George Rickey is best known for what he called his “useless machines.” Carefully crafted kinetic sculptures made of reflective stainless steel, these graceful, precisely calibrated sculptures move with the wind at unpredictable intervals, calling attention to the effects of wind, light, and the changing surroundings. Rickey is represented at Storm King by three sculptures tracing various trajectories of his mature work. The sculptures are sited in a glade, as Rickey’s works are not intended for the strong gusts of open spaces.
Born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1907, Rickey was the son of an engineer with a degree from MIT and the grandson of a clockmaker. Both encouraged Rickey’s early interest in engineering and tinkering, which he largely abandoned to pursue the study of art and work as a painter. Serving as an engineer in the Army Air Corps in World War II rekindled Rickey’s childhood interests and he made his first simple mobiles at this time. By the late 1940s Rickey had abandoned painting and devoted himself to making kinetic sculpture, an art form that enabled him to join his natural facility for engineering with his poetic sensibility. From then on, his work evolved toward a vocabulary of simplified geometric forms set in carefully planned patterns of wind-driven movement.
In Six Lines in a T, among Rickey’s first non-objective works, six hand-crafted, reflective, stainless steel blades are attached to a thin horizontal scaffold welded to a slender vertical pole. When at rest, the lines are roughly parallel to the ground, but the slightest breeze sets them in motion, each blade moving in its own predetermined arc, crisscrossing the paths of the others, without ever touching them. While never making a sound, the sculpture makes palpable the movement of the surrounding breeze, like leaves on a tree, its variegated surface changing with the ambient light.
In late 1965 Rickey extended his vocabulary from lines to planes to create enchanting and evocative drawings in space that would further focus on the motion of the work. Two Planes Vertical-Horizontal II is a visually simple, engaging work that takes the moving square as its subject. Two internally weighted shallow boxes made of burnished stainless steel pivot on either side of a similarly burnished round pole, to which they are attached. Like Rickey’s Lines, the Planes are compound pendulums—objects with weights above and below the pivot point—that move in parallel paths. A small trap door allows for access to the internal ball bearings and supporting structure, counterweights for the compound-pendulum system. Styrofoam filling ensures the boxes move without making a sound.
Other kinds of movement, including gyratory, or a full rotation around a work’s central stem, emerged in the early 1970s, along with a frame-like, elongated, open rectangle. The open square elements of Five Open Squares Gyratory Gyratory are sensitively calibrated so that they move with the slightest breeze, continually transforming the piece’s configuration. While the squares rotate independently, they remain connected, creating an ongoing dialogue between unpredictable motion and prescribed order. Looking through the open squares, viewers will sense that the landscape itself is constantly shifting.