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Snelson, Lidji

Artwork Type


Forest Devil, 1977

Kenneth Snelson


Commissioning Entity Three Rivers Arts Festival
Owner Carnegie Museum of Art

Art and industry maintained a brief but profitable relationship in Pittsburgh during the 1970s. A series of collaborative ventures connected ambitious artists with open-minded industrial firms in the city. One of the best examples of this partnership was Sculpturescape, in which eight area companies donated materials and fabrication assistance to four nationally known sculptors. Among them was Kenneth Snelson, who brought an artistic approach to engineering to design his sculpture “Forest Devil.”

Snelson was raised in Oregon and had dabbled in various conventional professions before pursuing a career in the arts. While attending Black Mountain College in North Carolina on the GI Bill following World War II, he studied under architect Buckminster Fuller, who had yet to become the well-known inventor of the geodesic dome and the promoter of utopian technological visions. Fuller presented three-dimensional geometry in a mystical way that greatly appealed to many of his students, including Snelson. Snelson began incorporating these ideas into self-supporting sculptures, using a careful application of the forces of tension and compression. Fuller called this method “tensegrity,” although Snelson preferred “floating compression.”

Almost three decades later, Snelson brought his expertise and artistry to “Forest Devil.” The 17-foot by 35-foot sculpture is an assemblage of stainless steel tubes woven together with airplane cables. It is anchored to the ground at three points but the rest of the components hang aloft, giving the sculpture an explosive energy and deceptive weightlessness that changes from every angle. The design emerged from considerable technical know-how, as can be seen from a scale model and schematic drawings Snelson produced in the early stages of his work. These show how each tube and each cable are absolutely necessary for keeping the entire structure erect. He constructed the sculpture in Pittsburgh, using materials donated by Allegheny Ludlum Co. and fabrication assistance from Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Co. on Neville Island and Colonial Machine Co.

The sculpture debuted at the 1977 Three Rivers Arts Festival. On a blazing summer day before the festival, a group of Carnegie Mellon University graduate students organized by professor Douglas Pickering erected the sculpture on a grassy lawn at Mellon Square Park, downtown. Students sat on each other’s shoulders to lift the highest tubes into place. The sculpture was meant to be a temporary installation but a $70,000 fundraising campaign by the women’s committee of the Carnegie Museum of Art has allowed it to remain in the city permanently. When the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy began renovating Mellon Square Park in 2013, the Carnegie Museum of Art moved the sculpture to the back entrance of its complex in Oakland, where it remains today.

Snelson has described the sculpture, and others like it, as presenting “a dialogue between tension and compression.” This functionality may help explain its enduring popular appeal. “I am showing you what structural space really looks like,” the Post-Gazette quoted the artist as saying, in October 1978. “There is never a doubt as to which part is accomplishing which action, tension or compression. They never reverse their function in these organizations that I make. It is most attractive to me to see through the sculpture — to view the other side at the same time and relate to all aspects at once.”

The sculpture also kept a grip of Snelson’s imagination. In 1990, when he began investigating computer imagery, he “installed” a digitized version of the sculpture onto a psychedelic lunar-like landscape. He called the image “Forest Devils’ Moon Night.”

By Eric Lidji, writer

Kenneth Snelson (b.1928) grew up in Pendleton, Oregon. He studied at the University of Oregon, Black Mountain College, the Chicago Institute of Design and Fernand Leger in Paris. His sculptures are part of museum and civic collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. He also holds several patents.