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Letter from Kenneth Snelson to Maria Gough on Karl Ioganson

June 17, 2003

Dear Maria Gough,

What a surprise to learn that you were in the audience at my talk at Michigan. I do wish you had introduced yourself because I have your 1998 October 84 piece. I'm bad with names so when I got Ms Schwartz's email about pictures I regret I didn't make the connection that you are the author of that excellent paper.

I found the "In the Laboratory, etc." article fascinating and informative when a fellow from Latvia named Juris Sils faxed it to me in connection with an exhibition of Karl Ioganson's work he was trying to make happen. Don't know the end result of his plan.

I take it that your request for the particular pictures you wish to use in your upcoming book are in regard to the Karl Ioganson theme of your original paper? I appreciate your involvement with the Constructivists and their art and history and I want not to detract from your fine scholarship but I do wish you had talked with me beforehand since you try to deal with the subject of tensegrity and I don't think you had the best of sources. Bucky Fuller's claims about these structures are off the wall.

Karl Ioganson, according to your paper apparently struggled with those three octahedral variations, your illustration #10 "spatial constructions", which tell us something about his focus on crosses. He then, by some unrecorded steps, came across what one now calls a three-way, or three-strut, tensegrity module. By the way, the entire three-way structure is the module if used as such. The individual sticks are not modules but simply compression struts. A module is a whole object or closure that, when attached or interconnected with similar objects can create a more complex form. If Ioganson had made another three-strut tensegrity, or several of them, and connected them together in one of several ways, that expanded object would be a modular structure, say like my "Needle Tower". But in themselves, neither the individual struts nor the individual tendons are modules, only parts. Attached are two pictures from early studies, primitive works composed of two-way, or x-modules. The materials are wooden dowel sticks painted silver and string.

When I saw the 1992 catalog of the Guggenheim show with Mr. Koleichuk's reconstructions of Ioganson's small sculptures, I thought, "Well, it's curious since even I wouldn't have been able to make out from that famous jumbled 1921 exhibition photo that Ioganson's piece (marked number IX) was indeed a three-strut tensegrity structure." I then considered, since even I wouldn't have been able to verify it as such, that Koleichuk would have no way of guessing at the object, sticks positioned and strings properly attached, except that he had studied my work, or Bucky Fuller's or David Emmerich's. No one on Earth would have been able to discern the nature of IX without prior acquaintance with the tensegrity primary. The hint that he had studied me was your quote from Koleichuk which is an appropriated paraphrase, "It is as if they are floating in a net of... Wires" Coming across one's own words mouthed by a stranger is eerie indeed. My standard descriptive name, "floating compression" goes back to, at least, 1962.

So, is number IX indeed what Koleichuk says it is? Once you see his model it looks like the piece there in the background. If indeed it is, is it not uncanny that Ioganson nor anyone else left a comment about this surprising object; that he himself placed no emphasis on it; that he apparently quite abandoned his amazing discovery with no follow-up? Did none of the other artists or visitors think it represented a remarkable phenomenon? Wouldn't one expect him to take a next step, any next step that would let us know he had a grasp of what was going on with the structure? Apparently not. As far as we can tell, the startling discovery just sat there among his other works and those of his colleagues, absent of discussion.

Your paper argues that he didn't have sufficiently high-tech materials in order to move forward. This is less than convincing since he would have had sticks and strings, the materials he already was using, that I was using at the beginning. (see the attached two photos) Would he not have asked, "What if I use four sticks instead of three, will that work?" It doesn't hold water that Karl Ioganson was thwarted by inadequate materials. Perhaps some political pressure ended his quest or perhaps his inventiveness or inquisitiveness simply had its limits.

At the end of your paper, you compare the Stenberg brothers' and Ioganson's aspirations with their actual achievements and you award Mr. Ioganson the prize: "(Karl Ioganson) invents a new principle -- a prototensegrity principle -- that would come to have, in the course of the twentieth century, enormous functional significance." The unfortunate fact is that tensegrity is not and never was functional except for the function in my sculptures of permitting viewers to admire the nature of pure structure. As I no doubt said at Michigan, tensegrity works the way it does because it is an equilibrium of contesting forces within a closed system. But the forces within the system need to be so huge that the structure becomes inefficient for supporting any external loads.

Over the past fifty years, if a clever architect, a real estate agent or a greedy entrepreneur had figured out a way to make tensegrity into a reasonable building system, or even an unreasonable one, the country would be dotted with novelty shopping centers or MacDonalds supported by tensegrity golden arches since, beyond all other attractions, novelty is great for commerce. Yes, Bucky Fuller exploited his puffed up tensegrity claims shamelessly even though he knew better. By now, too, the very word has become garbled. For example the engineer Mathys Levy calls his great dome in Atlanta "tensegrity" whereas it actually is a beautifully designed giant bicycle wheel; and tension-spoke bicycle wheel with its major load-bearing rim is not tensegrity no more than is a spider web. Similarly, the Harvard microbiologist Donald Ingber invokes tensegrity as a buzzword to bolster a contested theory of cell structure. To him, a geodesic dome is synonymous with tensegrity.

I regret that this letter grew much longer than I possibly imagined when I started out, but I think it's important for you as well as for me and for the sake of your splendid scholarship. I very much look forward to the publication of your book but I hope you have the chance to work out these problems before it goes to press.

Please let me know your purpose in choosing my 1967 stainless steel X-Piece for illustration. Out of fairness, I would much prefer you include a photo of something really representative such as "Needle Tower", "Easy Landing" or other major piece for the benefit of those who know nothing of my work and might take it that I stopped producing way back then.

Ms Gough, I realize my discussion here sounds harsh but it isn't meant to be hostile, only corrective. After all, such documents are what make up the history of art. I'm sure your book will be much more complete than your thesis which, to me, came across as forceful, clear and highly intelligent.

Warmest wishes for the book,
Kenneth Snelson

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