Belinda Rathbone’s biography traces the sculptor’s embrace of kinetic mechanisms to his work in the Singer Sewing Machine factory.
by Carl Little
In the second half of the 20th century, George Rickey (1907-2002) stands out as one of America’s preeminent sculptors, known for his mesmerizing kinetic creations that move in the wind. Following in Alexander Calder’s footsteps, he constructed small- and large-scale sculptures that found their way into collections, museums, and public spaces across the country and around the world.
That said, as Belinda Rathbone notes early on in her cradle-to-grave biography, Rickey’s reputation has faded over time. “While his work enjoyed many years in the limelight,” she writes, “his unique contribution to the vocabulary of modern abstract sculpture has dwelled in the shadier groves of modern art history.” She sets out not so much to correct an oversight but to bring to light Rickey’s significant achievements. In the process she presents a full-bodied portrait of an artist driven as much by a quest for fame as by artistic vision.
George Rickey: A Life in Balance provides a detailed biography of the artist, starting with his family’s move from South Bend, Indiana, to Scotland when he was five. Rathbone traces Rickey’s embrace of kinetic mechanisms to various experiences in his earlier life, including visiting and briefly working in the Singer Sewing Machine factory his father managed in Clydebank.
After returning to the United States as an adult Rickey worked as a teacher for nearly 30 years around the country, beginning with a job teaching history at Groton, an elite school for boys near Boston, in the 1930s, and followed by positions at several colleges and universities.
While following a rigorous teaching schedule, Rickey managed to make and show art—paintings and drawings—and study it. During the Depression, the Carnegie Corporation supported several of his artist residencies, first at Olivet College. He attended the Académie André Lhote in Paris, the Institute of Fine Arts in New York City (on the GI Bill), and the Art Institute of Chicago where he embraced what Rathbone calls the “machine aesthetic” that “had infiltrated art and design teaching at the Bauhaus and beyond.” He would later write the groundbreaking Constructivism: Origins and Evolution (1967) and curate the traveling show Constructivist Tendencies.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Rickey registered for the draft. In August 1942, he entered the Army Air Corps in Denver to attend gunnery school. He became private first-class, assigned to the instruction and maintenance of aircraft guns, and later worked as a computer technician on the B29 Superfortress, the plane that would deliver the atomic bombs to Japan.
During the war Rickey began to consider whether he had a talent he “could not exploit as a painter.” Later, stationed in Laredo, Texas, he made his first mobile sculptures: “In the army machine shop,” Rathbone relates, “he began to experiment with bits of scrap metal and glass he found around the base, constructing little sculptures with moving parts.”
While teaching at the University of Indiana in Bloomington in 1949, Rickey began to sculpt in earnest. He had help: a “career-changing tutorial” from sculptor David Smith, a fellow faculty member who taught him how to cut and weld with oxy-acetylene.
Following a visit to Calder’s studio in Roxbury, Connecticut, in 1951, Rickey’s mobiles became “looser, more curvaceous, and more playful” according to Rathbone. His work began to gain attention when it was included in the Metropolitan Museum’s survey show American Sculpture, 1951, and featured in exhibitions at the Kraushaar Galleries in New York City. In 1958 he started to refer to his work as kinetic “to distance himself from the word mobile,” writes Rathbone, “and he wanted that difference to be noticed.”
Rickey’s indebtedness to Calder is evident but the author succinctly distinguishes their work. “While Calder’s colorful mobiles bobbed and turned,” she explains, “Rickey’s kinetic sculptures achieved complete rotation, multiple variations of the pendulum, and the disturbing, joyride effects of conical movement.” His pieces “flirted with instability but always returned to equilibrium.”
In a review of a major Calder show at the Tate in London for Arts Magazine, Rickey took his fellow artist apart “limb by limb.” He criticized the lack of engineering and the minimal movement in the work. “The Master of the Catenaries has become the prisoner of the chain he forged,” Rickey wrote. He would later do a similar number on Jean Tinguely, another competitor in the world of moving sculpture.
Demand for Rickey’s work grew as he became a favorite of big-time collectors like Joseph Hirshhorn and was featured in major shows, including Documenta and Japan Expo ’70 and retrospectives at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the Guggenheim in New York City. Needing a bigger place to produce, he found it in East Chatham, “a sleepy, hilly hamlet” about 130 miles north of New York City. The purchase of a ramshackle house led to acquisitions of neighboring land and structures. “In its heyday,” Rathbone notes, “the Rickey workshop was its own little empire in the woods.”
The sculptor seemed to be constantly on the move, spending time in Europe (Paris and Berlin), New Orleans, California, and other places. He received important commissions; Rathbone notes the growing trend in the 1970s for siting modern art in public and corporate spaces, both in the United States and abroad.
To a certain degree, Rickey was a hustler, often managing the sales of his work, cultivating collectors, and building on art-world connections whenever and wherever he could. He continually strategized ways in which to strengthen his legacy, aware of the fickleness of fame.
Rathbone’s narrative is strewn with intimate details, an effective way to keep the reader’s interest while navigating more art-historical material. When she gets to Rickey’s two marriages, to Susan Luhrs and Edith Leighton, respectively, she lays on the private detail, from the former’s fake pregnancy to the latter’s affairs.
Cameos by cultural and art-world figures abound, from Jean-Paul Sartre and Naum Gabo to Max Beckmann and Ellsworth Kelly. Rathbone takes every occasion to connect the aesthetic dots, at times leading the reader into rarefied art-historical territory.
As she did with her biography of Walker Evans, Rathbone proves the consummate portraitist even if she includes a plethora of incidental material. She gives Rickey his due without overstating his place in the pantheon. At one point she wonders if Rickey’s work remains relevant, calling it “too delightful to be demanding in the ways of minimalism as it was then being defined” in the late 1970s. While she addresses the ups and downs of his reputation, Rathbone underscores Rickey’s renown in his day without spending too much time parsing the decline in his fame compared to Calder’s, which remains strong to this day.
Like one of his sculptures, George Rickey: A Life in Balance has many moving parts that more often than not gracefully twist and turn to tell a very personal and public story. It feels like a Rickey revival.
George Rickey: A Life in Balance (2021) by Belinda Rathbone is published by Godine and available online and in stores.
Carl Little’s most recent book is Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: Closer to Nature (Pomegranate). He helped produce the film Jon Imber’s Left Hand, which premieres at the Maine Jewish Film… More by Carl Little