"George Rickey: Selected Works from the Estate," Apr. 3-May 17, 2008, at Maxwell Davidson Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019
George Rickey, Mar. 13-Apr. 12, 2008, at Marlborough Chelsea, 545 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
The galleries showing George Rickey’s sculpture post wall labels next to every piece reading "Please Don’t Touch and Don’t Blow." No wonder. It’s hard to resist the urge to apply a surreptitious little push to these supremely elegant abstractions. For Rickey was the 20th-century master of kinetic innovation and his fluid geometric constructions are born to move. His stacked hollow rectangles and circles and wavering columns of stainless steel, his gimbaled cubes and forests of polychromed squares and triangles, swaying blades, zigzagging beams and shining nebulae of metal are seductive even when standing still. But a breeze breathes magic and danger into this art. (To generate air currents to animate Rickey’s pieces indoors, the Maxwell Davidson Gallery has installed electric fans in its new Davidson Contemporary gallery space on Fifth Avenue.)
Rickey always said he aimed "to make things [that are] as contemporary as the weather report," and weather is his sculpture’s greatest friend. When sited outdoors and moving, his burnished stainless steel creations coruscate and flash like fish under water; they swing and swivel at varying speeds, creating endlessly mesmerizing trajectories.
Working in tandem with Davidson and Marlborough Chelsea, Rickey’s estate, for the first time since the artist’s death, has released some rare pieces for sale, enabling the two galleries to present what amounts to a Manhattan mini-retrospective of the sculptor’s 50-year career. Both shows are rewarding as a reminder of how good an artist Rickey was. Marlborough Chelsea’s big ground floor space easily accommodated 27 larger pieces he made between 1961 and 2000 (the ten-foot-tall, double-bladed Two Lines Up: Eccentric Gyratory III is from 2000) while Davidson is showing 24 mostly smaller sculptures, including the fragile, early Tree (1956), composed of tiny stainless steel and multicolored isosceles triangles, as well as the sculptor’s reverse knife-edge bearing Sedge Theme Small Variation (1961), which was the progenitor of his subsequent angle-bladed works. I should also note that this is Davidson’s 15th Rickey exhibition and that last year the Vero Beach Museum organized a traveling retrospective of the artist’s work. It goes to the McVay Art Museum in San Antonio in September 2008.
Rickey, who would have been 100 in 2007, died in 2001. He was a late starter as a sculptor. From 1929 until 1966 he had a distinguished teaching career in the East and Mid-West before and after he served for three years in the Army Air Corps in World War II. He only began to work seriously on sculpture in 1949 when he was 42. Over time he vastly expanded the scale and sweep of his sculpture, continually simplifying his geometric forms even as the work grew more mechanically and aerodynamically complex. Some pieces are huge. His last sculpture is his tallest, at 57 feet 1 inch, and is installed at the Hyogo Museum in Japan.
Steeped in the tenets of modernism, Rickey was our most elegant and artistic engineer. His work is often compared with that of Alexander Calder, whom he knew and admired. You certainly can see Calder’s early influence in the very Calderesque Sun and Moon (1951) now at Davidson. But Sandy C’s abstract witty, organic qualities derive from Surrealism and folk art, while Rickey's geometric forms and precision engineering have their roots firmly embedded in Constructivism. (In the late 1940s Rickey studied with Buckminster Fuller and was influenced by Naum Gabo at the Chicago Institute of Design. His affinity for the movement led to the scholarly Constructivism: Origins and Evolution, the book he published in 1967).
While he was always considered a pioneer of abstract sculpture, it is fair to say that during the 1960s and 70s Rickey was overshadowed by David Smith, whose work got much more critical and curatorial attention than did Rickey’s more ethereal, scientifically oriented and intellectual constructions. (Smith, you’ll recall, was a key fixture in the dictatorial critic’s influential canon. Clement Greenberg also had something to do with advising the Smith estate). Rickey acknowledged his debt to Smith’s welding techniques (they actually had met in the 1930s) and studied his asymmetrical configurations. But he rejected the symbolic and Surrealist overtones of Smith’s work, embracing instead a strictly rational and technological approach to his own art.
And of course Rickey was never part of Greenberg’s powerful coterie. He didn’t hang around much in Manhattan and in 1960 he moved upstate. A cultivated world traveler, he also maintained studios in Berlin and Santa Barbara, Ca. Another reason that we haven’t heard a lot more about Rickey is that galleries are not the best venues for his art. His pieces are in their element, so to speak, when they’re outdoors and in public spaces. Moreover, installed on city plazas, museum and corporate gardens, and airports from New York and Amsterdam to Auckland and Tokyo, his prolific work may not have received the critical praise it deserves precisely because it was so popular with the general public.
His kinetic slivers of concrete poetry partner best with nature and they require breezes. The artist continually explored the possibilities of the symbiotic relationship between his work and the physical laws of natural motion, chance and light. When he retired from teaching in 1966, he continued to travel and he worked in his studio in East Chatham, N.Y. There he produced tall stainless-steel sculptures with long, bladelike arms that were attached to central posts. Rotating on precision bearings devised by the artist, the arms balance so that slight breezes cause them to sweep like giant scissor blades, tracing graceful arcs or circles against the sky.
Nothing beats the exhilarating sensation of seeing these large-scale works operating in nature. Outside, where light and weather change so radically, the monumental works are startlingly different at different times of day and seasons of the year. Viewers are well advised to spend some time with the grand pieces, in order to appreciate the ways that chance and differing conditions change them. Even in the gallery, and with smaller scale pieces, you need to stick around to experience the hypnotic effects as each piece executes its random, subtle movements.
When you see these sculptures in action you are likely to wonder: How are they put together? Will the parts collide? How can they not collide? Why don’t they collide? The tolerances appear miniscule; yet each piece, from the smallest to the most monumental, is calibrated so accurately that the forms quiver, rotate and swing, whisper or whiz past one another safely every time. Delicately balanced via basic mechanical principles, the works utilize precision bearings and gimbals, pivots, weights and pendulums. Motors never drive Rickey’s ingenious kinetic sculptures.
His career is instructive in its intellectual tenacity. Rickey’s agile mind and stubborn spirit were undimmed by age, and he never stopped thinking and working till the day he died. When he was in his 90s, he’d eat a quick lunch in the house and immediately announce that he was going back to his studio to take a short nap. "I just lie right down on the floor." he explained. "That way I save time and can get back to work more quickly."
In a time when everyone is obsessed with discovering those just-out-of art school hot new emerging artists, an artist like George Rickey can provide us with an enduring role model of lifelong and dedicated creativity. These two gallery shows prove more than ever that his work remains an inspiring breath of fresh air.
For a video of George Rickey’s work installed on his studio grounds in Chatham, see this vid on YouTube.
ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVEY is a critic and art historian who lives in New York.