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George Rickey, 95; Sculptor, Master of Kinetic Art

July 23, 2002|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

George Rickey, a sculptor whose interest in movement led to his reputation as the grand old man of kinetic art, died Wednesday in St. Paul, Minn. He was 95.

Rickey, who maintained a summer studio in Santa Barbara, inherited the mantle of master of kinetic art after Alexander Calder died in 1976.

A central figure in the artistic movement known as Constructivism, he was known for his abstract steel sculptures--some reaching as high as six stories--that were set in random motion by air currents.

"In these giant wind-driven constructions, we see a rare balance between the disciplines of an engineer and the free spirit of a poet," architect John Johansen said when the American Academy of Arts and Letters presented Rickey with its gold medal for sculpture in 1995.

Rickey's works have been exhibited around the world, most notably at the Documenta III art show in 1964 in Kassel, Germany, and at a 1979 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Born in South Bend, Ind., Rickey was educated in Scotland, where his father managed a Singer sewing machine factory. His grandfather was a New England clockmaker who introduced him to the art and mechanics of the pendulum, which would inspire him as an artist.

Rickey studied art in Paris and at Oxford University during the late 1920s and early '30s, then returned to the United States to teach history.

He made his first sculpture while serving as an Army Air Corps sergeant working on ballistics problems during World War II. He began to make crude mobiles, imitating Calder's style.

By the early 1950s, Rickey was working in stainless steel and scrap metal at Indiana University, where he taught art.

He found that he preferred stainless steel because of its light-reflecting qualities and because it did not rust, a critical feature for an artist with large outdoor installations in mind.

Gradually, Rickey developed a style that favored movement over mass. It was distinct from that of Calder, emphasizing spare geometric shapes and slow, unpredictable movement.

In 1965, he was represented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which acquired a scissors-like construction that was 36 feet high, spare and elegant.

The next year, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington commissioned a work called "Three Red Lines." It has been described as "a minuet of pendulums, a line drawing in space, or a trio of red scissors slicing at the sky."

Rickey became known for sculptures based on moving blades and a compound pendulum, using simple hinges and ball-bearing joints to control the angle and range of movement.

"It is the shape of the movement, not the shape of the parts, that interests me," he once said.

In an authoritative 1967 text titled "Constructivism: Origin and Evolution," Rickey wrote that the kinetic artist "finds waiting for him, as subject, not the trees, not the flowers, not the landscape, but the waving of branches and trembling of stems."

His work has appeared in many local collections, including UCLA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Smalley Sculpture Garden at the University of Judaism.

Still prolific in his last years, he did most of his work at his studios in East Chatham, N.Y. He moved to Minnesota a year ago.

Rickey is survived by sons Stuart, a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco, and Philip, a sculptor and landscape designer in St. Paul; and two grandchildren.

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