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George Rickey

By John M. Johansen

Born in 1907 in South Bend, Indiana, George was raised as a wee lad near Glasgow, Scotland. There, on the River Clyde, it is reported, in the family sail boat, he became fascinated by the responses of sails to the changing winds. It is not surprising then that these early experiences came to spark a curiosity for manipulation of wind-driven structures which were to sustain him throughout his creative career.

When older, George developed his scholastic disciplines at Oxford. Later, he studied in Paris at the Academie Moderne. Returning to the United States in the midst of the Depression, he was fortunate to be employed as a teacher of history at the Groton School for Boys. There, one of his students, now grown to maturity and to recognized literary achievement, is now actually among us here, Louis Auchincloss. When interviewed, the pious headmaster asked George if he believed in God. Though fearful of not being hired, George honestly said no. The headmaster hired George for his forthrightness but expressed hope that he would not contaminate the young students’ souls.

George and his wife Edie had established themselves in East Chatham, New York, where they lived among a host of outdoor whirling sculptures, responding to the same winds, yet each in its own nature, designed to say something individual of their own. Later, “walkabouts” were conducted each summer when many guests strode over literally acres of these antic displays. So often he would serve luncheons to Virginia Dajani and myself when we came to look in upon him at his work in progress.

Quite independent of his contemporary kinetic sculptors, Calder and David Smith, he had quickly created his original systems of motion. For these motions, he devised rotational joints, compound pendulums, rotors, and multiple bearings. He had firmly rejected power-driven kinetics. Rather, he had embraced the wind, as though it were personified as his partner in design. This silent partner was, as it were, at his side as advisor during phases of conceptualization, fabrication, and final performance. While the mechanics of these assemblies had their own technical beauty, these works transcend this beauty to the highest realms of art.

These polished stainless steel elements were geared to gyrate and to gesture, defining virtual volumes in space. Tossed by destabilizing winds, these assemblies are never at rest; always at work in a constant state of restoring their balance, as though guided by some hidden, mysterious intelligence within. Such mysterious self-regulation one watched and followed in disbelief and awe. In this regard, they are attune to the dynamic stabilities known to Nature, and in the outer dimension, to the Cosmos itself.

Installations of his finest works are many. Noted is his commission commemorating the founding, in the year 750 A.D., of the City of Berlin.

George’s creative life was full; his production prolific; his energy and spirit irrepressible. Beyond our great admiration, we will remember him for his “self,” for his friendly responsiveness, his gentle, outgoing good nature.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 14, 2002.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters