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George Rickey at the Grounds for Sculpture
George Rickey.

HAMILTON, N.J.- The Grounds for Sculpture present an exhibit of sculptures made by George Rickey. Indoor kinetic sculptures by the late George Rickey, one of the world’s most accomplished kinetic sculptors, are on exhibit in the Museum Building. A pioneer of kinetic sculpture with an oeuvre spanning over 50 years, Rickey is known for his large outdoor stainless steel sculptures as well as his more intimate interior pieces. This exhibition contains both free standing and wall mounted works made during the 1960’s through the 1990’s. Accompanying this exhibition is the film “The Moving World of George Rickey,” providing a unique glimpse into the life of the artist and his motivation for producing sculpture.

Trained as a painter and a teacher for most of his life, Rickey began creating kinetic sculpture in his late forties. During World War II, while working with engineers to improve aircraft weaponry, he discovered his knack for mechanics and an interest in the movements of complex systems. For Rickey, the most critical component of sculpture was MOVEMENT. In experimenting with mechanics and the physics of movement, Rickey sought to redefine space by creating sculptures that responded to air currents and gravity—in effect making the wind visible. Concerned with the speed, acceleration and de-acceleration of his shapes and forms, and even the slight pause between movements, Rickey worked in his studio cutting, bending and shaping pieces of metal. Using the simplest of shapes—lines, rectangles, and circles—Rickey first tested the movement of each sculpture on a small scale before moving into a larger scale. In essence, his works use movement as a form of expression and the slightest of air currents causes the works to come alive.

When asked in an interview in 1965 what his inspiration and motivation was for his works, Rickey replied:

Well, this is the hardest question you could ask any artist…what it is that makes him do what he does. Often I think he doesn't know. A question like this makes one think back into how it came about that one made these things. [These sculptures] evolved, one step leads to another, one doesn't begin years before with this in mind, but years afterwards, one realizes that it came about step by step. Since I began in this kind of work in the 1940’s I've been interested in the essence of movement, not just in making objects with movement, but in trying to use movement as an expressive means, as a painter might use color. This was difficult at first. I made rather complicated things, complicated in form, but I began to realize that if one was to use the movement as a kind of essential expression, one probably had to try it with extremely simple forms. And this led me gradually to pare the forms down until I arrived simply at lines...Having made [the sculptures] small it secured a natural development to see what the effect was of making them larger. With anything moving, anything swinging like a pendulum where time is an important factor, and where time is related to the structure and to the relation of the weights and the distances, it actually becomes different if it is large. It is not simply an enlargement of a small piece, but actually its performance is different.1

Prior to 1953, Rickey was working in a style similar to that of Alexander Calder, his contemporary, relying on linear concepts and the use of cantilevers. However, soon enough Rickey moved beyond the mobile and began constructing works that pushed kinetic sculpture to new heights. He forced his structures upward relying on balance by mounting one element atop another. As Maxwell Davidson writes, “A sculpture either balanced perfectly, or it toppled. [Rickey] worked to a plan that he had devised for the sculpture, and knew instinctively when it was finished. He honed the sculpture to a finer and finer balance, coming as close to instability at he could without reaching it.”2

Well into the 1960’s, Rickey developed new mechanisms extensively dependent on the laws of physics for creating movement—many of which worked similar to that of a gyroscope where the parts spun and moved independent of one another, all the while affecting the balance of the other elements. Furthermore, Rickey adapted the gimbal, a device used on board ships to keep compasses and lights level while the ship rolled over waves. Rickey reversed this process, creating a stable base for the sculpture while the components of the sculpture moved. Later, the use of ball bearings permitted Rickey to place kinetic works outdoors.

Born in South Bend, Indiana in 1907, Rickey was the third of six children. His father, an engineer, was born in Massachusetts, but a job with Singer Sewing Machine Company sent him to Indiana and later to Glasgow. As a result, Rickey was raised in Scotland and received a European education. In 1921, he attended Trinity College in Scotland and in 1926 he studied at Oxford. While at Oxford he attended the Ruskin School of Drawing, and in 1929, he followed his studies in art to Paris where he attended the Académie Lhote and Académie Moderne.

Rickey began his teaching career at the Gardiner School of Languages in Paris in 1929. He returned to the United States in 1930 and set up a studio in New York City where he worked from 1934 – 42. Throughout his life Rickey continued teaching at various institutions, including Newcomb College at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA and the School of Architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. He continued his studies by attending the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and later, in 1948, at the Institute of Design in Chicago, IL. In 1960, Rickey moved to East Chatham, NY while maintaining studios in Berlin, Germany; Santa Barbara, CA; and St. Paul, MN. He died in 2002.

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