STOCKBRIDGE — George Rickey was hailed in his 2002 obituary by the New York Times “as one of two major 20th-century artists to make movement a central interest in sculpture.”
The other artist, Alexander Calder, whose works Rickey encountered in the 1930s, was also from the Berkshires. Calder, who died in 1976, spent his youth in Richmond, where his father owned a home. Rickey would arrive later in life, in 1957, purchasing a house in East Chatham, N.Y., where he’d establish his studio, just 30 miles from the Stockbridge border. There, in the second career he came to later in life, he and a team of assistants would craft gigantic kinetic sculptures that can be found across the United States and internationally in 13 countries, including Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and South Korea. His work is included in the permanent collections of 150 museums.
Now, beginning with the annual Daffodil and Tulip Festival on Friday, April 22, “ViewEscapes,” one of the largest retrospectives of Rickey’s work in the Northeast in 40 years — 12 large-scale sculptures, along with six smaller sculptures and three paintings — is on display at Naumkeag. The solo exhibition, curated by Mark Wilson, associate curator for The Trustees of Reservations, is on view through Nov. 1.
“Naumkeag really is a very ideal place for this type of exhibit,” said Brian Cruey, director of The Trustee’s Southern Berkshire properties. “It’s going to be the biggest art exhibit we’ve ever had. It’s something new for us, something that I think is going to really work well in this garden.”
“ViewEscapes” explores Rickey’s life, design process and artistic intent, highlighting works spanning from the 1950s as Rickey was gaining prominence and up to the 1990s at the end of his long and prolific career. The show follows a national exhibition of Rickey’s large-scale sculptures currently on display along Park Avenue and The High Line in New York City through April 2022.
“It all started out kind of modestly, about a year ago. We were thinking, maybe six or seven pieces,” Wilson said, speaking of how the show grew to 23 pieces that span the length of the artist’s career, from the 1950s to 2002. “We’re working with the George Rickey Foundation and the George Rickey Estate, which have been so helpful. And because they’re so close and they have these pieces available, we were able to expand the show to include more pieces, including artwork in the house.”
And while there are 12 outdoor sculptures — all of which have movement as part of their design — on display, Wilson said the experience is not overwhelming due to Naumkeag’s garden design.
“Fletcher Steele created these outdoor garden rooms. The pieces are somewhat separated; you can see them, see them interact with the landscape; see them interact with the house,” Wilson said.
Cruey added, “Naumkeag itself is a garden of many mini garden rooms and discovery. These pieces are placed in a way that it still really embodies that feeling. You walk through the garden and you really come upon these pieces, discover them in a way that you don’t see it all at once. You’re kind of led from one place to the next and you find these pieces just kind of framed in the landscape.”
The consistent breeze along the hilltop on which Naumkeag sits allows for the sculptures to remain in almost constant motion, he said. Each of the large-scale sculptures has been placed in a way that complements the landscape and architecture nearby, the shapes of the sculptures mimicking the shapes of the view or building nearby.
The smaller works, miniatures Rickey created as reference for his works, many of which have three to five variations, are displayed similarly within Naumkeag, the historic Gilded Age cottage of the Choate family. The 44-room house served as the summer home of diplomat Joseph Choate and his wife, Caroline Dutcher Sterling Choate, and later, their daughter, Mable Choate, who improved upon the 48-acre estates gardens and later left the property in the care of The Trustees.
“We’ve been limited to only having the first floor of the house open these last two years because of COVID-19. With this show, we’re reopening the house in a way that we haven’t been able to for some time. We’re reopening the second floor with new interpretations and a new self-guided tour,” Cruey said. “We’ve been open the whole time, during the pandemic, but we had to scale so many things back. We tried to find a way and make it work. We’re happy to be able to welcome people back into the house.”
Events around the exhibition, including a talk in the fall by Belinda Rathbone, author of “George Rickey: A Life in Balance,” as well as interactive and kid-friendly activities, will be announced in the coming weeks.
“I think one of the things that is going to make this show so unique is the length of time that it will be up,” Cruey said. “What you see in the spring is going to be very different from what you see in the summer, what you see in the fall. What we’ve planted will grow in and change, but so will the environment around us. Much like our different programming and things that we do in the gardens, this is a chance to come back and see it fresh.”
“George Rickey is one of those artists that probably everyone knows his work, without knowing it’s his work,” he said.
Throughout his career as a sculptor, Rickey created over 3,000 works, Wilson said, noting that many of the pieces in “ViewEscapes,” are unique pieces, ones that were kept at his East Chatham studio.
Rickey’s work was last seen at Naumkeag in 1994, when two pieces were included in the show “Sculpture at Naumkeag: A Celebration of Great American Sculpture” and in 1997’s “Sculpture at Naumkeag.” His work has also been displayed at Chesterwood on numerous occasions, including two pieces, Open Trapezoids Excentric One Up One Down Variation V, and Rectangle and Square, Unfolding and Gyratroy, in 2018’s “Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood: 40 YRS.” Rickey’s Double L Excentric Gyratory II (1981), can be seen outside of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, on the Williams College campus in Williamstown. Eight Lines III (Sketch for Twenty Four Lines) (1963), on permanent loan from Williams College, can be seen at Field Farm, another Trustee’s property in Williamstown.
Funding for this exhibition has been provided by a challenge grant from Kate and Hans Morris, which raised additional support from the Claudia K. Perles Family Foundation, Joseph McNay and Paula Moats McNay, Luca Borghese and Michael Pierson, Mr. Randolph G. Hawthorne and Ms. Carliss Y. Baldwin, Mr. Stephen Oristaglio and Mrs. Jeryl Oristaglio, and Douglas Molin and Melanie Mowinski.