PRINT May 1978


George Rickey

Nan Rosenthal, George Rickey (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1977), 220 pages, 223 illustrations, including 66 plates in full color.

M. Matyushin, a color theorist, an initiator of studies on optical perception and a close friend of Malevich, hypothesized in 1932 that by making a conscious attempt to exercise the peripheral aspects of one’s vision it was possible through “extended vision” to attain a peripheral vision approaching 360 degrees.1 I cite this only as an example of the difference between aspiration and reality. For a number of years, Abrams has aspired to publish, in book form, the work of individual artists through an ambitious series called “Artbooks.” The latest book in the series, dealing with the works of the kinetic sculptor George Rickey, is introduced by Nan Rosenthal. Imposing in format, the book contains beautifully printed photographs on high quality paper, although the printing quality of the introduction is inferior. A book’s physical presence has obviously nothing to do with its content. In the case of George Rickey, there is, along with a strong commitment to the book’s superficial physicality, somewhat less concern for particular aspects of its content. The aspiration by Abrams is for a definitiveness that the reality of the book, in total, does not always support.

In her thorough introduction, Rosenthal presents an exhaustive account of Rickey’s life, from his childhood to the present. But for all its thoroughness, there is strangely little opportunity for the personage of Rickey to emerge except as the distant creator of the objects photographed and discussed. One possible entrée could have been the inclusion of Rickey’s extensive writings both about his own work and on the subject of Constructivism. Twice quoted, but only briefly, these are often referred to by Rosenthal in her introduction. This is a loss, since only two of the over 20 writings listed in the bibliography are readily accessible (The Morphology of Movement and Constructivism: Origins and Evolution).

Eadweard Muybridge, at the end of the last century, demonstrated in his “Animal Locomotion” series that it was possible to imply movement through sequential, multiple, still-photographic images. If the images are out of “sync,” a multitude of relationships are consequently lost, and each image becomes an isolated photograph rather than a part of the continuum of movement. The photographs in this book are such “isolated photographs.” Although the relative positions of the kinetic planes in Rickey’s sculptures alter from photograph to photograph, they do not do so in a discernible sequence. Therefore, the reader loses the opportunity to gain an understanding of the most basic aspect of Rickey’s work—motion. Since the regular format of these books was modified to include fold-out pages with multiviews of the same piece, there is no apparent justification for this omission.

The painted and burnished stainless steel surfaces of the pieces are of obvious importance to Rickey. Variations in light significantly alter one’s perception of surface, particularly when the surface is multifaceted and highly reflective, like burnished stainless steel. To illustrate this aspect of the pieces, the works should have been photographed in various weather and wind conditions rather than on seemingly the same cloudless, blue-sky, summer days that were chosen.

There are hardly any photographs of works in progress. George Rickey is a book of finished objects with little photographic space given to the process of construction. This omission becomes particularly poignant when, in her notes, Rosenthal acknowledges the problem of a relationship between process and the completed object relative to contemporary sculpture.

Rosenthal’s introduction provides substantive commentary that contains a number of interesting insights, particularly her discussion concerning the formal and conceptual similarities between the works of Calder and Rickey up to 1953. In reference to the sculpture Leaning Tower, 1952–1953, she writes: “In a fundamental break with Calder, he [Rickey] also de-emphasized the vertebrate, chain-linked elements. . . . If the goal is fluid movement, Calder’s method of linking parts in this fashion is inefficient” (p. 34). Rosenthal explains later that fluid movement was not the goal of Calder but definitely was the goal of Rickey, and therefore: “The point is not that Rickey emerged as the superior technician but rather was the more obviously concerned one” (p. 35). Then she goes on to say: “Clearly the two artists have shown different attitudes towards the handling of motion in air-driven sculpture, and these attitudes derived from different expressive intentions” (p. 36). A real fetish of contemporary critical writing is the enumeration of influences, real and imagined. However fruitful or unimportant this may be, the exploration of the other side—the question of dissimilarities—can be just as significant. This is particularly true when an attempt is made to find reasons for these differences, as Rosenthal has. After isolating the reasons, she illustrates their implications relative to the formal aspects of the work that is to follow.

Numerous statements about Rickey’s relationship to Constructivism and to Gabo are also contained in the introduction. Rosenthal erroneously writes that Picasso’s “Manager” costume of 1917 for Erik Satie’s Parade “might be described as one of the first Constructivist sculptures” (p. 43). Actually, the most obvious sculptural antecedents are the Counter-Reliefs made by Tatlin in 1914. But of more importance than the objects is the attitude. A distinction must be made between the attitudes of Malevich and Picasso. Picasso was never a Constructivist, or, more to the point in 1917, a Suprematist. A clear articulation of the difference in attitudes between Tatlin, Malevich and nonobjectivism on the one side, and Picasso and Cubism on the other, can be found in a letter from Malevich to A. Benois from May of 1916. Written, perhaps, in reference to Malevich’s painting entitled Black Square of 1913, it states: “And I’m happy that the face of my square cannot fuse with any master, or with time. Isn’t that right? I have not heeded my fathers and I do not resemble them. And I—I am a step forward.”2

It is not a single lapse by Rosenthal that is at issue here but a whole misunderstanding, frequent in contemporary American art criticism, about the basic tenets of the most important movement since Cubism and, quite possibly, about the most significant insight thus far in this century. Rickey’s interest in Constructivism and, particularly, in the work of Gabo—in the series called Space Churn—is well documented by Rosenthal and thoroughly considered. I do feel, however, that an expanded discussion of Constructivism, with particular attention directed to its beginnings, would have been beneficial.

When Gabo composed his “Realist Manifesto” in 1920, it was, in many respects, a repudiation of Tatlin and his sculpture of real space—and of space as the material and province of sculpture. Rosenthal is correct in saying that, as a term, Constructivism alludes to the way in which a piece is built. Traditional modeled or carved, mass-oriented sculpture yielded, beginning with the Picasso Guitar of 1912 and Violin of 1913–14, and then with the first truly Constructivist sculptures, the Corner and Counter Reliefs of Tatlin, which he began after his visit to the studio of Picasso in April of 1913. At this point it is important to emphasize the fact that Tatlin was Russian, not French or Italian. When he left the studio of Picasso, he returned to a country without a sculptural tradition, a country where he was free to develop the implications of both Cubism and Futurism. Thus he was able, after clearly understanding the implications of Cubism in general, and Picasso in particular, to conceive of space not only as volume, but as mass. Space in the Reliefs of Tatlin became, for the first time, a material, singular unto itself, that could be manipulated. It possessed a physicality that likened it to other materials: space could be molded, cleaved, folded, extended or compressed. No longer exclusively conceptual, the sculpture of Tatlin and others became space-oriented in the broadest sense. The artists who followed Tatlin and Malevich called themselves Suprematists, Productivists, and, in 1919, “Obmokhu,” or the Association of Young Artists. In 1921 the word “Constructivist” appeared for the first time as a name for a particular movement. (The names of the movements and groups varied from 1914 to 1921, but the basic tenet shared by Malevich, Rodchenko, the Stenberg brothers, Tatlin and others was nonobjectivism.)

It would have been helpful to the reader had Rosenthal included, along with the later, 1937 Stereometric Cube of Gabo, his “Realist Manifesto” of 1920, for which the “Cube” is but one illustration. It is in these theoretical works that an issue of central importance was first raised: the fundamental difference between space and volume. The Stereometric Cube or “virtual volume” illustrated for Gabo the possibility of perceiving the same form as a volume rather than as a solid mass. Rosenthal states this, in reference to Gabo’s Constructed Heads and Torsos of 1915-17, thusly: “. . . Intersecting planes imply volumes which the viewer’s eye fills in from the edge of one plane to the edge of another” (p. 47). In the November 1977 issue of Artforum, Rickey wrote an obituary of Naum Gabo. There he paraphrased the “Realist Manifesto.” The pertinent point, in the listing of concepts that the Manifesto rejected, is (rejection) Number Four: “(4) Mass in sculpture, in favor of the same volume constructed of planes.”

Gabo was unable to conceive of pure space apart from volume. For him, it was the material definers of space that were as important as the space enclosed. The concerns of Rickey appear to be similar to those of Gabo. Rickey is quoted by Rosenthal in this book as saying, “. . . I realized that the form didn’t need to be a closed mass but could be a series of points of lines around which the mind makes an envelope” (pp. 48-9)—thus, not space itself, but the envelope or material definer of the space. Material mass opened, not to permit space to compete with it or to dominate, but rather for it to become volumetric. Space itself is rejected in favor of a preoccupation with the material delineators of space.

The “virtual volume” Stereometric Cube, item Number Four of the “Realist Manifesto,” and Gabo’s Constructed Heads and Torsos of 1915–1917 were all regressive. In opposing the members of Obmokhu and the postulates of Suprematism and Productivism, Gabo thus placed himself, conceptually, in opposition to many of the implications and possibilities of the Russian Constructivists. No matter how rebellious Gabo’s espousals may have been, in the largest sense they were regressive, and Rickey followed him. Contrast the implications of the Stereometric Cube and the spatial confinement therein, with these lines from a metaphysical essay by F. H. Bradley, the British philosopher: “. . . space is endless, while an end is essential to its being. Space cannot come to a final limit, either within itself or on the outside. . . . We have seen that space vanishes internally into relations between units which never exist. . . . For take space as large and as complete as you possibly can, still, if it has not definite boundaries, it is not space.”3

Space, to be space, must have definite boundaries. At first, it appears that this is not so far from the “envelope” that Rickey speaks of, but this small difference, in both choice of words and conceptual principle, is important. For Rickey, space is secondary. It fills the “envelope.” What is primary for both Gabo and Rickey are its material boundaries. Bradley understands that for space to be space it must be bound, but his focus is always upon space. He is not fixated with its necessary material delineators.

Rosenthal states:

Rickey’s Space Churns, since 1968, may be compared directly to a late sculpture by Gabo such as Construction in Space #10 of 1953. With this work, the Russian artist continues to elucidate his conviction that a volume may be constructed for the imagining eye, if not for the touching hand, by means of intersecting planes that suggestively wrap the air inside the perimeter of those planes. (p. 49)

Tatlin, in the Corner and Counter Reliefs of 1914–1915, sought to open the space internal to the space external. Space took on an importance beyond surface and, thus, material. His spatial constructions operated within the volume of an oversized stereometric cube—that is, in a corner within the cubic, spatial mass that is a room. They were basically open, not closed, and not volumetric. But as Rosenthal compares Rickey to Gabo, it is again important to compare Gabo to Tatlin and, thus, volume to space. This preoccupation with volume rather than space is interesting. Curiously, it leads Rosenthal to substitute the word “air” for “space,” a substitution of “matter” for a “concept,” of mass-through-matter for mass by way of the material definers of the spatial volume. Once volume was allowed to take precedence over space, then it followed that material gained in importance over concept. Gabo’s piece is significantly called Construction in Space and Rickey’s, a Space Churn: one is a placement in a substance and the other an active material confrontation with that substance; neither is a construction with the substance—space. This is interesting when one considers the titles of the four 1919 sculptures by the Stenberg brothers: Spatial Apparatus.

With the recent death of Naum Gabo, there remain of the second generation of Constructivist sculptors only Vladimir Stenberg, born in 1899, living in Moscow, and George Rickey, born in 1907. As one reads Nan Rosenthal’s introduction, the schism between the evolution of Constructivism in the United States and its origins in Russia begin to become apparent. The obvious contrast between these two points of view can be illustrated by the following two excerpts. The first is by Rickey:

The special qualities revealed by motion can become part of an artist’s statement about nature. . . . For [the kinetic artist] nature is source book, example, competitor, analogy, tyrant, seducer, and also inexorable adversary. The artist finds waiting for him, as subject, not the trees, not the flowers, not the landscape, but the waving of branches and trembling of stems, the rising and setting and waxing and waning of heavenly bodies. (p. 78)

Contrast this with a manifesto issued by Malevich in 1915:

. . . I have transformed myself into the nullity of forms and pulled myself out of the circle of things, out of the circle-horizon in which the artist and forms of nature are locked . . . And only cowardly sense and paucity of creative strength in an artist, makes him yield to the deception, arresting his art on the forms of nature, fearing to do away with the foundation on which the savages and academies based their art . . . Things have disappeared like smoke before the new art culture. Art is moving towards its self-appointed end of creation, to the domination of the forms of nature.4

Although Rickey is a kineticist working within the broad tradition of Constructivism, he does, because of his age and early interest in the movement, provide an eminent example of the transplantation of Constructivism from Russia to the United States. These differences and their implications were, admittedly, not within the scope of a book of this type, but it is the answers to these questions, or, perhaps, being able to ask them, that is interesting. Rosenthal does provide enough information to begin.

Herbert George, a sculptor, is editor of Tracks, a journal of artists’ writings.



1. John E. Bowlt, “The Construction of Space,” in the Galerie Gmurzynska catalogue From Surface to Space: Russia 1916–1924, Cologne, 1974, p. 12.

2. Evgenii Kovtun, “The Beginning of Suprematism,” in Surface to Space, p. 32.

3. F. H Bradley, Appearance and Reality, Oxford, 1930, repr. 1968.

4. Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863–1922, New York, 1962, repr. 1971, pp. 207–8.