Rickey began his artistic life as a painter, training at the Ruskin School and the Academie L’Hote in Paris. His paintings, such as Kitchen Chair (1945), show that he appears to have internalized one of Cezanne’s central tenets---that color is constructive and models form, rather than capturing a fleeting moment of light. Both in his paintings and later in his sculptures, Rickey used color to create mass and define form.
In his earliest sculptures, there is a direct link to the work of Alexander Calder. While art historians rightly group Rickey and Calder together because of their use of movement, it is their use of a similar palette of bright, vibrant colors that more strikingly illustrates their connection [See Rickey’s U.N. II (1954) and Seesaw and Carousel (1950)]. The fields of flat color defined and accentuated the forms, setting them apart from the air around them to create a clear, direct way for the viewer to trace their movement.
While Calder continued “painting with shapes,” Rickey moved away from the direct use of color in much of his work, focusing on creating the burnished stainless steel surfaces for which he is known. In his reflective stainless steel, Rickey sought to capture the colors found around the sculpture and, in doing so, gave mass to movement by simultaneously integrating his works into and setting them apart from their surroundings. [See Four Open Squares Horizontal Gyratory (1983) and Annular Eclipse Sixteen Feet I (1998)] Adopting this methodology allowed Rickey an ever-varying palette and removed him from the confines inherent to single planes of flat color.
Although Rickey used stainless steel and incidental color in most of his major works, he did continue to both paint and to use paint on sculptures. Although he still used many of the same bright colors as he had in the 1950s, the application of the paint on the sculptures became less flat and solid.
Instead, Rickey returned to the techniques he had learned in Paris over seventy years before. He painted on his small sculptures as if they were canvases, using color to model and construct form, still guided by Cezanne. [See Love of Two Oranges].