New York is currently celebrating George Rickey’s wind-driven, slow-moving sculptures with exhibitions at two different venues. Nine works stroll the Park Avenue mall, and three dance in the Kasmin Sculpture Garden next to Chelsea’s High Line, along with smaller works enlivening the indoor gallery. Each presentation (both on view through November 30, 2021) slows time in its own way, reminding us to pay closer attention to the attitudes suggested by various kinds of movement.
Rickey’s work explores balancing acts that intermix nature, movement, signs, and symbols. As his son, Philip Rickey, who manages the George Rickey Estate and the George Rickey Foundation and who worked with the Sculpture Committee of the Fund for Park Avenue, the New York City Art in the Parks program, and the Kasmin gallery directors to realize these exhibitions, explains, the artist’s construction techniques rely on shipbuilding, clockmaking, and traditional engineering methods: “Getting the weights on either side of the pivot point allows [the branches] to move more easily, to be sensitive to the slightest air movement. For example, in a simple clock pendulum, the weight would be centered between two pivot points. My father realized that he would have more opportunity for movement if he moved elements outside the point of pivot. That’s when he developed his opposing knife-edge bearing. Some pieces have a gimble, like what a compass sits on. So, my father just modified ancient technologies in some ways.”
The nine monumental sculptures along the Park Avenue mall between 52nd and 56th Streets—dating from 1964 to 2002, when Rickey died—demonstrate his original approach to making lines, crescents, circles, and other forms that interact with their surroundings. Breaking Column II (1989), a 25-foot-tall column, sways in the wind like a pliant giant with a tilting head. In Space Churn with Octagon (1971), which is related to a project that Rickey did for Documenta III, swirls of angled, circular forms with polished surfaces deflect sunlight. This work and the palm-shaped Two Conical Segments Gyratory Gyratory II (1979) are among Rickey’s most complex works. The latter features a horizontal beam that moves 360 degrees and two types of gyration.
The stainless steel ring of Untitled Circle (2002), the most Minimalist work on Park Avenue, interacts with the grid structure of Lever House and the honey locust trees on the green. Chevron Theme (1990) offers three hollow chevron outlines, which harken, as Philip Rickey explains, to when the artist was a sergeant in the army. Four Ls Excentric II (1987–90) consists of four L shapes that sometimes align into an abstract, off-center Scottish Presbyterian cross. The unusual spelling of the title plays with various meanings of “out of the center,” or it could mean formerly (religious). Is the suggested cross present or absent? It’s in the space between the L forms. Viewers will find their own readings of Rickey’s symbols and signs.
In the Kasmin rooftop garden, Two Red Lines (1963–75), Five Lines in Parallel Planes (1966), and Peristyle II (1966) all balance lines that move in individual ways. Each line has a pivot point and is engineered so that the lines “talk to each other” but do not collide. These early works owe something to the Bauhaus and Constructivist movements. The smaller indoor works range in date from 1968 to 1995. Their vocabulary shifts from a moving double circle to a series of tiny cubes arranged in a tree-like vertical configuration that seems doubled by its moving shadows.
Rickey was born in South Bend, Indiana, and died in St. Paul, Minnesota. His background is relevant to his stature as an innovative pioneer applying engineering and design skills to sculpture. Philip Rickey explains, “He grew up in Glasgow, where my grandfather was an engineer, and the family sailed every summer, so he had direct experience with wind and what made the compass or stove stay level. In a movie I saw recently, he mentions that seeing Japanese wind chimes as a child developed his interest in movement.” Rickey studied at Oxford and spent a year in Paris. After a solid career as a painter and art teacher, in 1945, while serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps (before it became the Air Force) in Laredo, Texas, he made his first sculpture.
By the beginning of the 1950s, Rickey started to prioritize sculpture. He marketed a Calder-like, do-it-yourself mobile kit (Mobikit, 1952). His eureka moment came when he realized that he could build kinetic sculptures unlike Calder’s works, and mobile in more controlled ways, by applying engineering skills learned from his father and grandfather and practiced during his military stint. He also gleaned lessons from other artists, including Naum Gabo, Mark Tobey, Ellsworth Kelly, and David Smith. In 1954, when Rickey was teaching in Bloomington, he invited Smith to join him as artist-in-residence for a year. Their exchanges helped to improve Rickey’s welding and finishing techniques.
By the late 1950s, his work began to enter top public and private collections. In 1964, he participated in Documenta III in Kassel, Germany. Rickey taught art until he began working full time as a sculptor around 1966. He exhibited at galleries and museums across the U.S. and Europe and received many prestigious awards. His largest work, Annular Eclipse, Sixteen Feet Variation I (1998), is a permanent circular sculpture at Rockefeller Center. According to Belinda Rathbone in George Rickey: A Life in Balance (Godine, 2021), Rupert Murdoch bought the work and located it there to “stop traffic” (and draw attention to the vertical expanse of glass in front of Fox News).
Rickey’s deceptively simple geometric forms contain more nuances than revealed by a quick glance. Every surface is animated with different grinding and polishing effects that, in turn, respond uniquely to light and shadow. Each form, carefully calibrated and weighted for balance and movement, also reflects a multivalent symbolism; the cross, chevron, palm, cube, and circle are images and symbols in art, life, and nature. The multiple readings of each sculpture are, literally, “blowing in the wind.”