“It’s going to stop traffic.”
Even as Rupert Murdoch was negotiating the sale of the Hollywood empire he spent decades putting together to Disney, leaving his family with a smaller media barony under its control, he was recommitting to his place in the New York City landscape with the installation of an enormous, mysterious kinetic sculpture at his 1211 Avenue of the Americas headquarters. “Annular Eclipse” by George Rickey is a giant pair of wind-powered, stainless-steel circles, 35-feet high, and was installed earlier this month.
Here’s how it got there: Last October, Murdoch and his wife, Jerry Hall, travelled upstate to Columbia County. For Murdoch, it was, in his words, “a nostalgia trip.” He once had a weekend home in Old Chatham, one of the local pleasures of which was to drive over to East Chatham to visit his friend the sculptor Rickey, who died in 2002. In those days, the house, studio, and grounds of the Rickey estate were the site of more than 100 kinetic stainless-steel sculptures, sparkling and spinning in the wind. Murdoch and his former wife, Anna, acquired several Rickey sculptures to adorn their house and garden in Los Angeles. Now it was Hall’s turn to sift through the lot, though the pickings are slimmer today than they were back then. Just a few sculptures remain scattered around the Rickey estate, where two members of the remaining staff, Anne Undeland and Mark Pollock, showed the Murdochs around, with their driver and bodyguard following at a discreet distance behind them.
The intention of the visit was to add to their personal art collection, but Murdoch abruptly changed course when he caught sight of the largest sculpture on the property, Rickey’s last major work, many years in the making: “Annular Eclipse.” In a high field with a view of the Taconic Range in the distance, a pair of stainless-steel circles mounted on a post gently rocked with the breeze. In a strong wind, as demonstrated by Pollock with a stick, the circles could move 365 degrees, reaching a height of 25 feet off the ground. In its rural upstate setting in the midst of nature, the circles focused the view of the distant hills like an enormous lens. Murdoch thought it’d look great in front of his skyscraper, which is home to Fox News and The Wall Street Journal. “It’s going to stop traffic,” predicted Murdoch, gleefully.
Installing a large kinetic sculpture in a busy urban setting is no simple matter, however. These days, with storms intensified due to climate change, the work has to be proven to be able to survive up to 93 m.p.h. winds, for one thing. If it came loose and started rolling down Avenue of the Americas, it could do some serious damage to the Chick-fil-A down the block. As the permit process developed in the city, upstate, studio assistants dismounted the sculpture from its position in the field, took it apart, changed all the hardware and the ball bearings of the rotating arms, and wiped off the moss gathered over 18 years. Meanwhile, in Indiana, engineer Betsy Wilkinson designed a ten-foot plinth the circles would be mounted on to meet the demands of the urban setting, raising the sculpture 35 feet off the ground.
With permits in hand at last, a date was set for the install — Wednesday, December 6 (coincidentally the same day reports surfaced that Murdoch’s Bel-Air vineyard was scorched by wildfires, which also had been intensified by climate change). Work had to begin after 9 p.m., when traffic dies down and completed by 6 a.m. the following morning, when News Corp employees would begin to arrive for work.
Just before 9 p.m., three parties convened on the site of 1211 Avenue of the Americas at the corner of 48th Street. Leading the effort was the team assembled by the artist’s workshop, including the artist’s son, Philip Rickey, along with a crew of veteran studio assistants. Pedowitz Machinery Movers was there to greet them at the site with a 75-foot tractor-trailer truck carrying the sculpture in pieces, along with the heavy-lifting equipment — a four-wheel-drive forklift with extending boom, a scissor lift, a motorized light stand, 20 sheets of plywood to protect the stone paving of the plaza, three dozen packing blankets, and piles and piles of rope and rigging equipment. For the News Corp building, Benchmark Contractors brought in a number of men to oversee the project’s operation, the safety of the workers, and the sculpture. “This is an expensive item,” said Bob from Benchmark, referring to the sculpture. It would cost altogether over a $100,000 to install.
Once unloaded from the van, the two circles had to be assembled on the spot, resting on sawhorses, each using about 500 screws and nuts in the process. “Space them out, start loose,” instructed the sage Steve Day, who has installed Rickey’s sculptures for 50 years. With six handlers on the job, the first circle was assembled and tightened up in a little over an hour. With the steady hand of Anthony, the forklift driver, and direction from the ground crew, the post was lifted onto the plinth, positioned, and bolted down. The most challenging and hazardous part of the job was the lifting of the circle into position in the limited space of the plaza, aligning it with the rotating arm, and sliding it into place. By then, it was 3:30 a.m., with the second circle still to be assembled. The screws were not fitting in so easily on the second round — the holes needed to be “tapped,” the threads re-cut, the screws finally tightened down, “So that it’s all married,” explained Philip Rickey.
One city employee, “the bolt checker,” was standing by to inspect the work upon completion. The job took them nine hours, working straight through the freezing cold night, and was completed just under the wire at 6:01 a.m. with all the equipment cleared away. After a run for a few missing nuts on the plinth the next afternoon, two crew members checked the balance and movement of the circles, and the bolt inspector gave it the green light.
When all the distractions of the holiday season die down and the decorations have gone to bed for another year, “Annular Eclipse” will be there to surprise and astonish all who pass by — two gleaming stainless-steel circles moving silently and effortlessly with the wind, gently but firmly contradicting the vertical rise of the skyscraper behind it and the din of the city street.