George Rickey was born on June 6, 1907, in South Bend, Indiana, but grew up in Europe after his father, an engineer who worked for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, was transferred to Scotland. Rickey earned a history degree at Oxford before moving to Paris to study art at Académie Lhote and Académie Moderne. He returned to the United States in 1930. His first job was teaching history at Groton School in Massachusetts, but after several years, he left to set up a New York studio to pursue a career as a painter and took a series of art teaching jobs at colleges.

During World War II, Rickey served in the Army Air Corps, where he worked in a machine shop to improve aircraft weaponry and discovered a love for solving mechanical problems. After the war, he studied art history with the assistance of the G.I. Bill and resumed his art teaching career. In the late 1940s, Rickey studied Bauhaus teaching methods at the Institute of Design in Chicago, which sparked his interest in geometric form and movement. He was particularly inspired by a lecture by visiting artist Naum Gabo about space and the elimination of mass. (1) In 1949, already middle-aged, he made his first kinetic sculpture with window glass.

Like Alexander Calder’s work, Rickey’s sculpture captivates attention with moving parts in delicate balance, yet Rickey’s precise geometry and formal concerns connect with the Constructivist tradition, (2) while Calder’s curvy organic shapes owe more to Surrealism. When Rickey began experimenting with kinetic sculpture, he, like Calder, made mobiles. Soon, he began to favor shapes balanced on fulcrums.

Rickey chose not to include motors in his sculpture. Instead, he relied on air currents to imbue his work with an element of unpredictability. Rickey said that his sculpture “parodied the machine age in its treatment of materials; its precision, its invention.” (3) While the work, usually in metal, looked sleek and industrial, Rickey regarded it as thoroughly nonutilitarian, intended primarily to provide visual enjoyment. Furthermore, Rickey considered his works to be nonobjective. He wrote, “Though I love Nature, I am not trying to interpret it or remind you of it.” (4) To that end, he treated flat pieces


of steel with an allover pattern to abrasions to prevent the surfaces from crisply reflecting their environments while still allowing them to hold the light.

As Rickey’s kinetic sculpture progressed, he expanded his vocabulary of shapes to include both flat, sheet-like surfaces and open rectangles, triangles and trapezoids in overlapping configurations. He worked both at a small interior scale and at a large scale suited to outdoor or public spaces; he found that the same basic forms interacted somewhat differently, depending on their size. 

Rickey received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961 and had one-man shows at the Phoenix Art Museum, Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, as well as numerous galleries in the United States and Europe. In addition, his public art commissions appear in spaces around the world including Germany, Hawaii and Japan. Although Rickey lived mainly in East Chatham, New York, from 1960 until near the end of his life, he died in 2002 while living with his son in St. Paul, Minnesota.

1. Debra Bricker Balken, “George Rickey and ‘The Poetry of Space,’” in George Rickey: Selected Works from the George Rickey Estate, exh. cat. (New York: Marlborough Chelsea, March 13 – April 12, 2008), p. 3.
2. In 1967 Rickey wrote a book titled Constructivism: Origins and Evolution. He also built a collection of Constructivist art that toured the U.S. from 1970 to 1972 and was donated to the Roy R. Neuberger Museum at State University of New York at Purchase.  See Robert Hobbs, “George Rickey and Kenneth Snelson at the Palais Royal,” Deux Américains a Paris: Sculptures de George Rickey et Kenneth Snelson, exh. cat. (Paris: Jardins du Palais Royal, 23 octobre – 15 décembre 2006).
3. George Rickey, quoted in Balken, p. 2.
4. George Rickey, artist statement, George Rickey in South Bend, exh. cat. (Art Center of South Bend, September 8 – October 20, 1985), p. 9.

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