Raclin Murphy Museum returns Kenneth Snelson to prominence

In a landmark retrospective, the newly opened Raclin Murphy Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame pays tribute to one of the most original and inventive artists of the last half-century with “Equal Forces: The Sculpture and Photography of Kenneth Snelson,” on view March 19-July 7. The first museum exhibition since Snelson’s death celebrates a legacy gift from the artist’s family containing 43 sculptures and 67 photographs. The gift represents the largest repository of Snelson’s work in the world and establishes the Kenneth Snelson Collection at the University of Notre Dame. 

An internationally renowned artist, Kenneth Snelson (American, 1927-2016) is best known for his gravity-defying abstract sculptures. An early interest in optics, engineering and photography led him to attend Black Mountain College in North Carolina where he studied with Josef Albers and became an assistant of Buckminster Fuller, an architect and futurist best known for developing the geodesic dome. 

Snelson was fascinated by physical forces in three-dimensional space and invented a structural system known as tensegrity, combining principles of tension and structural integrity. His unique sculptural works are composed of rigid components, such as metal pipes with flexible cables, suspended and arranged in a way that makes the seemingly weightless structures appear to float. 

“An exceptional investigation of sculpture, photography, engineering and science, ‘Equal Forces’ highlights Kenneth Snelson’s inquisitive nature, from his endeavors in art to his investigations into the structure of the atom, and reveals the boundlessness of experimentation fueled by art,” Joseph Antenucci Becherer, director of the Raclin Murphy Museum of Art, said.  

Kenneth Snelson Exhibition

Kenneth Snelson (American, 1927-2016), “Parking Lot, Mercer and Grand Streets,” 1980. Gelatin Silver Print, 16 x 100 in.
Kenneth Snelson (American, 1927-2016), “Parking Lot, Mercer and Grand Streets,” 1980. Gelatin Silver Print, 16 x 100 in. Gift of the Estate of Kenneth Snelson on behalf of Katherine and Andrea Snelson, 2021.013.096

“Equal Forces” will showcase works spanning Snelson’s entire career, including sculpture from the late 1940s when he was a student to global projects in the early 20th century and experimental photography from the 1970s through the 1990s in the United States, Europe and Japan. The artist’s ingenuity and skill are demonstrated through the dynamic equilibrium of his large-scale sculptures, including “E.C. Tower Model” (1981), in which all parts of the structure are necessary for it to hold into place. 

The title of the exhibition, “Equal Forces,” recognizes both the structural essence of Snelson’s sculpture and the vitality of both sculpture and photography to his celebrated career. 

An accomplished photographer, Snelson maintained a lifelong commitment to photography that was inspired in part by his father, an amateur photographer and owner of a camera store. As with his sculptures, he experimented broadly and pushed the boundaries of the medium, incorporating panorama imagery a generation before the advent of digital technology.

In a series of New York City panoramas created in the late 1970s, the artist modified a vintage 1917 16-inch Cirkut camera. Weighing 80 pounds, the camera was one of only 30 of its kind ever made. 

“Equal Forces” is the premiere temporary exhibition at the new Raclin Murphy Museum of Art. Designed by the award-winning Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA), the 70,000-square-foot facility opened its doors to the public on December 1, 2023. A dramatic new gateway to Notre Dame, the expanded home for the University’s robust art collections honors both tradition and innovation through its beautifully proportioned galleries, contemporary artist commissions and exterior that harmonizes with historic buildings on campus.

In addition to the exhibition, additional sculptures by Kenneth Snelson are on display in the Museum’s lower-level galleries and sculpture court. 

“Snelson’s work was centered around a search for understanding as he experimented with art, science and engineering,” David Acton, curator of photographs at the Raclin Murphy Museum of Art, said. “He revolutionized structural principals of sculpture and architecture and then visualized his notion of floating compression through colossal towers, mesmerizing cantilevers and seemingly delicate arches.” 

About the Artist

Kenneth Snelson was born in Pendleton, Oregon. He attended the University of Oregon (Eugene, Oregon) and Black Mountain College (Black Mountain, North Carolina) and later studied at the Institute of Design at Illinois Tech in Chicago and the Académie de Montmartre in Paris.

Snelson’s curious disposition and technical brilliance led to extensive research into atomic structure and the awarding of five United States patents. His sculptures are permanently installed in public collections and spaces worldwide and he has been recognized with numerous awards, including the 1999 Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award from the International Sculpture Center, received jointly with kinetic sculptor and friend George Rickey.

About the Raclin Murphy Museum of Art

With origins dating to 1875, the Raclin Murphy Museum of Art (formerly Snite Museum of Art) is considered one of the oldest and most highly regarded university art museums in America. Founded on the principle that art is essential to understanding individual, shared and diverse human experiences and beliefs, the Museum encourages close looking and critical thinking. E

xperiences with significant, original works of art are intended to stimulate inquiry, dialogue and wonder for audiences across the academy, the community and around the world—all in support of the University of Notre Dame’s Catholic mission. The renowned permanent collection contains more than 30,000 works that represent many cultures and periods of world art history. 

For more information, visit raclinmurphymuseum.nd.edu.

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