PRINT June 1962

Two Motion Sculptors: Tinguely and Rickey

ASIDE FROM THE FACT that Jean Tinguely and George Rickey are contemporaries and both make activated sculpture, they share little in common. Tinguely is a confirmed tinkerer, full of mischievous abandon and a Rabalaisian sense of humor. He is a loner who can create or destroy with the same objective love. His creations are as absurd as they are irresistible and he is as dead serious about these volatile contraptions as if he were painting the Sistine Chapel.

This Swiss enfant terrible is an anxious renegade. The endless source of his frenetic energy is religiously devoted to sophisticated burlesque. He is dramatically engaged in a simultaneous appeal to all of one’s senses. Tinguely is an “action-sculptor,” a Pollock or a Mathieu in space and sound. A significant and distinctive feature of his work is that elements of its plastic make-up may be likened to the spontaneity of squished or dripped pigment.

By comparison Rickey sings like a Whitman or a Thoreau. He is concerned with questions of nature; his subject matter is air and the source of its flow. He enmeshes his glistening blades and foils in it and pays it homage by improvising fugues in its currents.

The vision of his work is American in its frugality, its unpretentiousness and its pursuit of technical perfection. It is Eastern, however, in its affirmation of infinity, its constant referral to symbolic essences, and its subtle yet ever present characteristic of evoking contemplation.

Embracing the natural attributes of gravity, the slow, silent motions of Rickey’s works are ingratiating and rarely disturbing on any level because they are not made of the stuff that imposes itself on the viewer. Indeed, they never really enter our lives in the sense of letting us participate actively (except as an awesome observer) in their divine Odesseys. There is a psychological wall between the sculpture and the observer which implies an absolute quality of separateness between the two. “I want my art to be boring—” says Rickey, “—like Poussin.” He voids his work of rhetoric or ego and concentrates on formal possibilities as they relate to the inevitability of motion activated by natural forces. Hence, the human identification with these works is in a mystical or symbolic yearning—something which is the antithesis of Tinguely’s earthly passions.

Tinguely thumbs his nose at artistic formality, regulation, temerity and inhibition. His assemblages choreograph sound, motion, touch, chance and wit. They not only provoke but demand the initiative of an intruder to physically switch them on and activate them. They rely on it for their very lives.

At the core of these two artists’ styles, their mediums and their essential diversity, is their own personal view of the nature of motion. Both the pure consonance of Rickey and the dissonant expressionism of Tinguely must answer to and subject themselves to its whims.

As a phenomenon expressing the properties of change, motion is symbolic of life. In the make-believe world of esthetics it is a tool, a prop, a God-given means to lend validity and “reality” to illusion. Where Tinguely defies its natural attributes by utilizing man-made machines in attempting to challenge our accepted conception of it, Rickey willingly finds inspiration and acknowledges its deity.

Man discovers pleasurable and significant meaning in the varied rhythmic elements basic to motion. Our pulse and our heartbeats, the cyclical nature of time and the harmony of the universe are reflected in it. When Tinguely’s machine-constructions approximate one gesture after another in the process of repeating a cycle, he is, like the strong, steady beat of boogie-woogie, emphasizing the sameness of the particular. When Rickey’s kinetic sculpture bobs and ebbs in a variety of time-rhythm phases, he is, like Debussy in his G minor Quartet, paying tribute to the infinite possibilities inherent in the cycle, or life, of the particular.

As a commentator on life, Tinguely, who likes Los Angeles “—because there is so much junk around to use,” transforms discarded objects of this world into animated machines which satirize and sometimes mirror industrial life. When one closes one’s eyes and listens to them even their cacophony is unbelievably similar to the production lines of Detroit.

If he is a humanist, it is in his acceptance of man’s mechanistic environment as a sympathetic source of inspiration and optimism. His unequivocal commitment is that man should remain master of the machine, or to put it another way, that the machine is the child of man.

Rickey, it appears, is not so much opposed to this point of view as he is neutral to it. He perceives the motion of his forms by relying on the laws of equilibrium and the potential energy in air. His works move (as if by providence) in the character of visible extensions of invisible air currents. The result is a space-time symbol of the working of the laws of nature.

In the long tradition of art that falls into the loose categories of geometric and biomorphic modes of expression, Rickey generally belongs to the former and Tinguely to the latter. Strictly speaking however, both must be viewed in the light of cultural (in the broad sense) happenings: neon lights, merry-go-rounds, ferris wheels, oil-well pumps, yo-yos, clocks, see-saws, mechanical toys, juke-boxes, elevated subways, windmills, weather-vanes and all kinds of machinery must certainly have made their influences felt.

In addition, in the case of Rickey, one can’t help wondering with astonishment at his profound sensitivity to and metamorphosis of a flittering leaf caught in the breezes, or the limitless flow of reeds in marshlands, or the never-ending twinkling of stars or patterns of ripples in a stream. By contrast, Tinguely’s created “life” by its very nature ambiguously predicts, accepts, and sometimes even includes death.

Both contributions are valid. They are interpretations and expositions of candid clarity. We need not take sides for there is at least a little bit of each of them in all of us. It is not a question of mechanism versus nature which separates the two, but simply a matter of which aspects of one or the other the artist has selected for emphasis. And it is this psychic editing that gives each artist’s work a meaning peculiar to itself.

Arthur Secunda