The sculptures of David Roland Smith and George Rickey can be linked to a variety of art movements, from the innovative kinetic sculptures of the mid-20th century to the stark Minimalism of the 1960s, but the lineage of the two artists’ work clearly traces backward to the bold geometry, abstracted subjects and tactile forms of the Avant Garde in the early part of the century.
Out of the Heartland
Smith was born in Decatur, Indiana, in 1905, and he attended high school in Paulding, Ohio. He returned to Indiana in the 1920s, where he briefly attended the University of Notre Dame and worked on the assembly line of the Studebaker auto factory in South Bend.
His aspiration to be an artist drew him to New York, and there he studied under Jan Matulka, who had himself studied with Hans Hofmann. His connections brought Smith into close contact with the artists who were forging the artistic path that would soon become Abstract Expressionism—artists such as Arshile Gorky and Willem De Kooning—and at the same time, he studied the work of established Modernists such as Picasso, Kandinsky and the Russian Avant Garde.
As Smith developed his sculptural style, he applied his experience as a painter to his work, adopting an innovative way of looking at the process of making a sculpture. Rather than rely on molding and casting, the traditional methods of making a metal sculpture, Smith fabricated his sculptures from pieces of steel, welding the components together, building the sculpture bit by bit, the same way he’d create a painting on canvas.
Rickey, like Smith, was born in Indiana, but his father moved the family to Scotland when Rickey was a boy. After studying art in Paris, Rickey moved back to the United States, where he worked as an art teacher through the 1930s. He was primarily a painter during this period, and he didn’t begin to seriously pursue sculpture until the end of the 1940s. His early sculptures were much like the mobiles of Alexander Calder, free-floating assemblages designed to move with air currents.
Similarities and Differences
Smith and Rickey met in the 1930s, and Rickey credited Smith with introducing him to the idea of welding and fabricating metal sculpture. Both sculptors had similar interests in terms of material—their most well-known pieces are fabricated from brushed stainless steel—and both artists had an affinity for simple, unadorned geometric shapes.
Smith, however, with his deep connections to the New York art world, was immersed in the theories and philosophies of modern art. He incorporated the ideas of the Abstract Expressionists and Surrealists in his sculpture, and many of his pieces include symbolic references to nightmarish imagery.
Rickey, in contrast, was more concerned with elegant engineering than symbolic allusions, and his sculptures are a marriage of solid geometric forms and gentle movements. Rickey used his knowledge of materials and engineering to make sculptures that exhibit a surprising juxtaposition of graceful motion and heavy forms; they seem to dance in spite of themselves.