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Balancing art to the gram

THE house is on a hill in the Berkshires. As I drive closer I suddenly see the glint of giant silver blades, moving slowly, beyond the garden. They look like planets revolving in a stainless steel solar system suspended from a wire between two trees. When I turn into George Rickey's driveway, I see a lawn glittering with rectangular forms that seem to wave a welcome. There are hardly words to describe the scene. I have stepped into another world and can't keep from smiling.

The green and breezy outdoors is Mr. Rickey's gallery. He has cut away the underbrush around the house and beyond the small patio where his wife, Edith, serves lunch under a large umbrella. To one side, a trickle of spring water is harnessed with a simple fixture to create a waterfall, a melodic, spouting backdrop for an interview.

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Before we sit down to a discussion over ham and cucumber sandwiches, fresh green beans and home-grown tomatoes, Rickey suggests a walking tour of the grounds. On the way he points out the newly installed ``Triple N,'' a towering series of silver angles that took a year to make. It stands grandly among the trees in the side yard, moving constantly to the rhythm of the wind.

Then, we set off down the driveway and across the road past numerous sculptures to the Hand Hollow Brook. (``They instruct me,'' my host says of his work.) A path leads from the brook to a pond and a clearing enhanced with sculptures that appear to ``float'' in the water and in the grass.

On one side, a large shed (or, more accurately, a building resembling a small airplane hangar) houses more of Rickey's work including a homage in steel to Josef Albers called ``Eight Triangles - Two Squares,'' made in 1984, and a moving ceiling called ``Four Planes Hanging'' created for Documenta 4, an exhibition in Kassel, West Germany, in 1968.

Rickey says, ``Let me poke,'' as he takes a rod, turns, and sets a work in motion.

A friendly man with gentle eyes and a ready smile, the artist, a poet in the world of motion, began making kinetic sculpture in 1949. Curator Harriet Senie has written ``the subject of his art is movement - a slow lyrical movement, activated by natural air currents. He makes stainless steel sculptures of simple geometric shapes, grinding their surfaces to catch and respond to light. Thus, he has established a special partnership with nature, allowing wind and light to enliven his work in constantly changing ways.''

All of his sculptures move according to the principle of compound or simple pendulums, based on a fulcrum, a stiff rod, and a lead counterweight. He explains: ``The fulcrum is the shaft, lead is used as a counterweight, and the stiff blade functions as a rod. Planes and open geometric shapes can also be mounted to behave as pendulums.''

In discussing these shapes, he describes a tetrahedron: ``It has four faces and each face is a triangle. It's an extremely stable form, very strong. That shape involved Frank Lloyd Wright a lot. I've used it as a basic form. At the back of that is wanting shapes that are in themselves extremely simple, not in any way romantic, absolutely without interest, only of interest when they move.''

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To facilitate these different movements, Rickey uses four kinds of gimbals. He describes a gimbal as ``an ancient device used for centuries at sea as a mounting for compasses and lamps to keep them level while the ship rolled and pitched in stormy seas.'' It consists of a pair of bearings mounted with another pair, with the axes at 90 degrees to each other. Each set of paired bearings permits movements through an arc in a plane, and the two together permit movement through any plane.

Back in his workshop he spontaneously draws a gimbal, and then points out various three-dimensional studies for his sculptures, all of them, naturally, a fraction of the size of the works outdoors. One little project is a flowerlike piece he is making for a friend who asked specially for it. The walls of the shop are covered with all kinds of tools, many handmade by the artist.

Referring to his recent work, he says, ``I've been undertaking things that seem impossible. ... I've got pieces here that are double-jointed, and one with five joints. They are created to move as slowly as possible and still remain stable.'' (Sometimes he calls on the assistance of an engineer who can tell him such things as how big the bolts will have to be to withstand 80 m.p.h. winds!)

The artist continues with the startling remark: ``I don't care what the sculptures look like, because I can always adjust the shapes. I may decide to make them wider and flatter or tapered or not tapered. I may make changes in the shape, dictated by the weight I can allow myself.''

Using paper and pencil for calculating, Rickey decides what to do with weight, distance, and shape to get a perfect balance. The result is a slowness and smoothness of movement that has much to teach the visitor who is willing to watch and learn. In addition to shape, the use of color and sound came into play briefly, but were eventually set aside.

``You have to come to a definition of your problem. It's been said very succinctly by scientists that if you can define your problem, you're a long way towards a solution.'' When asked what he sees as his problem he replies: ``Why, this: Is it possible?''

What is possible may be seen on the hillsides and in the forest near his home, and in public places around the world. After walking around the grounds and work areas, one becomes acutely aware of the problem-solving these sculptures represent. The artist and his work are in full swing, in every sense of the word.

First of two parts. Tomorrow: Rickey discusses the meaning of the movement in his art.

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