George Rickey (1907-2002)


Born in South Bend (Indiana) in 1907, George Rickey spent the majority of his childhood in Scotland where his father, an engineer for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, had been transferred in 1913. Following his studies at Oxford in history (Balliol College) and art (Ruskin School of Drawing), he left to study painting in Paris in 1929-30 at the Academy André Lhote, where he learned the principles of Cubism, and at the Académie Moderne of Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant.

Back in the United States he became a teacher while focusing on painting until 1942, when he gave up his workshop in New York to join the Air Force. Whilst working with B-29 bombers he discovered a gift and passion for mechanics and the study of the effects of wind and gravity on ballistics: so many interests that would orientate him definitively towards kinetic sculpture. He started down this path by completing his training at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, then at the Institute of Design in Chicago.

At the outset, his sculptures – the very first of which was made in 1945 – show the clear influence of Alexander Calder's mobiles in their enthusiasm for organic and playful shapes like connected elements in a chain. But from 1953 George Rickey freed himself from this influence to find his own language: he put in place a vocabulary of geometric forms linked to rods - such as the diptych The Seasons (1956) – and to rectangular coloured planes that move slowly and freely in the air.

This art comes within Constructivism, the movement born in Russia around 1920 that put forward a geometric construction of space. Its Manifesto, written by Anton Pevsner and Naum Gabo, dealt directly with the questions of the kinetic development of the form in space. This theory completely captured the attention of George Rickey, who would go on to publish a book on the subject in 1967.

This is the era when he worked particularly with square or rectangular planes (Two Planes Vertical Horizontal, 1968-1969) or with long, streamlined rods assembled in varying combinations (Péristyle III, 1966).

Always starting with simple formal elements, George Rickey subsequently made the design of his pieces more complex thanks to his detailed mechanical knowledge: he gave his sculptures ingenious weight-balancing systems and articulations using ball bearings, that allowed them to be sensitive to the slightest current of air (Lumina III, 1967): 'The aim was for these pieces to be able to move about with a motion that I wanted to be slow, unhindered, considered and at the same time unpredictable.'

In the 1970s and 80s, George Rickey no longer looked to create movement following linear paths or planes but started to experiment with 'conical' paths by anchoring the mobile elements to a fixed centre according to 45 degree angles (eg Two Open Triangles Up Gyratory, 1982).

In the 1990s he produced increasingly complex works, due particularly to the fact that he provoked a series of movements by connecting the mobile elements to each other.

The sculptures were almost all constructed out of stainless steel with a polished or burnished surface that was animated by the play of light. They are suspended, fixed to a wall or positioned on the ground in urban spaces but also in the middle of the countryside, such as on the edge of the Berkshire Mountains between the forest and the lakes, or on a Japanese island (eg Four Lines, Benesse Art Site Naoshima, Japan).

In fact, nature imposes its laws on George Rickey's work: he refused any use of a motor so as to create movement that submits to the wind, to gravity and to the principles of physics, balance and impulse: 'Planned uncertainty is an element of my sculpture.'

Repetition or variation in the movement - following the example of natural phenomena such as ocean waves - has captivating, even hypnotic, powers over the spectator.

George Rickey's sculptures are on display notably in the collections of the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Indiana University Art Museum and the Honolulu Museum of Art, as well as in numerous public sites in North America, Asia and Europe.

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