Public Art at Williams

Public Art at Williams

Double L Excentric Gyratory II, 1981; George Warren Rickey (American, 1907-2002); stainless steel; Museum purchase, Inaugural gift of the Class of 1961 Public Art Fund on the occasion of their 50th Reunion, dedicated in the belief that public art enhances the beauty of the Williams campus, accentuates learning, and stimulates creativity; M.2011.8; Photo by Megan Cross
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    Double L Excentric Gyratory II, 1981
    George Warren Rickey (American, 1907-2002)
    stainless steel
    Museum purchase, Inaugural gift of the Class of 1961 Public Art Fund on the occasion of their 50th Reunion, dedicated in the belief that public art enhances the beauty of the Williams campus, accentuates learning, and stimulates creativity.
    Photo by Megan Cross

    This impressive 29-foot-high sculpture was created by George Rickey when he was 74 years of age and is among his largest works. The innovative excentric motion, which he pioneered, is based on his experimentation with conical sections that he developed when he was well into his 60s. Rickey figured out that if the conical sections are placed in such a way that they do not intersect, and the sculpture’s motion is transcribed within those sections, the large “L’s” will never hit each other.

    A late bloomer, Rickey made his first piece of sculpture when he was 41 years old. Already an artist of long standing, he had studied painting in Paris during the 1920s with André Lhote. During the Second World War, while in the army, he made drawings for a manual on bombsight maintenance. These drawings, coupled with a lifelong fascination with machines (his Grandfather had been a clockmaker), led him to begin experimenting with sculpture just after the war.

    Rickey was an artist’s artist who eschewed commercial exploitation, but was welcomed early on into museum collections by perspicacious curators. Rickey burst onto the international art scene in 1964, when, at Documenta III in Kassel, Germany he showed Two Lines Temporal, a sculpture with two slender stainless steel blades, each 35 feet long. He was 57 years of age. This sculpture is now in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

    Rickey thought with the discipline of a scholar; after all, he had taught the classics at Groton. Yet, Rickey was a romantic intellectual. His sculptures soar freely; their movement is rigorously proscribed by the artist, but ultimately random. Precision and the vagaries of the wind become perfect allies.

    This sculpture, standing prominently next to the Class of ’62 Center of Theatre and Dance, is a testament to how much alumni can accomplish working in concert with the college. In March 2011, the class of 1961 announced its intentions to provide a fund for public sculpture on campus. This work is the inaugural gift of the class of 1961’s efforts.

    –Max Davidson, Class of 1961, President and founder of The Maxwell Davidson Gallery in New York


    George Rickey was born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1907. When his father, who worked for the Singer Sewing Machine Co. was given a job running a plant in Scotland, the whole family moved near Glasgow. Rickey went to Trinity College in Glenalmond, Scotland, before entering Balliol College, Oxford in the fall of 1926, where he read modern history. He convinced his parents that he wanted to be an artist and was allowed to attend classes in drawing at the Ruskin School, and then studied painting in Paris at André Lhote’s academy and at the Académie Moderne with Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant.

    During the 1930s, he painted first in a Cézannesque style, later in a Depression-era, social realist mode. He taught the classics at Groton, and at a series of colleges and universities, which included a stint at Indiana University from 1949 to 1955, where he was given the title ‘Professor of Design.’ This was the outgrowth of his World War II service. Rickey served in the Army Air Corps, and having demonstrated a strong mechanical aptitude that combined with his abilities as a painter led him to do an illustrated maintenance manual for servicing the gun sights in bombers. The work required both mechanical skill and an understanding of the effects of wind and gravity on ballistics, laying the foundation of his move from painting to kinetic sculpture.

    Under the G.I. Bill, Rickey studied at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and from 1948 to 1949 attended the Institute of Design in Chicago, an outpost of Bauhaus teaching. Intrigued by both the history of constructivist art and by the mobiles of Alexander Calder, he began creating kinetic sculptures. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Rickey developed systems of motion for his sculpture that responded to the slightest variation in air currents. Soon breaking away from the catenary systems used by Alexander Calder, he developed over the next three decades sculptures with parts made of lines, planes, rotors, volumes, and space churns, moving in paths that changed from simple oscillation to conical gyrations, describing a variety of planes or volumes. Many works during this period have been large-scale public commissions for sites in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Rickey died in St. Paul, Minnesota, on 17 July 2002 at the age of 95.

    George Rickey’s work is in the collections of virtually every major museum in the United States as well as in throughout Europe and the Far East. His most important blade sculpture, Two Lines Temporal I (1964) is on permanent view in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden. Another major example of his geometric sculptures, Cluster of Four Cubes (1992), was acquired by the National Gallery of Art for its sculpture garden. He received an Honorary Degree from Williams in 1972.