by Emily M. Orr, Associate Curator and Acting Head, Product Design and Decorative Arts

The American artist George Rickey (1907-2002) made his reputation with monumental yet minimalist masterpieces of kinetic sculpture that enliven outdoor spaces around the world, most recently New York City’s Park Avenue. Rickey created energetic spirals, “space churns” (fig. 1), clusters of attenuated lines, “rotors,” and a dynamic array of other geometric compositions in metal, animated by light and wind.  Parallel to this body of largescale work and in the same vocabulary of forms, Rickey also made jewelry. The artist produced his first “space churn” a constellation of spinning rings and rotating shapes, in 1956, the very year of his hairpin by the same name (fig. 2). These wearable pieces of sculpture were heartfelt gifts for his second wife Edith (Edie) Leighton, presented on holidays and anniversaries. Tall and elegant, Edie wore the pieces with pride and vivacity (fig. 3). Seventeen of these captivating hairpins, earrings, stickpins, and brooches by George Rickey have recently joined Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collection as donations by her sons Philip and Stuart, fulfilling Edie’s late wish. 

Two men stand on either side of a sculpture of concentric metal circles in what looks like an artist studio with worktables and tools.

Figure 1: Fabrication of Space Churn Steel, Berlin, 1968. © George Rickey Foundation, Inc.

As Philip has recalled, “…each brooch, pair of earrings, and hairpin was made by my father with love and with acknowledgement of just how vital a role my mother had in both his life and work.” In Edie, George found a mutual lover of art, a keen businesswoman, a dedicated mother, a talented gardener and cook, and a supporter, manager, and model for his sculptural practice. In 1964 on the occasion of George’s solo exhibition, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston arranged for Edie to share the spotlight with the press, reporting that “The most efficient and elaborate IBM machine has nothing on ‘Edie’ Rickey when it comes to smoothing out the many-faceted life of her artist-husband, George Rickey, painter, sculptor, teacher, lecturer and writer, all rolled into one enormously important person in contemporary art.”  


Edie also actively cultivated relationships with museums, furthering her own interests as a collector of fine art, jewelry, decorative arts, and fashion. In 1980, Edie corresponded with Dorothy Globus, Cooper Hewitt’s then Director of Exhibitions, to arrange for a loan of combs from her diverse collection, as well as “hair ornaments,” made by George, including the Space Churn hairpin. These objects were slated for the upcoming Hair exhibition at the museum that summer. The return of this unique collection of Rickey jewelry to Cooper Hewitt affords renewed opportunities to highlight Edie’s profound influence on the career of her artist husband. Please be on the lookout for an announcement of a forthcoming members’ program a conversation between Philip Rickey and curator Emily M. Orr to celebrate this outstanding recent acquisition.  

Featured Image: Angelo Testa, Textile Design The Dance, 1950s. Pen and black ink on paper

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