New York

George Rickey

Staempfli Gallery and Fordham University Plaza

George Rickey’s kinetic sculptures are composed almost entirely of straight-edged shapes—long tapering blades and rectangular or square planes of stainless steel. But the trajectories that these rectilinear shapes draw in space are curved. The distinction is important; for Rickey, the movements of forms shaping space are of greater interest than the forms themselves. Motion, speed, and duration are the materials of sculptural form. He explores a counterpoint of visible and invisible geometry in constructions that are simple and straightforward as Shaker tools, but as mysterious in their implications as God’s compass in medieval images of Genesis.

Though Rickey’s sculptures move simply along certain paths, the variables of their activity, determined by the whims of wind, are complex, random and endlessly intriguing. Two Red Lines, for example, intersect, scissor open and slow increasingly as they near the horizontal, as if they were summoning energy tor the return voyage. The blades of Four Lines Oblique Gyratory, Variation II cut the sky like swinging branches and Two Open Rectangles, Variation III whirl like a pair of trapeze artists through cone-shaped paths, just missing collision. The most important variables are tempo, the changing relationships of parts, the unpredictable shaping of space and the fluctuation of light and shadow on moving steel that has been patterned by grinding to catch and enliven light. Because there is an inverse ratio between speed and size, the large outdoor sculptures (exhibited at Fordham University Plaza) tend to move with stately grace while the smaller works(at the Staempfli Gallery) are quicker and more excitable. The same sculpture can, depending on the strength of the wind, move with wild abandon, august decorum, or as tentatively as the last notes of a lullaby.

He calls his sculptures machines, but, preferring the variety and chance effects of wind-blown motion, he never uses machines to make them move. Rather he calculates the perfect balance, with the least amount of friction on the pivot so that his forms will have the greatest potential for movement. Paradoxically, it is the exactitude of his engineering and the disciplined persistence of his analytical mind that makes possible the unpredictable and freely lyrical movements of form. “My work must be precise or it fails,” the sculptor has said, but precise engineering is not always mechanical in its associations. The sculptures with tapered blades counterweighted at the wide end and set nodding on knife-edge bearings are as elegant in the logic of their construction as egrets standing on one leg.

Rickey’s works do not celebrate the usefulness of scientific ingenuity. Quite the opposite: Rickey delights in inutility. He recognizes the analogies between his sculptures and forms in nature, but, except for earlier works like Vine, 1962, the mobiles exhibited last spring explored nature’s laws rather than its appearances.

Oscillating lines of steel focus our attention as if, like clock hands or the arrows on gauges in instrument panels, they were signaling some meaning. They are mute indicators of import that can only be sensed, not diagrammed or seen.

Rickey’s sculptures are thus a meeting of man’s imagination and knowledge with the workings of nature. Because their rigorously ordered design incorporates physical laws, the sculptures are prepared to cooperate with nature, accepting the chance effects of wind as part of their form. Following in the Constructivist tradition (a movement for which he is one of the major contemporary spokesmen), Rickey does not sculpt to express his subjective emotion, but aims at a broader content. Nevertheless, to see his lucid yet mysterious sculptures flailing and swaying, pointing and spinning in wind and space is to be convinced that they express Rickey’s own poetic awe at the rhythms and order of the universe and, perhaps also, his sense of triumph at the participation of human intelligence in that universe.

Hayden Herrera