Lynn Dixon Johnston '64 and Robert F. Johnston Give Wellesley Mozart III

December 17, 2012

Wellesley College has received a gift of Kenneth Snelson’s sculpture Mozart III. The generous donors, Lynn Dixon Johnston ’64 and Robert F. Johnston, have loaned the arresting stainless steel structure to the College since 2007 and in 2012 made it a permanent gift.

The sculpture was installed in July 2008 and is now a familiar, beloved, and much photographed piece installed along the pathway between Green Hall and the Science Center. The Johnstons have also given the college the impressive Meadmore sculpture, Upsurge, installed between the Davis Parking Structure and Diana Chapman Walsh Alumnae Hall.

Consisting of an angular matrix of polished stainless steel tubes joined by wire cables, Mozart III is a large-scale sculpture that communicates something of the music and “poetry” associated with its namesake. The third in an edition of three, Mozart III was produced by internationally renowned sculptor Kenneth Snelson at the request of its present owner. (Stanford University owns Mozart, and Pepsico owns Mozart II.)

More about Snelson's Work

Kenneth Snelson, born in 1927, was an art student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina from 1948 to 1949, where he studied painting and produced sculptural assemblages. Encouraged by his painting teacher, Josef Albers, and inspired by the lectures on tension and compression of Buckminster Fuller, who in taught at this interdisciplinary artists’ mecca in the late 1940s, Snelson began to devote his energies to fabricating sculptures structured upon and consisting of matrices of tensile and compressive forces. Snelson’s seminal 1948 work entitled Early X Piece, which consists of two mutually supportive wood “x”-like forms held apart within a network of nylon cord, inspired Fuller several years later to coin the now widely-used term tensegrity to describe Snelson’s work. A contraction of the terms tension and integrity, tensegrity describes a kind of gravity-independent system of push-pull forces that exist in dynamic equilibrium.

Explorations in tensegrity became the basis for Snelson’s life’s work. While his early sculptures are more linear in form and direction, Snelson’s more mature works consist of complex forays into multiple planes. Among these more recent assemblages constructed of modular “floating” forms whose appearances seem to shift with the perspective of the viewer and that seem precariously and wondrously suspended in space, is Mozart III.

Mozart and Snelson’s work generally straddle art and science. His aim has been to realize through artistic form—“to unveil”—as he has said, the forces that structure material reality, and “the infinite perfection of connections” among elements that constitute matter and the universe.

Snelson’s artistic production also occupies the relatively rare position of work that is not only inspired and informed by science but also has stimulated scientific inquiry. Through exposure to Snelson’s tensegrity structures in an undergraduate art class, Don Ingber, who went on to became a professor of pathology at Harvard University, wondered whether tensile and compressive forces might be operative within cells. Ingber later based his research on this question and discovered that a cell’s structure consists in part of a cytoskeleton of protein fibers, which do, indeed, exhibit tensegrity. Ingber’s discovery has in turn been valuable to NASA researchers studying the body and its responses to weightlessness. Further, through an understanding of tensegrity, engineers have formulated mathematical models used to predict the behavior of tensegrity structures, including cells—knowledge that has implications for understanding and treating certain diseases.

Mozart is not only an elegant, visually-arresting, awe-inspiring feat of engineering, but it is also a materialization of the significant scientific principle of tensegrity and a symbol of interdisciplinary investigation, cross-fertilization, and discovery—for all of these reasons, this sculpture fits right in on Wellesley’s campus. Mozart's site adjacent to the mound near the Science Center seems a conceptually and architecturally apropos place for this work. Art historian Albert Elsen reminds us that a “sculpture‟s meaning becomes colored by its contexts.” As a manifestation of passionate inquiry and dialogue across different ways of seeing and knowing, both Mozart and Wellesley College are enhanced by its placement here.

With content from a 2007 report by curatorial assistant Jennifer Cawley '07.