Poetry in Motion
“I try to keep my mind on movement itself…” — kinetic sculptor George Rickey
By Stuart Mitchner
Right now Princeton is a work in progress. From Avalon Bay to Arts and Transit, it’s an architectural fair—cynics might call it “architecture gone wild.” Whatever you think of it, transformation is the theme, at least until the buildings are standing, the design realized, manifested, ready to be inhabited and enjoyed and one day put between the covers of a book like Robert Spencer Barnett’s Princeton University and Neighboring Institutions (Princeton Architectural Press 2015). In his introduction, University Architect Ron McCoy refers to “traces of the past and aspirations for the future” and the “current generation of architects, landscape architects and planners … reimagining the character of the campus at its edges and transforming parts in between.” Behind these transformations, he writes, “is a sense of place that defines Princeton.”
Having lived in Princeton for the better part of 40 years, I feel at home in Barnett’s brilliantly illustrated book with its four landscape walks and 13 architectural walks, and I’m pretty sure that my sense of Princeton is strong enough to accomodate the brave new world taking shape between Princeton Ridge and U.S. 1. Looking through several other new books related to architecture and design, however, I find it hard to imagine maintaining a comfortable “sense of place” in even the most aesthetically pleasing habitats and interiors, for example some of the more striking ones pictured in Philip Jodidio’s The Japanese House Revealed (The Monacelli Press $60). While it’s possible to appreciate in practical useful everyday terms a property defined by the architect or designer’s aesthetic, it’s something else again to actually live in a place that, to put it crudely, cries “Admire me, I’m a work of art!”
When I was 13 my parents and I stayed at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill’s Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, said to be the first International Style Modern hotel in America, with murals by Joan Miró and Saul Steinberg, and a mobile in the lobby by Alexander Calder. If I felt pleasantly at home in that futuristic, art for art’s sake setting, it was probably because of the Calder. I had a working relationship with mobiles, thanks to my part-time job packaging assemble-it-yourself mobile kits (under the brand name Mobikit II) for a family friend, the kinetic sculptor George Rickey (1907-2002), the first “real artist” I ever knew, an affable, down-to-earth man whose interest in sculpture had been kindled by his experience as an Army Air Corps engineer during World War II servicing the instruments used in B-29 bombers. Rickey on Campus George Rickey’s sculpture, Two Planes Vertical Horizontal II, has been a unique presence on the Princeton campus since 1970. According to artmuseum.princeton edu, the piece “holds the distinction of being the only kinetic outdoor work in the collection. The two squares can turn 360 degrees on a horizontal axis and the whole assembly can rotate fully around its vertical axis with the help of a strong breeze.”
In that sense, Rickey’s piece of stainless steel architecture will always be “in progress,” a celebration of movement, sometimes flashing its burnished stainless steel semaphores at the chapel, sometimes at Firestone Library. At a 1985 retrospective, Rickey recalled a childhood moment of truth wherein he noticed the way the window latches in his home operated at counter-intuitive angles that were oblique to the “apparent” design of the otherwise rectilinear form of the latch. “One expects the latch to open by pulling,” said Rickey, “but it’s a conical crank, you see.” The same conical, oblique design shows up in many of his works, where the axes of motion give unexpected movement to rectilinear forms.
The most recent introduction to the art of George Rickey is Maxwell Davidson’s George Rickey: The Early Works (Schiffer $79.95), which contains over 380 color and black and white photos of the indoor sculptures from the first 25 years of his output. All it takes is one look at the cover of The Early Works, with its example of what the Mobile Factory website calls his “exquisitely delicate, colorful and playful” carousel series, and I’m back in the Rickey dining room filling mailing tubes on the Mobikit assembly line. Living in Style Two new books offering unusual approaches to the architectural/design aesthetic are Domestic Scenes: The Art of Ramiro Gomez by Lawrence Weschler (Abrams $35), to be published in April, and the amusing, newly published Dogs and Chairs: Designer Pairs by Christina Amodeo (Thames and Hudson $14.95). For Gomez, the child of undocumented Mexican immigrant parents, art is the great equalizer, a way of democratizing stereotypes of domestic affluence by peopling them with the Latino nannies, gardeners, housecleaners who are customarily left out of the picture. Gomez performs a benign subversion of wealthy white domestic status quo through pastiches of David Hockney paintings, glossy magazine ads, or the planting of painted cardboard cutouts of “the other” on the property they serve.
According to author Dave Eggers, “Ramiro Gomez’s body of work is absolutely essential in documenting our era, and Lawrence Weschler, wide-eyed and astute as ever, brings us closer to the artist, illuminating the context—the art world and the real world—upon which Gomez so brilliantly comments.” Artist Fred Tomaselli calls it “a gorgeous book that illuminates the networks of hygiene, immigration, class and race lying just outside the picture plane: proof that great artists can change the way we see the world, and great writers can change the way we see art.”
The idea for Dogs and Chairs, which InStyle finds “totally adorable,” apparently comes from the observation that certain dogs have a way of blending in with or reflecting certain artfully fashioned pieces of furniture, leading a graphic artist like Amodeo to improvise on the similarities between, say, Le Corbusier’s LC4 and a Spanish Greyhound, or Philippe Starck’s Costes Chair and a Fox Terrier. Did Arne Jacobsen have a Welsh Corgi in mind when he designed his Grand Prix Chair? Was a Scottish Deerhound the inspiration for Ron Arad’s Victoria and Albert Sofa? A designer and illustrator based in Milan, Cristina Amodeo, is the co-author and illustrator of the children’s books Toujours avec moi and Matisse’s Garden.
Princeton University Press has just published Neil Levine’s The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright ($65), which counters the conventional view of Wright as an architect who deplored the city, and Despina Stratigakos’s Where Are the Women Architects? ($19.95), an examination of the past, current, and potential future roles of women in the profession. Early Rickey When I typed in “george rickey mobile kits” I was treated to a minute and a half online video showing the actual mailing tube, the wire, the plastic vanes, the tiddley-wink-like red/green/yellow/blue pieces I used to assemble for customers who saw the ad in The New Yorker.
Apparently you can still buy the kits through www.skiddo.com/georgerickey.
For George Rickey the work was always in progress: “I tried to keep my mind on movement itself, pushing gently on to try to find what was possible and discovering, with each new idea, how near the beginning I still was.”