Little Rickeys

It was in mid-March that Paul Hughes, director of the venerable, twenty-something Inkfish Gallery, announced that he would mount an in-depth exhibit of thirty mostly small works by New York-based kinetic sculptor George Rickey. That fine exhibit, George Rickey: Recent Kinetic Sculptures, is now open at Inkfish and runs through the end of the month. But this highlight of the local art calendar almost didn't happen.

Soon after Hughes's announcement heralding the show, a representative from Bannock Associates, Inkfish's landlord, came into the gallery. The man was "nice as can be," Hughes recalls, when he told the shocked gallery owner that Inkfish's space had been leased to the copying business next door and that the gallery, which has operated for years on a month-to-month lease, needed to clear out, almost immediately.

Hughes says Bannock's messenger was unsympathetic when told that the gallery had made a contractual commitment for the Rickey show. But Inkfish isn't some faceless retail shop--it has long been a major player in the city's artistic life. Just a few months ago the gallery's Roland Detre retrospective was the talk of the town's art crowd. And over the last two decades the gallery has presented scores of shows of this quality, the kind of significant exhibits we typically associate with museums. It's an indication of the inseparable gulf that divides the world of art from the world of commercial real estate that the numbers crunchers at Bannock were at first oblivious to the fact that Inkfish's pending displacement would become news.

But if the property managers at Bannock may not recognize an important cultural asset like Inkfish when they see it, they can certainly make out a ticking public-relations time bomb. And after the story began making the rounds, says Hughes, the real estate firm's managers had a change of heart. The Rickey show, they announced, could go on, and Hughes will be given a reasonable amount of time to stage a moving sale, pack up what's left and relocate.

Hughes is still scrambling to find new digs. But there is a happy ending of sorts--the fabulous Rickey show. The work displayed in this exhibit is remarkable, in large part due to the inclusion of a whole new distinctive series. This evidence of renewed creative energy is startling in an 88-year-old artist, especially one who could so easily choose to rest on his considerable laurels.

And the work seems to be getting the respect of Rickey's peers. Sculptor Mark di Suvero, in town to supervise the installation of "Lao Tzu" at the Civic Center, was still wearing a hard hat when he came to the opening reception for Rickey's show. It was a gesture of mutual respect, since Rickey had earlier in the day ventured over to the "Lao Tzu" site. Di Suvero had his own review of Rickey's latest efforts: "They're the best work of his career--and at his age! I don't need to tell you it's inspiring."

Perhaps di Suvero exaggerates. But Rickey's recent efforts do indicate a bold and courageous new direction for the octogenarian artist.

Born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1907, Rickey moved with his family to Scotland in 1913 and grew up there. (Today he has only the slightest hint of a Scottish brogue.) In 1926 he entered England's Oxford University to study modern history at Balliol College, where he later received his bachelor's and master's degrees. But during his years there, Rickey also clandestinely attended the Ruskin School of Drawing, which sits across the street from Balliol. He felt that he needed to keep his studies at Ruskin a secret from his family. "I could not let my father know I wanted to be an artist," Rickey says.

After his graduation from Balliol in 1929, Rickey went to study art in Paris, then the unrivaled cultural center of the world. He first enrolled in the Academie Lohte, and later in the famous Academie Moderne, where he studied with the eminent Parisian modernist painter Fernand Leger. "Leger didn't care for me, and I didn't have much use for him," Rickey recalls. But Rickey found a "sympathetic and compassionate" teacher among the other famous French artists working at the Moderne: Amedee Ozenfant, a champion of his own brand of idiosyncratic cubism.

Rickey left Paris in 1930 and returned to the United States, where he set up a studio in New York City. He stayed in New York until he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, a military stint that brought him to Denver, where he was a private first-class stationed at Lowry Air Force Base.

Rickey, however, was no ordinary army private. He was older than most of the other recruits and had worked as a teacher for many years. This served well the needs of the Army, which had just set up flight and mechanical schools at Lowry. Rickey soon made staff sergeant and was assigned to teach young airmen and officers how to operate the B-29's automated machine-gun turret.

He also continued painting, and a handful of the works he completed during his years at Lowry are included in the Inkfish show. These small paintings reveal two things: that Rickey was only a so-so painter and that he sometimes took as his subjects members of Denver high society. Civic bluebloods aren't the sort of contacts a G.I. might be expected to make while stationed far from home, but during Rickey's years at Oxford, he had played rugby with Caleb Gates Sr., of the Gates Rubber fortune.

In 1945, just before the end of the war, Rickey was shipped out to an air base in Laredo, Texas. It was there that he first turned to sculpture, creating mobiles. Ironically, Rickey says that these hanging sculptures were not the product of his friendship with Alexander Calder, the standard-bearer of twentieth-century kinetic sculpture, whom Rickey met in New York in the 1930s.

In the early 1950s, Rickey began to make glass mobiles that he says were inspired by wind chimes he recalled from his childhood in Scotland. "I was very happy with these pieces, but one slip and the work was destroyed--the glass would break," Rickey remembers. At the time, he was teaching at Indiana University in Bloomington, which was conducting a postwar campus building campaign. Among the bits of construction debris readily available to those willing to pay for them were scraps of stainless steel. "My very first grant was to pay for a four-by-eight-foot sheet of stainless steel," Rickey says. The artist replaced the glass in his mobiles with the stainless steel and was well on his way to the classic work that has since brought him worldwide fame.

The Inkfish show includes several recent examples of Rickey's signature "blade" series. These are the well-known stainless-steel stabiles like "Two Lines Oblique Down III" of 1970, which has long stood in the sculpture garden of the Denver Art Museum. Works in the series feature thin, attenuated triangles attached to vertical, sometimes branching supports; the aerodynamic triangles move with the breeze. Only one large outdoor piece of this type is included in the Inkfish show: the fifteen-foot-tall "2 Lines Oblique Gyratory" of 1992. It's pure Rickey, with two long blades mounted on a pole. "Two Lines Leaning Parallel," from 1984, is similar but done in a tabletop size.

Among Rickey's other characteristic pieces are those in which the artist has performed gravity-defying feats of movement with rectangles mounted to a pole, the wall or the ceiling. The 1990 mobile "One Rectangle Hanging IV" is a stainless-steel panel that floats above viewers' heads roughly parallel to the floor. A common overheard response: "How'd he do that?"

Some other Rickey works of the last decade have a Rube Goldberg-like quality, contraptions such as the "Column of 6 Rotors" of 1991. But while Rickey has continued to create both his classic stabiles and these miniature gizmos right up to the present, it's his brightly painted new work that has di Suvero and everyone else raving.

A good example is "Three Squares Three Rectangles, Folded," a mobile from 1994. The ceiling-hung piece features a white painted wire frame adorned with a half-dozen stainless-steel squares and rectangles that have been folded to form triangles. The triangles are painted bright shades of orange, lavender-blue, aquamarine and chartreuse. A larger mobile expressing a similar idea is 1993's "Seven Rotors Hanging." In that work, small stainless-steel geometric shapes painted in a rainbow of colors spin from an elaborate wire frame.

The opportunity to see such a wide array of Rickey's creations is a compelling enough reason to make this exhibit a must-see. That it's also the last show Paul Hughes will mount in this wonderful space makes a visit to Inkfish an art-world obligation.

George Rickey: Recent Kinetic Sculptures, through May 31 at Inkfish Gallery, 949 Broadway, 825-6727.