top of page
George Rickey at work, East Chatham, NY, 1965. Courtesy of the George Rickey Foundation. .

George Rickey  Wall Reliefs

at Kasmin Gallery, New York by Jonathan Goodman
February 19, 2024

Image: George Rickey at work, East Chatham, NY, 1965.Courtesy of the George Rickey Foundation

George Rickey (1907-2002) one of our most distinguished late modern, kinetic sculptors, was born in South Bend, Indiana. He went to Glasgow later, where he attended Glenalmond College. Rickey then went on to study history at Balliol College, Oxford University. During his last years of study there, from 1926 to 1929, he also took classes at the Ruskin School of Art. During the 1930s, Rickey traveled in Europe and America, teaching at the private Groton School in Massachusetts from 1930 to 1933. Eventually, he made his home in Old Chatham in upstate New York, near where his engineer lived–the man responsible for working out the balance and slow motion of the artworks  Rickey, who was as gifted a writer/art historian as he was an artist–he wrote the highly regarded volume entitled Constructivism, a near outline of that art movement. Rickey can best be described as a European artist who decided to make his career in America. His sculptures, usually planes or frames made of thin steel rods, often embellished with polished patterns made on the face of the steel, would become visible when catching the light and are exquisite examples of strong kinetic art. Their forms were made alive and became strongly attractive due to their slow movement, activated by a slight wind (at Kasmin, fans were set high up on the gallery walls). Distant breezes from ceiling fans caused the forms to sway. 

A gimbal, or pivoted support like a gyroscope, provides Rickey’s sculptures with the means to rotate, which is key to the graceful motion of Rickey’s art; he was gifted enough to write an article on the subject for Scientific American. Because the artist was talented in engineering as well as art, he had the wherewithal to devise works that functioned as if they were run by motors rather than moving air. Motion itself, as embodied in these remarkable works, becomes a theme and a goal for Rickey And because motion is a transparent aspect of his art, linear and three-dimensional both it needs the volumetric visual weight of its forms to generate the change their motion provides.

But the more difficult aspect of kinetic art lies in its ability to convince the viewer that its movement might be more important than the form itself. Inevitably, though, Rickey’s formal and mechanical intelligence merged; the moving form became an emblem of how an angle or plane could be visually transformed by slow movement. The point of this very good show at Kasmin lies in Rickey’s transformation of what many might have experienced as a gimmick into something much larger than that–the application of means that would turn the sculptures into something memorable for their changes of state. By staying away from color and concentrating only on the patterns a burr might impose on the sculptures’ steel surfaces, Rickey needed to find other ways of making the life of his art interesting (for many today, being “interesting” is the only true criteria of success in new art, a point first made by minimalist Donald Judd.  There are elements in Rickey’s simplicity that would give precedent to minimalist objects. Still, there is something else, too: an enduring recognition of the dynamics and beauty of geometric abstraction, made evident in the great development of constructivism, the movement Russia produced in the 1920s.

Rickey did work mostly with geometric forms; in the Kasmin show, it is hard to remember any organic shapes. Linear construction tends to be seen as rationalism more than distant from the expansive lyricism we see in ab-ex paintings. Perhaps this is why Rickey was well-praised in Germany, but perhaps not quite as well-known as he might have been in America. His rejection of emotion only, or even mostly, as a window into the imagination, in favor of a rational but also poetic treatment of defined planes, startling in their symmetry, resulted in precision, weight, and balance. These qualities made his work both rational and poetic at the same moment. Much of Rickey’s art, even the small pieces, has a monumental quality; the sculptures also work well as embellishments for buildings–older readers will remember a work, two open, long, narrow rectangles, defined by thin strips of steel, standing before the front wall of the Guggenheim Museum. This piece’s motion, like almost all of Rickey’s art, finds a poised, motionless center by creating shapes in contexts that would stay still (as they usually do). While the former comment sounds slightly absurd, its contrary nature moves beyond a difficult idea into the startling achievement of major art.

Kasmin’s show of wall relief draws our attention by developing motion in relatively small works against the tall, flat surface of the gallery walls. Not everything is a relief work; a number of the sculptures rise from pedestals in the open space of the exhibition The wall works go up quite high, and their movement, seen from a fair distance, begins to assume the characteristics of poetic change. How does an artist successfully use movement to characterize duration or change the implications of Suze? The works on exhibit are not public in size, but neither are they small. The lyrically beautiful work, called Seascape III Wall (1993), consists of long, narrow spear-like projections in two groups, with the two nexuses from which the poles project set a distance of equal heights, on a wall. The thin elements move up and down a few inches, seemingly entangled with one another. What results is the slow, moving elegance characteristic of all of Rickey’s work.

One of the more interesting characteristics of Rickey’s art, its reliance on the steel alone as a naked, unpainted plane, throws the surface into some small relief by abstract patterns made by burrs set directly against the surface of the steel. The whorls, visible enough when the light hits them, give the work another dimension, a tiny bit of depth. This detail shifts, if only for a moment while the viewer looks at it, the moving parts of the sculpture toward the experience of painting. It is a minor condition but one that nicely complicates the surface of the art.

For example, it is possible to see Four Rectangles One Square Diagonal (1979), as an outer gathering of a collection of four rectangles shaping the outer part of a gestalt best described as a larger square poised like a diamond shape. In the center, surrounded by the rectangular planes, is a small square. Some space occurs between all of the parts. It is not that these works, any of them, carry cultural meaning beyond the extension of form.  Constructivism, as a movement carrying literary or intellectual meaning, does not hold much weight. But if we allow for the masterful abstract beauty of simple shapes slowly suspended, moving in a near collision with each other, we come across an essential imaginative treatment of non–objective art.

George Rickey - Four Rectangles One Square Diagonal, 1979.jpg

George Rickey
Two Open Rectangles Diagonal Jointed-Wall, 1985 (begun 1984)
stainless steel / 52 x 29 inches / 132.1 x 73.7 cm
© George Rickey Foundation, Inc./Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Courtesy Kasmin Gallery Photography by Wendy Timana

George Rickey
Four Rectangles One Square Diagonal, 1979
stainless steel
37 1/2 x 37 1/2 x 8 inches / 95.3 x 95.3 x 20.3 cm
© George Rickey Foundation, Inc./Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Courtesy Kasmin Gallery

George Rickey - Two Open Rectangles Diagonal Jointed - Wall, 1985 (begun 1984).jpg
George Rickey - Seascape III Wall, 1993.jpg

George Rickey
Seascape III Wall, 1993
stainless steel
15 x 77 x 20 inches / 38.1 x 195.6 x 50.8 cm
© George Rickey Foundation, Inc./Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Courtesy Kasmin Gallery Photography by Charlie Rubin

The terrific work titled Six Triangles Hexagon Wall (1978) consists of half a dozen stainless steel triangles ending in a point in the center (a circle of stainless steel serves as the wall supporting these triangular shapes). The spaces between the six parts, whose surfaces reflect Rickey’s usual abstract patterns, widen and narrow with even the smallest motion of air moving over them. Watching these individual elements come together and fall apart is a lot like a flower doing the same thing. Here, too, patterns are embellished on the surface of each element; this particular work is especially close to a natural form, although its title, like all of Rickey’s works of art, merely describes its geometric forms–the shape and number of them. 


What does it mean, then, for the art to remain more or less entirely within its abstract paradigm? Its installation within the large gallery, a space of considerable height, made it clear that Rickey’s art can be turned into an environment, its statement relying on the pieces’ relations among each other determining a new, overall gestalt that might itself be seen as a provocative statement. This means that the installation could be seen, overall, as a charged work of art. The imagery consequently becomes fractal, that is, its whole mimics the parts it is made of. As time goes on in the space, the audience starts to see duration as necessary to the overall reading of the sculpture. So both the single works and the whole are determined by the length of time. Since when do we see sculpture as necessarily involved with length of experience? When an artwork demands to be known through passages of movement. 


What does the work feel like, now that the person who made it is gone? Rickey is a formalist of the first degree, and he is so good, that he is capable of generating depth of thought and feeling using form alone. This can be done fairly easily; we only have to think of abstract expressionism to see how feelings are conveyed even with the deliberate erasure of historically weighted (figurative) forms. The simple forms wrought by Rickey become statements of emotion communicating beauty without specifying any historical causes. This can be done, even with archaic figures, by isolating parts of the representative art–say, the line of an arm or leg in a Greek classical work. As time continues, the part either stays isolated or is represented as a whole. If we cut the entirety into discrete parts, the individual elements take on a life of their own. This takes place without a recognizable statement of formal meaning. When that happens, the work takes on the weight of abstraction, generating both thought and feeling within a milieu that brings to the fore isolated parts that are eloquent in their own right. 


But Rickey does not move beyond abstraction to its more recent relation, conceptual art. His work is best seen as the promise, fulfilled, of late modernism. The hard-edge geometric lines he works with go back to the beginning gs of the 20th century when abstraction had not developed into different kinds of non-objective art, organic abstraction included. Today, when we have internalized a sharply politicized esthetic, we forget that for about a century, from the early 1900s to the early 2000s, nonobjective art held sway. Can we see such art, as Rickey made in the later part of the 20th century, maintain its historical energies? It is hard to say.


Regarding the work titled Six Rectangles Horizontal Jointed–Wall (1991), the last work to be discussed in this article, half a dozen stainless steel planks sit horizontally on top of each other. A dowel-like steel rod connects one form to the next, but not always in the same place along the thin top of each plank. In one of the pictures, it is impossible to view one form in its entirety, as only the end of the form can be seen. As the planes slowly swivel in vertical alignment, viewers have the sense that their movement is a function of their independence from each other–even as one appreciates the motion of the entire gestalt. The part about whole, and motion in relation to stillness–these are the things that count in Rickey’s art.  Thus, the art is based on the contradictions of opposites–and their melding. 


In the long run, Rickey’s work is based on an understanding of European sculpture, its emphasis on a formalism that he gravitates to as an international art practitioner. So his form link is hardly an American virtue, being instead the appreciation of an abstract leaning we cannot geographically identify.  The absence of a specificity of place in Rickey’s art predisposes us to see it exactly the way it is–as a group of moving forms, no more. We have spoken earlier of the European origins of formalist abstraction, its hard edges the signal of an experimentally non-objective approach. But later on in the 20th century, when Rickey was putting out the remarkable art pieces seen in the show, the dictates of his style had been thoroughly established. This not only meant that Rickey’s impulses were part of a tradition and therefore not fully independent of the past but his originality was predicated on historical ties–a thoughtful, backward-looking appreciation of creativity.


The remarkable show of wall reliefs thus looks back to look ahead–even if the pieces do possess an experimental cast. How is formalism best accommodated by an outlook moving ahead? By establishing art as a new language, one appreciates the notion of a series. The notion of close repetitions of forms, tied to a slow motion that connects one part of the sculpture to another, is very contemporary in its implications. Only as time continues does the movement reveal itself–only as geometric form does the proximity of the pieces to each other become a language of specificity and shared space. The shared space is accommodated, that is, brought together, in a way that holds both the single piece and overall exhibition together. The glue of these works is time, which brings together the parts by connecting the dispatched emotions brought together by a remarkably creative sense of form. Rickey’s poise, and his attention to its implications, have resulted not only in a current language (brought about, oddly enough, by its historical connections), but has also opened a window into the future. His imaginative vigilance pushed his vision quite a bit ahead, making this show indicative of his sense of historical imagination and, at the same time, his ownership of a visionary reading of linear form moving slowly across space. Thus, volume becomes fluid, announcing that its space is not only a measure of weight, it is also a vehicle for motion’s ability to delineate form in duration, time becomes the major, if also unspoken, arbiter of the art.

George Rickey - Six Triangles Hexagon Wall, 1978.jpg
George Rickey - Unstable Squares Diagonal Wall, 1981.jpg

George Rickey
Six Triangles Hexagon Wall, 1978
stainless steel
© George Rickey Foundation, Inc./Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Courtesy Kasmin Gallery Photography by Wendy Timana

George Rickey
Unstable Squares Diagonal Wall, 1981
stainless steel
59 x 56 x 8 inches
149.9 x 142.2 x 20.3 cm
© George Rickey Foundation, Inc./Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery Photography by Charlie Rubin

bottom of page