‘The Art of Movement’ takes flight at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art
By now most visitors to the newly renovated Westmoreland Museum of American Art have noticed “Windframe,” the shimmering, wind-activated wall of stainless steel panels that hangs near the southwest corner of the building.
Installed in 2015, the 14-feet-by-7- feet commissioned piece was made possible by the Westmoreland Society, Katherine Mabis McKenna Foundation and the William Jamison Art Acquisition Fund.
It was created by Tim Prentice, 86, an architect-turned-sculptor from West Cornwall, Conn.
Now Prentice is the focus of a new exhibit, “The Art of Movement,” which opened June 10 at the museum. It features his work, as well as that of the late Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and George Rickey (1907-2002), both kinetic artists who were a major influence.
As visitors will see, all three use repetitive abstract patterns, work with balance and counterweights, use no mechanical or electrical operating parts and wait for the air to activate their work.
“In talking to Tim, he told me that Calder and Rickey were his heroes,” says Barbara L. Jones, The Westmoreland’s chief curator,
This in turn, led to the organization of the exhibit, which begins with the work of Calder, widely recognized as the inventor of the mobile, one of which — “Spring Blossoms” from 1965 — hangs at the entrance to the exhibit.
It’s on loan from the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University, and is being lent for the first time since its acquisition in 1965.
A pioneer of kinetic art in America, Calder was trained as a mechanical engineer before studying at the Art Students League in New York. Four colorful works on paper nearby reveal the artist’s thought process in the evolution of his three-dimensional pieces, demonstrating how he developed his artistic vocabulary.
Opposite Calder’s work is a grouping of pieces by George Rickey, who was influenced by Calder’s sculpture as well as Russian Constructivism.
He worked as a mechanical engineer in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and that experience laid the groundwork for his aesthetic and choice of geometry as a framework.
His first mobiles date from 1945 and he made his first kinetic works in glass in 1949, moving on to explore a variety of materials including stainless steel, wire and aluminum.
Pieces like “Unstable Cube VI” from 1971 not only reinforce Rickey’s masterful hand at creating balance and movement, but allude to the cold geometry of Russian Constructivism that so influenced him.
Then there is the work of Prentice, who is the first to admit his admiration of the other two artists.
“You get inspired by people like Calder and Rickey, who are giants and just intrigued me completely,” Prentice says. “And then, having been inspired, you have to spend the rest of your life getting out from under their shadow.”
As Jones puts it, “Prentice’s work grows out of the tradition of those artists, except that his work really diverges quite a bit from there.”
Definitely kinetic, like the work of Calder and Rickey, nearly all of the pieces on display are moved by the most subtle of breezes. But the similarities stop there. Look up, and one will see three of Prentice’s “Zingers” that move like anacondas in the air.
More grounded, wall-mounted “Orbitals” and “Spinners” are meant to make more subtle movements when turned or activated.
Prentice began his career as an architect in New York, leaving the field at age 43 to pursue his passion for sculpture. A passion that began when he was a teenager and saw his first Calder mobile at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass.
“It just freaked me out. It seemed to defy gravity,” Prentice says. “It’s almost too slick of a story, but I think that’s where the seed was planted.”
Like Calder, who famously created a miniature circus out of wire to entertain his avant garde-leaning friends, Prentice has created some whimsical works of his own, such as “Frog” (2017), which is a kinetic piece that was cut from a plastic milk jug, and “Homage to Chock Full o’ Nuts” (2009), another moveable work made from plastic scoopers found inside that brand’s cans.
“People bring me things,” says Prentice. “They had just collected them for some reason. They said, here, do something with this.”
Looking at the more complicated works, such as “Maquette,” “Down-Up,” “Square-Square” and “Big Louise” (all from 2016), which hang as a grouping near the main gallery window, visitors can see the maze of wires that support the thin sheets of Lexan that catch the breeze as people walk around and through them. It’s all very similar to the supports that back the stainless steel panels in “Windframe” on the exterior of the museum.
“It just takes a little bit of air to make them go,” Jones says. “As people move through here, it will make them go even more.
“It’s all very simple construction, but it’s all very planned out.”
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic.