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Artist in Motion

George Rickey, fast approaching 90, is still creating fanciful, lustrous metallic sculptures.

May 15, 1997|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Delight registers on the face of George Rickey as he steps into a garden full of his sculptures, and it doesn't stem from vanity. There's something about these metal structures--the way light dances on the surfaces, the way they move in the slightest breeze--that evokes a pure, childlike sense of wonder. Not even their creator is immune.

The garden--the backyard of Carl Schlosberg's home/gallery in Sherman Oaks--has been transformed into this stainless-steel forest for an exhibit in honor of Rickey's 90th birthday.

The show is not so much a retrospective as an exhibit by a working artist. Though Rickey will turn 90 on June 6--five days after the show closes--he is still hard at work in his studio in East Chatham, N.Y. Several of the works on display, such as "Two Open Rectangles Gyratory," were constructed earlier this year.

Rickey was born in Indiana in 1907 but grew up in Scotland, where his father was manager of the Singer sewing machine company's British branch. His grandfather was a clockmaker, so it seems that tinkering was in Rickey's genetic code.

When Rickey went to college at Oxford, though, he studied history, and later he studied drawing and painting. It wasn't until he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II that he began to toy with kinetic sculpture. Interested particularly in the work of Alexander Calder, Rickey began making crude mobiles imitating Calder's style.

Later, around 1950, he started using stainless steel. He was teaching art at Indiana University and would pick up pieces of scrap metal from the local dump to fashion into little sculptures. He stuck with stainless steel because of its luster. Roughed up a bit, the surface reflects light from almost any angle. And, of course, it doesn't rust--a very important attribute, especially for his large, outdoor works.

"I think in the beginning I wanted to be as simple as possible," Rickey says of the angular, geometric parts that comprise his sculptures. Later, though, that became part of his style, differentiating his work from Calder's irregular designs. "It is the shape of the movement, not the shape of the parts, that interests me," he says.

It is the motion--unpredictable in direction or speed--that most everyone who peers at Rickey's work finds riveting. That's what attracted Carl and Judy Schlosberg, who discovered the artist's work in the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden at UCLA in 1970. The couple have bought--and sold--dozens of Rickey's sculptures since opening their gallery in the early '70s.

Paintings, photographs and sculptures are integrated throughout the Schlosbergs' 5,000-square-foot home. On a table next to an easy chair in their bedroom is one of Rickey's foot-high mobiles. Walking past it, Schlosberg mentions that it distracts him when he sits there to read.

"Then I'd say it's doing exactly what it's supposed to do," Rickey replies with a pleased look. "It's well-trained."

Despite their modern appearance, Rickey's sculptures are very simply designed, the parts connected with simple hinges or ball-bearing joints that control the angle and range of movement. Each piece is like a compound pendulum, swinging on that joint, its speed determined by how the weight is distributed.

The sculptures also gaily toy with the notion of what is aerodynamic. "Four Cubes Excentric," the size of a small tree, has large steel cubes on the end of branches. Their size and material imply substantial weight, but in fact the cubes are filled with foam. They spin in even the slightest wind.

Almost all Rickey's sculptures--despite their hard surfaces and sharp edges--have a whimsical feel that has made them popular as public art all over the world.

Locally, he has pieces on display at UCLA, in the courtyard of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and in the Smalley Sculpture Garden at the University of Judaism. Other pieces are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

"I don't worry a lot about what sort of reaction they have," he says of the countless people who have passed time gazing at his creations. "I'm happy if they pay attention."

BE THERE

"George Rickey: Master of Kinetic Sculpture" at Carl Schlosberg Fine Arts, 15447 Valley Vista Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Wed., 7-10 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m., or by appointment. (818) 783-6209.

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