His works aren't grand or grandiose, but rational and austere. And he isn't really old (at 71 he seems 10 years younger), but in the Movement Movement, as it is sometimes called, George Rickey is regarded - now that Calder is dead - as the grand old man of kinetic art.
All his sculptures move, though none of them use motors. They instead rely on roller bearings, counter-weights, pivot points, and wind - most of all on wind - which, as sailors know (and Rickey was a sailor once) is a sometime friend.
When the wind is mild, as it was here Wednesday, it moves Rickey's balanced steel blades in eye-delighting arcs. But when the wind is meanest, it is no friend at all.
Last spring, for example, a storm that went rampaging through the Hirshhorn Museum's sculpture court took one of Rickey's steel blades and snapped it in two.
The blade - a hollow, tapered spar, triangular in section, and 33-feet long - is one of three that swing on the bright red Rickey sculpture that moves above the Mall.
The word "sculpture," which suggests the massive and the carved, is not a word that nicely fits Rickey's "Three Red Lines." His work, instead, resembles a minuet of pendulums, a line drawing in space, or a trio of red scissors slicing at the sky.
Although the work was damaged (one blade broken, one blade bent), it was not completely ruined. Rickey likes to tinker. (His grandfather was a clockmaker, his father an engineer.) So he took the pieces home to his rural New York studio, rebuilt them, reinforced them, and redesigned their bearings. Wednesday George Rickey installed them once again.
"Three Red Lines" rebuilt is as good as new, or better. He has improved its shock absorbers (they used to be hydraulic, now he uses rubber), he has changed the roller bearings (they used to be inside the blades, now they are outside them), and his work has been given a new coat of paint.
"Three Red Lines" is dated 1966. "When it was first seen, at the Corcoran, the blades pivoted on knife-edges. Then I added bearings, and changed the counterweights. I've fed new technology into it two or three times," said Rickey. "This is the revised, authorized version. Let's see if it behaves."
This is the ugly duckling stage," he said, as the first of the three blades was winched into place. "Art never improves; it only unfolds," he added, as the second was bolted down.
Though Rickey was born in South Bend, he grew up in Glasgow. Engaging and avuncular, he still has a slight burr. He was trained as a historian, at Balliol College, Oxford, and he taught for three years at Groton. Though when he was young he sailed on the Clyde and through the Sound of Mull, and though when he was younger he was given an erector set, it was not until George Rickey was 37 that he began to make the kinetic sculptures that made his name in art.
Rickey has since had hundreds of art students. He has taught at Kalamazoo and Muhlenberg, Santa Barbara and Tulane. Also he is the author of "Constructivisim: Origin and Evolution," an early, standard text. In it Rickey writes "this book cannot be taken as a manifesto of the author's esthetic position; he writes here about what he sees, not about what he does." He is more revealing when he speaks of movement.
"For the kinetic artist," Rickey writes, "nature is sourcebook, example, competitor, analogy, tyrant, seducer, and also inexorable adversary . . . The 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." Rickey has long been a kind of uncle figure for young kinetic artists. By the scores they have paid visits to his studio in East Chatham, N.Y., "where deer nibble at my vegetables and the wind whips through the trees."
The Calders at the Hirshhorn have the look of witty toys. The new Di Suvero nearby, heavy, over-huge, intimidates its site. In such kinetic company Rickey's "Three Red Lines" seem straightforward and refined.
"It has no social function. It has no esthetic function. It has no echo or associative function," Rickey said. "It is just one more demonstration of what was possible."
The third blade had been bolted down. The three of them were moving now, their tips describing arcs. "It is behaving nicely now," he said.