Curious George

One of the unexpected pleasures of the McNay’s George Rickey retrospective is completely peripheral. I mean this literally; to stand in a roomful of George Rickey’s kinetic sculptures and, rather than focusing on one piece, to experience the continuous and cumulative effect of all that movement is very nifty indeed. Most of the pieces are shiny metal, and all of them are moving, not via motors but seemingly of their own mysterious volition. What with the bowing blades and rocking pendulums and gyrating planes, and twinkling bits, it feels not unlike sitting in a boat on a thousand shifting currents, or the magical instant in traffic when you and some stranger execute left-hand turns from opposite directions — warily at first, then suspending the baseline distrust of defensive driving and engaging in an automotive do-si-do.

“Unlike some others who considered themselves Minimalists,” George Rickey’s son tells me by phone later, “George really wanted people to be happy.” His success is borne out by the reactions of the McNay security guards, one of whom told me that while he may normally prefer “Renaissance art,” he enjoys spending the day with this show, and smilingly points out the wall-mounted oscillating fans “to keep everything moving. It is amazing, how this all … works.” Another guard confides that by the end of each day, she finds herself gently, almost imperceptibly, swaying in place (which she demonstrates), and that one of her colleagues was lulled into such a reverie the other day that he tottered backwards and bumped his head on one of the gallery walls.

“I particularly like this one,” says McNay curator Rene Barilleaux as he walks me through the frontmost gallery of the new Stieren Center for Exhibitions towards “U.N. II” (1954-60), which in its boxy outline echoes the iconic United Nations headquarters building, but which rocks back and forth, and contains along its “spine” a series of rotating axes containing colored strips of metal, which twirl and lean at intervals — the overall impression is discordant, precarious, and harmonious all at once. “The way it moves,” Barilleaux says, looking at it almost tenderly, “it’s really about the body.”

The body politic, bodies in motion, bodies of water — the artworks of George Rickey are nothing if not corporeal, and are difficult not to anthropomorphize. Difficult for George, too, apparently — he referred to himself, repeatedly, and only somewhat jokingly, as a “choreographer,” and de-emphasized the hard, cold mathematical mechanics inherent in his technique. “There’s nothing so dull as geometry,” he laughs in Paul Kreft’s film George Rickey Works, explaining to an interviewer, “You’ve got to play with it and make it somewhat lyrical. I think that’s a kind of play, isn’t it?”

As Valerie Fletcher points out in her catalogue essay, “George Rickey: Poetry in Motion,” Rickey didn’t start “playing with it” until after he turned 40. A lot of artists are late bloomers, Fletcher points out — development of an artistic vocabulary is as much a narrowing, a winnowing-out, as anything else, and as such requires constant trial and error, an approach George Rickey seemingly never tired of.

He started as a painter. Actually, scratch that. He started as the son of an engineer and the grandson of a clockmaker. He was born in Indiana in 1907 but then moved, at the age of 6, to Helensburgh, Scotland, where his father helmed a Singer Sewing Machine factory. Helensburgh was a shipbuilding town, and young George grew up fascinated by the rhythms of building, imbued with the poetry of mechanics, and with a respect for working people. He went on to get a degree in history from Balliol College, Oxford, and then, after studying art in Paris, he returned to the U.S. just in time for the Great Depression. He worked as a history teacher at the prestigious Groton School where, his son Philip tells me, among his students were the sons of Franklin Roosevelt.

Rickey’s biography is a clear lens through which one can see the major currents and turnings of 20th Century art history and how it pivots on human history. Through the 1930s Rickey swung back and forth from America to Europe, working as a professional painter of Realist still lifes, landscapes, and portraits. Then, in the latter half of the ’30s, as economic circumstances grew untenable, he was able to secure teaching and artist-in-residence positions, partially funded by the Works Progress Administration, and devoted time to studying the works of American Regionalist Grant Wood and the Mexican muralists Orozco and Rivera. He harbored strongly leftist sympathies, Philip Rickey confirms, which George illustrated in earnest, large-scale murals. One, at Illinois’s Knox College, is hopefully (and somewhat pedantically) titled, “Those Who Transmit and Those Who Reach for American Cultural Traditions.” He remained, throughout his life, devoted to the idea of art for everybody, as a public good. “He wanted to reach the widest possible audience,” Philip says.

When the U.S. Army drafted George Rickey in 1942, he went to work as an engineer for the Air Corps, and was tasked with improving navigation and gunnery systems for B-29 bombers. This hands-on mechanical and design experience would eventually enable this clockmaker’s grandson to construct the bobbing, circling, endless permutations of movement that vie for the viewer’s attention at the McNay; full circle, as it were.

It took him a while to get there, though. Post-war, he studied art history at New York’s Institute of Fine Arts under the G.I. Bill. He kept teaching and studying, married and started a family. Exposed to the divergent architecture of Buckminster Fuller and Alexander Calder, the ideas floating around his mind began to orbit their axis.

One of George Rickey’s first kinetic sculptures is 1954’s “Cocktail Party.” His son speculates of the giddy, Klee-like, almost floral arrangement of rocking figures that “my parents went to a lot of cocktail parties in those days; it could be just something that George was depicting back in Bloomington, Indiana.” For Philip, of course, much of George’s work has autobiographical referents; he sometimes thinks the tallest figure in this sculpture represents Edie Rickey, his mother, who stood 6 feet tall. (George himself was closer to 5 feet, 9 inches, a marital height-disparity of intriguing possibilities. “George was inspired by all kinds of nature, every relational movement around him,” Philip chuckles. “Why not his wife?”)

Once George Rickey developed his vocabulary — of movement over stasis, of abstraction over literal representation, of the transcendent beauties of the physical, natural world over the divisive potential of overtly political work, he nonetheless kept embracing trial and error. Fletcher’s catalogue essay asserts that the myriad gimbals, pendulums, counterweights, and balances were all worked out through constant hands-on experimentation rather than abstract calculation. The sheer amount of work culminating in each delicately balanced armature and flickering twist of steel is astounding. Unlike Calder, for whom movement amounted to an embrace of random forces and recalibrations of color variables, Rickey’s dancing beams and gorgeously cast shadows deliberately harness the forces of the universe.

Why is it that kinetic sculpture, so diverse and inspiring in the hands of Rickey, Calder, and others, isn’t as much in evidence now? It seems that motion as an art value has been transferred almost wholesale to pixels on screens, or flickering projected video images. Barilleaux, sighing, attributes this to “a truly unusual combination of incredible artistry and profound engineering knowledge coalescing in this one person’s mind. I don’t think we have another artist who can think like Rickey does.”

Leaving the Stieren and heading into a bright, breezy October day, I stand in the scupture garden, struck again by the graceful, meditative cumulation of mechanical gestures. I stand there and think about thinking, about the thousand fulcrums and horizon lines, the wave patters and the inevitable association of movement with life, the sad evolutionary dead-end that the beauty of kinetic sculpture seems to have come to. I’m interrupted by a passing 5-year-old boy, who points to the swooping circles of one of Rickey’s later works, 2000’s “Annular Eclipse,” and hollers, bereft of self-consciousness or any theory (save joy), “Dad! Look at that one!” •


George Rickey Kinetic Sculpture: A Retrospective
10am-4pm Tue-Fri; 10am-9pm Thu; 10am-5pm Sat; noon-5pm Sun
Through Jan 11
$10-$13 (includes general admission)
McNay Art Museum
6000 N. New Braunfels
(210) 824-5368

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