George Rickey: Monumental Sculpture on Park Avenue
On ViewPark Ave, Between 52nd & 56th St.
Monumental Sculpture on Park Avenue
September 9 – November 30, 2021
New York, NY
A total of 12 sculptures soar some 30 feet over Park Avenue and the High Line on the Kasmin Gallery roof. They swoop in the garden medians between iconic modernist and delicate contemporary architecture. When they catch the light, they become silver linings: more ideas than objects. This selection of George Rickey sculptures dates from 1964 to 2002. Rickey’s son, Philip Rickey, and the Kasmin Gallery, which represents Rickey’s work, collaborated to select pieces from the George Rickey Estate and Foundation. This is the largest exhibit of Rickey’s monumental pieces ever shown in New York City.
George Rickey’s sculptures are geometric shapes of brushed stainless steel. They move deliberately, yet unpredictably, able to trace the slightest passing breeze. Gimbals, and knife edge bearings, used in technologies like compasses, ships, scales, and wind chimes, helped Rickey experiment with balance points and facilitate a range of movements. Rickey was a serious, meticulous man. His biographer, Belinda Rathbone, said “he positioned himself as a careful student of the history of art.” Whether invoking classical Greek architecture, Cubism, or Enlightenment-age engineering, the sculptures manifest his studies: fabricated with the same poetic care as their layered historical references.
Rickey was born in 1907 in South Bend, Indiana. At six years old, his father was promoted at the Singer Sewing Machine Company, and the Rickey family moved to Glasgow. Intending to become a history teacher, Rickey graduated from Oxford in 1929, but shifted his attention to the Academie Moderne in Paris where he studied Cubism. However, once stationed in the Army Air Corps in Colorado during World War II, designing turret guns, he rediscovered a latent love of machinery. With new technical skill and fresh motivation, he started fabricating small sculptures, developing an initial vocabulary of movements.
Rickey became drawn to gestures in nature, studying the engineering of plants, water, and planetary movements. In his essay titled “The Metier,” Rickey insists, “If my sculptures sometimes look like plants or clouds or waves in the sea it is because they respond to the same laws of motion and follow the same mechanical principle.” In 1960 he and his wife, Edie, moved to a farmhouse in East Chatham, New York, where his studio remains as the George Rickey Foundation and Estate that archives, stores, and repairs his sculptures.
Despite his interest in the natural world, Rickey’s sculptures refuse a likeness to the woodlands where they were created. Their hewn shapes reflect light. They have sharp tips, abrupt angles, and visible mechanics. Even his largest sculpture, the ostentatious crimson, Three Red Lines (1966), is a rare exception to the brushed surface he perfected. Rickey attempted to make inflexible shapes appear pliable. “Blades” he called them, and they do look like swords. While some blades were positioned horizontally, Peristyle II (1966) and Two Red Lines (1963–75), both featured on the Kasmin gallery roof, stand. Peristyle is a term referring to classic Greek colonnades. He creates the illusion of distance as the groups of swaying blades multiply along the High Line, perhaps referring to the ritual of the Caryatids in ancient Greece, who danced with grasses on their heads. That the term, “blade” might suggest weaponry, he insisted, “spears, shoots, and blades are ancient botanical terms. I cannot control evocations.”
Inventors have aspired to make machines in perpetual motion since the Renaissance, working with gravity to link into the planet’s rotation. Space Churn with Octagon, at 55th Street, is reminiscent of these elusive technologies. Space Churn spirals in the breeze in interlinked semicircular trajectories, creating internal momentum. Its steady orbital movement strikingly resembles the solar system. This Space Churn was made in 1971, not two years after the moon landing. Rickey worked with scale and perspective, but this is a unique example of a form that the eye cannot see.
Rickey’s sculptures operate slowly, nearly to the point of frustration or boredom. While they were built to move in the slightest breeze, minutes can pass before a gesture is complete even on a windy day. It can feel excruciating to watch, but this incremental movement is the essence of the art: resisting performance. Sometimes it even disappears, the burnished steel falls into the environment, opening awareness from the sculpture and into the world. Rickey is not showing the work, but the way the work moves. Breaking Column II (1989), at 53rd Street, is deceptively simple, using a progressively weighted balance system: like the weight distribution of a whip, the column resets and breaks with the wind.
Rickey is often compared to Alexander Calder, who inspired his interest in mobiles. While Calder expanded, using found objects, wood, and color, Rickey simplified his practice, and so it grew huge, in scale and ambition. Rickey was militantly intentional, culling from the history of art and machinery to grasp at understanding the ever mysterious mechanics of nature.
Rickey’s concept of the natural world is one that rips it from Romanticism, strips it of any pleasing or comforting themes that burden it, and so reveals its grace. Nature is not beautiful because of what it looks like, or how it gives refuge. It is a machine, into which we are inextricably linked. Early in his career, George Rickey called his sculptures “useless machines.” These are not machines of industry. These are machines that reveal the world to us, if we can stand to look, and to wait.