October 1999 - Vol.18 No. 8
Within the Poetry of Motion: George Rickey
Approaching the wooded foothills of the Berkshires where George Rickey lives and works, one discovers a stunning array of sculptures defining the landscape. With gleaming stainless steel surfaces, burnished to catch and reflect light, and engineered to react to even delicate alterations in wind currents, these objects fulfill their sculptural potential by interacting with the towering trees, reflective ponds, and sensuous movements of the natural environment, in a continually active conceptual dialogue with their surrounding world.
As one of the world’s foremost kinetic sculptors, sharing much in common with Calder and Tinguely, Rickey emerges as a unique and powerful presence in his own right by focusing on "movement as means." Less interested in the form of his sculptures than in the patterns of their movement, he also eschews motorized mechanization. His theoretical writings regarding kinetic sculpture combine a unique sensitivity to the forces that define the world with an especially well-developed talent for analytical insight.
Over four decades of dedicated experimentation, Rickey has forged a vast body of work, bringing him international acclaim. Today he is represented in major museum collections worldwide, in private collections, and in many outdoor public sites throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.
Born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1907, Rickey has led a remarkably varied life. He spent most of his childhood in Helensburgh, Scotland, where his father, an engineer, was transferred when Rickey was only five. As a child and teenager Rickey often sailed his family’s cutter down the River Clyde, where he learned to harness the wind, and where he experienced the behavior of the forces that would later animate his sculpture. As a young man, Rickey pursued advanced degrees in the humanities at Oxford’s Balliol College. He thereafter studied painting in Paris at André Lhote’s academy (where he learned the academics of Cubism) and at the Académie Moderne with Léger and Ozenphant. In 1930 a teaching position brought him to the United States, where at Boston’s Groton School he taught English and history. Throughout the ’30s and early ’40s, Rickey continued to paint while supporting himself as a copy editor and instructor of art and design at a succession of colleges and universities.
During World War II, Rickey was drafted into the Army Air Corps. "It was an event that dramatically altered the course of my life," he recalls.1 In the Army, Rickey discovered his latent technical prowess while maintaining computing instruments for gun-control turrets in B-29 bombers. Besides mechanical skill, this task required an understanding of the effects of wind and gravity in ballistics, skills that he would rely upon as he switched from painting to kinetic sculpture.2 Following his discharge from the Army, Rickey pursued additional training in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and later the Institute of Design in Chicago.
Articulation of motion fascinates and compels Rickey, a motion that is akin to the functioning of nature, yet apart from it. This motion is not motor-driven but relies instead on gravity and principles of physics: equilibrium and momentum. His exquisitely engineered steel sculpture—straight-edged, geometric, and regular—responds to wind and the pull of gravity through counterweights and bearings. Rickey often employs the compound pendulum to control and lengthen the movement of his geometric forms.3 Rickey weights the tapering arms of his sculptures internally with lead, so that he positions the point of balance where he chooses, thereby controlling the momentum. The movement is slow, smooth, and unpredictable, evoking a mesmerizing quality of repetition and variation that captivates the viewer; like ocean waves, Rickey’s work responds to the same natural laws of motion and captivates the viewer with the same mesmerizing quality of repetition and variation.
His early sculptures resembled Calder’s; however, Rickey’s aesthetic concerns revolved around the fluidity of movement, and he soon abandoned his experiments with chain-linked elements. Rickey began by soldering inexpensive parts, including mild steel, but his friend David Smith taught him to weld with oxyacetylene and encouraged him to become extravagant with materials. Rickey came to sculpture late, at age 37, yet all of his previous experience conspired to ensure his success. By age 40, he was making sculpture that would soon merit serious attention. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Rickey developed systems that enabled his sculptures to respond ever more sensitively to subtle wind currents. "The object was for the pieces to perform as they could, and I wanted their movement to be slow, unhampered, deliberate—but at the same time unpredictable. As for shape, I wanted only the most ordinary shapes—simple, hackneyed, geometrical. I wanted whatever eloquence there was to come out of the performance of the piece—never out of the shape itself. What was paramount was that I never considered making any sculpture that didn’t move."4
In the 1970s and 1980s, Rickey experimented with works that had fixed "conical" paths rather than the linear or planar paths of his earlier work. Anchored to a stationary centerpost, moving elements positioned with ball bearings at 45-degree angles were set to move in conical paths (or "excentric" paths, as Rickey coined this movement seldom found in nature). Throughout the years and well into the 1990’s, Rickey has continued to explore the relationship between the complex movements of jointed structures and planar orientations. His sculpture has become increasingly complex, particularly as he joins one moving element to another, resulting in a chain reaction of movement. A once orderly column composed of discrete elements breaks apart, and the certitude of its form topples as the moving squares comprising it fall into motion.
The artist notes that in the year of his birth "there were only three dimensions: after Einstein, time became a fourth. If there is a fifth, surely it is chance…Planned indeterminacy is a component of my sculpture."5
Movement places Rickey’s sculpture in time, in the realm of sequence and experience—by definition movement (and memory) exists in time. Perhaps it is the relentlessness of chance, now so apparent in nature, that Rickey defines in his kinetic work. His early understanding of the significance of randomness displayed a profound and prescient sensitivity to discoveries that would become the vanguard of theoretical insights late in the 20th century.
Carla Hanzal is Curator of the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia in Virginia Beach.