Kinetic sculptures display at Chesterwood
Kinetic art Dimensions of Split Disc on Two Squares, 2013, stainless steel and painted aluminum, by Roger Phillips, part of “Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood,” underwritten by the Nancy Woodson Spire Foundation.
In 1978, Maxwell Davidson first met sculptor George Rickey at his studio in East Chatham, New York. Davidson had opened his New York gallery ten years before, and Rickey had shown worldwide from Osaka to Berlin.
That summer, Chesterwood, the historic house and studio of Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial, hosted its first contemporary sculpture show with regional artists and brought in two of Rickey’s works in glinting etched aluminum. At the time, the Berkshires and New York State were host to a core of kinetic sculptors—including Alexander Calder, David Smith, and Ellsworth Kelly—who relished old mills and cheap studio space where art and industry overlapped.
Those roots are still here, and some have struck shoots. This summer, in Rickey’s honor, Chesterwood and the Maxwell Davidson Gallery are working together for the first time. Maxwell and his son, Charles Davidson, have curated Chesterwood’s 40th anniversary contemporary summer show: a dozen works of kinetic sculpture in aluminum and steel by some of the best-known sculptors in the field. And several of them have Berkshire ties.
Pedro S. de Movellán, one of the best known kinetic sculptors in the world today, lives and works in West Stockbridge. His aluminum and steel loops in turquoise and lime swivel on machine-grade bearings on French’s lawn. “He makes everything himself,” Maxwell says. “He could build a car in his studio. I’ve never seen so many lathes.”
Son of an architect and an abstract painter, de Movellán started working in college, says Charles, who has co-written a book about him. De Movellán considered engineering, he says, but turned to art as a sophomore at UMass.
“No one else today makes sculpture in the range he does,” Charles says, noting de Movellán’s indoor work in wood and metal, abalone and mother-of-pearl. He is also a boat-builder and woodworker and has made furniture and learned clockwork mechanisms. His early work often used wood and magnets, but as he turned toward outdoor kinetic sculpture, he turned toward aluminum and steel.
Rickey, too, came to his artistic career and his East Chatham studio later in life with an engineering bent. His rectangles and trapezoids drift in a light breeze, turning at an angle to each other and drawing planes and cones in the air. He set them in what he called eccentric motion—they look as though they will collide, but they never do.
Matthew and Phoebe Bender, who live in the Albany area, have lent Rickey’s Rectangle and Square, Unfolding, Gyratory (1995) for the Chesterwood show. It has stood for years on their own lawn, revolving quietly through the seasons, the wild turkeys, and the snow. Phoebe remembers George looking at it and commenting, “You’re looking at the piece. I look at the shadow.”
Rickey’s first piece is near French’s garden. His second is below the studio, framing the mountains across the way.
Often the artists chose the sites, says Donna Hassler, director of Chesterwood. For those no longer living, she and Charles walked the grounds, talking over settings and the size of the works. They have kept the works close to the house and studio, in open spaces, where the breeze can move them.
Many of the works lift, spin, and rotate, but some are stabiles, balanced sculptures but not freely moving.
One of the most recognized sculptors in the show, Alexander Calder, has a stationary work—a mid-sized maquette (model) for Crossed Blades. Many of Calder’s outdoor pieces stay still, Charles says. His indoor works rely on a catenary system of overhead wires and pieces hanging from each other, a system that would not stand up to the outside elements.
Though Calder did not appear in the first Chesterwood show, he and Rickey knew each other’s work. Calder lived for a time in Richmond, where his parents had a house on Swamp Road. (The Berkshire Museum included Calder in a regional show in the 1930s and bought two of his early works in 1931, perhaps the first ever bought by a museum.)
The heritage of kinetic sculptors continues to be felt in the Berkshires. While David Smith was working in a factory in Schenectady and turning scrap metal into sculpture in his hayfield, Calder and Rickey and others were developing this new form, laying the groundwork for modern-day works. Their legacy stands amidst French’s studio and his marble busts—massive metal abstract shapes that are as heavy as anchors yet light enough to move at a touch.