it develops according to what the environment will help it do. So, he had brought with him a number of rolls of metal aluminum, venetian blind material, which looked like great big film rolls. There were several of them and he was talking about taking this principle of a tendril shoot, and by taking these lengths of this venetian blind material, punching on the precise places where the intersections would occur to make a dome. Something he called a geodesic dome. And everybody was quite taken by this idea, and they put stakes around this 50-ft. area. I think it was not far from that little building with the individual studies in it. At any rate, they had the whole crew, and I think Beaumont Newhall took a lot of pictures. Three or four of them declared themselves architectural students. Lubroth was one of those guys I remember, and they went down and punched holes in these things, and the idea was you put cotter pins, like paper cotter pins, very light weight stuff, into the holes where the thing was crossing, so the geometry was all laid out beautifully because it occupied this big circle which was very flaccid. But he had shown us how you could take three lengths of venetian blinds with the concave part out, outside, and tape them together on three sides to make a sort of beam. It was not a very strong beam but it was indeed a beam and the idea was this flaccid network could be reinforced and the places that were between points of intersection would be straight lines made of these taped up beams.
Well, I think that he began to see that this was not going to work. I think it was done in a day. I really don’t remember, maybe there were two days of it. But people started lifting this network of flaccid stuff with poles, trying to get it to stand up. If you could just give it a form, maybe it would stand up. But it didn’t stand up. And I think Bucky must’ve been disappointed but I think that he must have seen early on in the day that this wasn’t going to work and so, typically, he went to the top of the studies building and he had found a book on photomicroscopy. And he had found a page that was a photograph of the chromosomes of a fruit fly and he said, “look at this! This is the most exciting thing in the world! The most exciting! Look, everybody, come over here and look at this, this is absolutely what nature’s providing here, this, this, you see this pattern is identical to what we see down there and this is the most exciting thing!” Anytime that Bucky started on one of his courses like that, nobody could say, “It doesn’t look like that at all.” Everybody said, “Yeah, it surely does. Yeah.” And this is what the man’s ego could do to a crowd.
Nobody ever contradicted Bucky. I saw him contradicted in a couple of talks and he became really like an angry child. Just like petulant child. Because he knew the answers, he had it all down pat and you’re absolutely wrong if you don’t see it his way. So, this was a perfect example of it and I think they picked the stuff up, and we talked about other things all that summer. In his class he went through his other subjects, but it wasn’t until next summer when they had a different design from the Institute, made of tubular stuff with cable running through it, that they had a dome that stood. But this was not the geodesic dome of later years, this was what was called great circle geometry. The 31 great circles that were taken from geometrical solids, for instance, a cube making out of the edges of the cube a circle and a icosahedrons, and so forth, and it ended up with 31 great circles around a sphere and they intersected, and those intersections were the places where those cotter pin joints held the thing together.
C – What were, so everybody just sort of like, it was ok that this thing go up even though . . .
Well, I think it was passed over rather quickly. I mean there were some jokes about it. I can’t really tell you what most people were thinking. The photographs show Elaine de Kooning out there and Albers with his Leica taking pictures of it. I don’t know, I think maybe people just kind of shrugged afterwards, and Bucky’s response in any situation like [was],”There is no such thing as failure, nature is trying to tell us something. If you don’t try something and fail, you haven’t learned anything, you know,” which is all very true. So, he took advantage of that truth, and I think the thing passed over rather quickly.
C – What have been the long-term results of the fact that your ideas were sort of like taken over by somebody else?
Well, that Bucky claimed this idea for his own has been trouble all my life, and I’m 81 years old now and I think it’s never gonna go away. Fortunately though, the Internet has provided a forum. I’ve always thought it was because Bucky was in a Christmas spirit, and he probably was suffering some guilt, and so on December 23rd, 1949 he wrote me this letter saying, among other things, that if I had shown this work to an art audience, they wouldn’t have understood it the way he did, because he saw the profound meaning of it, and the world would long remember the name of Kenneth Snelson and so forth. So, I have this letter, and this letter’s been a treasure because it’s the only real evidence. Well there were two letters, but this one in particular is now in that exhibition at the American Whitney Museum. Bucky learned long ago in his early years that if you create a name for something, if you can give something an odd name and have that name stick, if you talk about it enough times, pretty soon the name becomes the thing and the name becomes you. So, he invented this name Dymaxion, he invented the name Octetruss. Alexander Graham Bell did tetrahedral, octahedral, grids in 1906 or something like that, and it was publicized at the time. He spent a lot of time and it was much published, but Bucky never said, “Oh yeah, Alexander Graham Bell did this 50 years ago.” So, that’s been the biggest curse of the thing, is people say oh, Tensegrity and you see on the web and it says Bucky Fuller invented Tensegrity. He invented Tensegrity, the word, you see. So, any rate, this has been difficult, yes.
C- What about the other people that you met at Black Mountain? Did you keep in touch with a number of them over the years?
Well, a number of people, not really. I mean, Olie Sihvonen and Eine Sihvonen, I knew for a long time. Dortohea Rockburne I see every once in a while. I mean I saw Richard Lippold from time to time, and he was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters before he died and I saw him often. But, I mean there aren’t many. David Weinrib and I are good friends, he teaches at Pratt now, and I did the talk at Pratt this year because of David. And, who else? Well I mean, I did see Elaine de Kooning from time to time, and when Bill was alive I had a place out on Long Island and we ran into one another on one occasion or another.
C- Talk a little about Richard Lippold and his family that summer.
Richard Lippold came with his wife, and gosh, were there a couple of kids? I think so. And they arrived in a hearse. I’m not sure he wasn’t there before I was. Maybe they came down shortly after, but Richard was working with some brass rod structures and I think he made two pieces that were sort of like columns, maybe about this high, made of this very thin, I think 1/16 or 1/32 brass rod and typically Richard could do this very fine work. I think they were braised together, these things, but they were almost like model airplane fuselages and he called them initially, “Homage to Buckminster Fuller.” I don’t think that title stuck because I saw them in some catalogue later and they were named something else. But when he left, he left me with some of that brass rod and I made a cubical form out of it. Simply of cubic edges soldered together and I put loops on the middle of these things, in the corner of the cubes, and I strung dental floss, throughout this whole thing and every way that it would possibly go. It had this really complex matrix of threaded stuff that occupied all of the inner space from corner to corner, from edge to edge. It made a really complex thing. I made this while I was still going to be staying there in the autumn to be the maintenance man. That was some misapprehension. But I showed this to Max Dehn. Now, he was supposed to be my new math teacher. And I remember showing him this thing I was very proud of, it looked quite beautiful. Here is this brass-edged thing with white [a] web of stuff in the middle, and he said, “I can’t look at things like this, they just confuse me.” And gosh! Here I was, my math teacher and he wasn’t a visual math teacher obviously at all! And he obviously was also very miffed by Fuller’s celebrity that summer. So, that did not bode well for my being a student with him. Bucky picked up the vocabulary of all of the stuff around the day.
One of them was that in atomic physics, the word spin had been introduced I think by Uhlenbeck and Gutschmidt. And spin had to do with an esoteric mathematical discovery about the way that electrons move. This is going on record, and I can’t really explain it very well but it had to do obviously with something in the spectra that showed there was a difference, and the difference had to be assigned to something, so they invented the idea of ‘spin’—that the electron would actually spin and whether it spun with the north pole up or south pole down, spin was a hot word.
So, Bucky started talking about these geometrical figures in class, these polyhedra, and he would spin it holding the thing, and he’d say, “It’s supposed to spin.” Natasha Goldowski was apparently a quite significant Russian physicist and all of that esoteric mathematical stuff was part of her world. And I remember Natasha saying, “You know, when Bucky starts talking about spin I thought that was very interesting, because you know it’s such a coincidence we have in physics, now we talk a lot about spin because of the electrons,” and so forth. And so I think Natasha was being sweet and generous because she thought, “what a lotta crap,” you know. Anyway, so here’s Max Dehn saying, “I can’t look at this stuff,” the mathematician saying it’s all in the black book and Natasha saying, “When he said spin I was very interested in spin.” So, I was getting from three of the professionals their take on Bucky’s goofiness, and all of the students of course were much more readily sold on Bucky’s pitch than on the simple struggle to do mathematics or physics or whatever.
C – Can you talk a little bit about some of the other classes you took?
Well, the truth is I didn’t take much of other classes except Albers’ color class and his fundamental class. A lot of what took place at Black Mountain was out of class, an awful lot of it. I mean John Walley and Jano Walley were 2nd summer, 1949. They were also from the Institute of Design. They were teachers and I got to know John and Jano very well, and the communication, the openness was something that at the University of Oregon you didn’t get. Well, with the painting teachers, surely, in a small class. But the wonderful thing about Black Mountain, really, was that this was just like an open, all-summer forum—a seminar of talking together, at the dining hall and sort of casual meetings or something like that. One of the boastful things that I have is that Albers drew on the board early on in the class a curious form, which was a dovetail. And it was as if you had taken a cube and put on the sides of the face of the cube, indication that there was a dovetail joint that went through, and yet there was a dovetail joint that went through here, too. So, on these two sides and in the construction lines that he put you had the mystery of how a dovetail could go through this way and this way at the same time, and so he said, “Yeah, this is a problem. The Chinese dovetail and anybody who solves this problem I give an A.” Of course nobody got grades in Black Mountain anyway, but that was a promise. So, we talked about it sort of intermittently, one says, “You know it was a puzzle.” So, at some point I realized the only way it could work was if it went through diagonally so that the two dovetails were part of the same dovetail only that was what you’re looking at. So, I went to the shop and I made this thing and I have a photograph of it that I’ll show on the talk tonight, and so I very excitedly took it to Albers at some moment in the day after I had done it, and I said, “Look, it does this. Yeah, yeah that is a Chinese dovetail; I saw this problem many years ago. I solved it immediately.” That was it. That was typical Albers. I mean what he had solved immediately was that somebody had drawn a deceptive drawing, because he had drawn what he would later say were construction lines but those construction lines indicated that they did go through that way. So, you had to be willing to break the rules, but, anyway, I didn’t get an “A” because they didn’t give “A’s.”
C-Can you talk just a little bit about what your work has been like since you left Black Mountain?
What I’d done between then and now? Hell, let’s see; that was only 60 years!
C – give or take. . .
Give or take, right. Well, I went with my friend Joy Ballon to Chicago because of the influence of John Walley and we decided that the Institute of Design was a place we should go. So, we got two places in the same building, she was on the ground floor and I was on the second floor. So, the correspondence was easy, even when her mother came down from Canada to visit. But, I found the Institute of Design dull because once again I was going through another foundation course, believe it or not, because Black Mountain had a foundation course and so did the University of Oregon and now Chicago Institute of Design. It was also very Bauhaus you know, and it started with Moholy, so I moved on. In the first place, I wasn’t ready to get married, and that was really sort of what the visit with her mother was about, I think. She was going to check out this young man, I could sense that. So, I went from Chicago to New York, and John Paisley was a University of Oregon friend who was in New York and also Bucky was in New York and I saw him. I met his daughter, who was working for an international film foundation and she got me an interview. I was looking for jobs as a delivery boy, anything. I loved New York, just the excitement of being in that big city from a small town it was wonderful. My dad was sending me $50 a week from Pendleton and finally Allegra introduced me to these people who had a job they were going on in Williamsburg, Virginia. So, suddenly I got a job in the film business, and I went down as a gopher and the thing dragged on for a long time. I think we were there for 6 or 8 weeks, and at the end it was just me and the director, and so I ended up shooting some of the last scenes. So, from being a guy looking for a job as a delivery boy, I was suddenly a cameraman! Well, I mean, I had grown up with photography. So, I had to join a union, because that was required. I joined the minor union and suddenly the minor union became a threat to the major union and they absorbed us. So, suddenly I was a member of a union which was really a father and son union. Suddenly I had a profession. And uh, “fake it until you make it,” I got to be a fairly quite good cameraman. I did this for 15 years freelance and it enabled me to spend a lot of time making art. And so, in 1959, 10 years later, I got a call from Bucky’s assistant, John Dickson that there was going to be a show at the Museum of Modern Art and Bucky wanted me to come and see the wonderful Tensegrity Tower-Mast, he called it. And so, I went there, had a little introduction to all those three structures that were called “three structures by Buckminster Fuller,” and I think that he must’ve asked me over there so I wouldn’t make a fuss later. John Dickson was there and Bucky was there. I had been in therapy by that time. And so, Bucky was saying, “Ken, Edison Price and Soji Sadao were making this wonderful Tensegrity Mast. I think you’ll love it, it’s pure jewelry.” And I suddenly heard myself say, “But is my name going to be on it?” And you know, I hadn’t had the sort of the courage to put it quite that way, and Bucky sputtered and said, “Oh Ken, I know Arthur Drexler the curator and he knows all about you.” John Dickson said, “Bucky, I don’t think Arthur Drexler knows about Ken,” and John says [sic], “Why don’t we go ask him?,” and Bucky said, “Of course, of course, of course,” and so I went up and talked to Drexler, and Drexler was a little bit distressed because now he had to change some labels on some things and we came down, and I felt like, “My God, this is really happening! My name is going to be on this thing!” And there wasn’t much by that time, I mean Bucky was trying to be gracious of course, what else could he do, and so it said on the thing it was an original idea of Kenneth Snelson with a different configuration of parts, which is exactly true. So, that really did something remarkable: it freed me to have identity with something that I had started and which really people had done very little with at the time. For whatever reason, nobody took up a serious exploration of what the possible variations could be. So really, that time I felt ownership, I felt proprietorship. So, that was sort of the beginning. I mean I was still doing movie work, but I was able now to feel that I had something original that I was recapturing. And that was how that all started. So anyway, I mean, the rest isn’t necessarily history but…
C – Well tell us what you’re working on right this minute.
Well, right now, it’s very strange all in all. I mean I’ve got a complex body of work and one of the things that I’ve been interested in for a long time is that physics gave up back in the 1920’s on trying to really visualize what an atom would look like if you were magically able to shrink down to the sub-microcosm and look at it. So, various things that I ran across structurally led me to do something that I call, “Portrait of an Atom.” It is a work of art, it’s not science, and it’s connected with my tension structures but it’s a different thing. I called it, “This Complex Accumulation of Parts, Portrait of an Atom.” It traveled around in some science museums a number of years ago, and I had a show at the New York Academy of Sciences and so forth. Recently, my friend Bruce Beasley, who lives in Oakland, got to know the CEO of the company Autodisk. Autodisk is the software company that makes the high-end, 3-D software for all sorts of design, automobile design, everything. So, this friend talked the CEO into a project in which 4 of us sculptors have made 5 pieces each, 20 pieces altogether. That is, among all of us on a computer, and then it turned out into a rapid prototype, which is stereo-lithography. In other words, the thing is three dimensional on the computer described in all of its detail and is printed out layer by layer, 1/4000th of an inch, and it comes out as a real object, it’s about this big or so, made of a kind of plastic and they use them in all different industries to mock up a part that is going to be eventually manufactured to find out dimensionally if it works. So, that’s what we did. These prototypes are now in China, and they are being carved in stone. And these are big, from a model like this. Mine are spherical, related to this atom model. The ones I’m doing weigh 6,000 pounds each and are 4 feet in diameter, and they’re gonna be shown in three museums in China. Each of us is doing quite different work. So, it doesn’t look like a one-person show. There are 4 individuals. So, that’s what I’m doing, most recently. Far afield.
C- Yeah. That’s amazing!
It is. It is amazing. Well, it’s a remarkable and fun project. And then I’ve been doing some animations, working with a young guy who is very, very good. I got high-end computer stuff in 1987, but now it’s much too late for redoing, so I’m working with this young guy John Monohan and we’re doing these animations. They’re funny, and they are on Youtube. You can look at them. They’re not serious, they’re amusing works. One of them is a picture of an atom that might’ve been invented by Leonardo in his day. And it’s sort of a gag. I’ve got a crawl title that says that Leonardo invented this atom by studying the work of the Roman poet Lucretius and the Pope condemned the work as heretical, and the drawings were only recently discovered with the pages from his kodax atlanticus.
C – Do you know how many high school term papers that’s gonna show up in.
I’m afraid. I’m hoping that the Leonardo scholar will come by and say, “Gee, I didn’t know that one, that’s interesting.”
C- This has been just great, thank you so much
Well, I’ve had fun! I hope that Evan has had fun.