Standing a stone’s throw from each other two kinetic sculptures by George Rickey, namely Two Turning Vertical Rectangles on Binnenwegplein and Three Columns on the facade of the City Theatre can be seen in the centre of Rotterdam. The American artist’s work has attracted a great deal of attention in the Netherlands. Rickey took part in such celebrated exhibitions as Bewogen beweging (Moving Movement) (1961) and nul (zero) (1965), both at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum and the Sonsbeek exhibition in 1966. In 1969 he was given a solo exhibition at the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum. His work was bought by private collectors and museums, including the Kröller-Müller in Otterlo and the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum. While the acquisition of the two sculptures for Rotterdam’s city centre cannot be seen in isolation, the fact that this leading exponent of kinetic art is represented by two works is quite remarkable.
Rickey, born in 1907 in America’s South Bend, Indiana, moved at a young age with his parents to Europe. From 1929 to 1930 he studied at the Académie Lhote and the Académie Moderne in Paris where he was introduced to Cubism through André Lhote, Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant. Over the next ten years, Rickey was actively engaged as a painter, while teaching at vari¬ous art schools. As an engineer with the American Air Force he made his first mobiles between 1942 and 1945. These works in glass and metal wire with their references to animal and plant forms were unmistakably influenced by Alexander Calder and were also moved via air currents. However, of greater significance than Calder’s work upon Rickey was his fascination with the possibilities of Constructivist sculpture. In particular the work of Naum Gabo, who became a personal friend of Rickey’s after the Second World War, made a big impression on him. Gabo’s Kinetic Construction (1920) was one of the first moving sculptures. Rotterdam owns large works by both Calder and Gabo as well as by Rickey. Rickey’s book Constructivism. Origin and Evolution (dedicated to Gabo) was of influence to Dutch constructivist artist such as Bob Bonies and Peter Struycken Rickey’s interest in the ideas of De Stijl and the Bauhaus as well as Constructivism gradually led during the 1950s to his steel constructions comprised of flat and linear elements. These sculptures too were inspired by nature, but now in more abstract terms: they explored the laws of physics. The simplification and technical perfecting of his kinetic sculptures continued into the late 1960s, when he introduced repeated identical elements into his work. In the late 1960s Rickey used more massive, flat components as in Two Turning Vertical Rectangles, while in later works, including the linear Three Columns, he combined elements from his earlier pieces and in recent sculptures he even introduced colourful painting.
In the acquisition of Two Turning Vertical Rectangles in 1971 and Three Columns in 1989, the Schiedam lawyer and art collector Piet Sanders played an important role. Sanders, who began collecting Rickey’s work in 1957 and is a close friend of his, was a member of the Urban Embellishment Committee in the early 1960s when it was preoccupied with the fountain on the round¬about of the city’s Hofplein. The committee was unhappy with the somewhat unappealing octagonal fountain designed by the architect J.R.A. Koops and the artist Joop van Kralingen, which had stood there since 1955. Having rejected a proposal by van Kralingen to modify the fountain, in 1964 the committee invited Rickey to submit a new proposal. He presented an ambitious design for a twenty-metre high cascade with eight identical moving flat elements along which water ran down. The whole was surmounted by a kinetic element that had the same shape as the eight moving pieces. Rickey made two scale models of the fountain and a lifesize prototype of the kinetic top. During Rickey’s solo exhibition at the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum in 1969 it was displayed in the museum garden. However, the project was rejected that same year by the municipal executive committee mainly because extremely costly reinforcements would have to be made to the fountain’s foundations. Meanwhile in 1970 the local shopkeepers’ association Stichting Binnenwegplein decided to donate an art work to the city to mark the completion of the renovated square Binnenwegplein. While the cascade remained unexecuted, the prototype planned for its tip was thus saved for Rotterdam.
Two Turning Vertical Rectangles was unveiled on 7 May 1971. The work Three Columns was as easy to achieve as Two Turning Vertical Rectangles had proved difficult. In 1986 Rickey was commissioned for a work that he designed in three open steel cube shapes above the entrance of the new Rotterdam Theatre, designed by Wim Quist. The Van Ommeren company (today known as VOPAK) donated the work to Rotterdam Council to mark its 150th anniversary. Rickey experimented for three years in developing the three ostensibly simple verticals that are constantly changed and turned by the wind. In 1989 they were placed in the three cubes. That the movements of Three Columns are similar to the movements of the human body is not a coincidence, given the function of the Theatre. Rickey once stated that dance was the oldest kinetic tradition and that his works should be seen as choreographies.
Tent. cat. George Rickey. Sixteen Years of Kinetic Sculpture, Washington (The Corcoran Gallery of Art) 1966. / Tent. cat. George Rickey, Hannover (Kestner-Gesellschaft) 1973. / Tent. cat. George Rickey. Kinetische Objekte. Material und Technik, Bielefeld (Kunsthalle Bielefeld) 1976.