WASHINGTON, D.C. — One of the world’s greatest metalsmiths, Albert Paley continues to push the boundaries of what is thought to be possible with bronze, iron and steel. Over the course of a remarkable five-decade career that began with jewelry making, Paley (b 1944) has completed more than 50 large-scale sculptural projects that have earned him a unique niche in the art world.
From monumental sculptures, including colossal entry gates, to small-scale domestic lamps, door furniture and tables, his work offers a decorative richness that contrasts with the corporate and institutional blandness of much contemporary sculpture and architecture. (He is the first metal sculptor to receive, in 1995, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Institute of Architects. More recently, he shared with Modern art-furniture pioneer Wendell Castle — famed for his iconic, trompe l’oeil sculpture “Ghost Clock” in the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery — the first Visionary Award of the Smithsonian Craft Show.)
Paley’s trailblazing career is the subject of a welcome retrospective, “American Metal: The Art of Albert Paley,” on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through September 28. Curated by Eric Turner, curator of metalwork, silver and jewelry at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the exhibition showcases around 75 objects in a variety of media, including paper, cardboard, wood, steel, bronze and glass.
“Albert Paley, in every step of his career, has challenged, upended and redefined the role of craft, ornament and fine art in modern, urban life,” observes Turner. “He has not only established a valid, contemporary ironwork aesthetic, but, with his more recent site-specific sculptures, has humanized the harshness of urban environments.”
“My work,” says Paley, “deals with vitality and the life force.”
Born in Philadelphia, Paley studied at the city’s Tyler School of Art, majoring in sculpture with a minor in metalwork. After graduation, he started a successful career as a goldsmith, working also with silver and gemstones, and creating finely crafted bracelets, brooches, necklaces and pendants. Embracing tenets of The New Jewelry movement, he sought to design pieces that worked with the wearer’s body and conveyed a message or meaning.
From time to time Paley continues to create smaller metal pieces, albeit larger and weightier than his original objects, such as the imposing “Pendant” of 1973, which features intricate, interlocking forms made of silver, copper, 14K gold and pearls culminating in a graceful V-like shape. He has also made candleholders, tables and plant stands, like a 1984 version featuring sinuous, twisting tendrils supporting the top. Whether working small or large, Paley “calibrates complexity with extraordinary finesse,” in the words of art critic Carter Ratcliff. “He wants to challenge the imagination as vigorously as he can without overwhelming it.”
In 1969, Paley moved to Rochester, N.Y., to teach at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Today he holds the Charlotte Fredericks Mowris Professorship in Contemporary Crafts at RIT’s School of American Crafts, College of Imaging Arts and Sciences.
Paley’s breakthrough to becoming a sculptor came in 1972 when he won a competition to design a pair of gates for the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian’s repository of craft and decorative arts. It was the original home of the Corcoran Gallery before it moved a few blocks away.
Drawing heavily on his jewelry experience, Paley’s Portal Gates, a massive 6 feet high and more than 7 feet wide composition of steel, bronze, brass and copper, is a masterful blend of swirling curves and tendrils. Paley has said that in designing the Renwick gates, he had “exchanged the contrasting surfaces and colors of silver and gold in my jewelry for those of blackened iron and polished bronze.” As Ratcliff observed, “Paley charged inert matter with intimations of motion, an organic energy as elegant as it is insistent.” Having demonstrated his mastery of a complex vocabulary on a large scale, this first engagement with architecture launched him on a course for numerous other large-scale commissions.
Whereas the Portal Gates are resolutely symmetrical, later Paley projects, like the Portal Gate for the Good Shepherd Chapel in Washington National Cathedral, 2007, adapt the asymmetry of his earlier jewelry. It consists of a jumble of sinuous, twisting totems that complement extensive ironwork around the Cathedral by distinguished early Twentieth Century blacksmith Samuel Yellin.
Other important gate commissions include those for the New York State Senate Chambers in Albany (13 feet high and blending with the building’s mix of Renaissance and Romanesque architecture); Victoria and Albert Museum in London (Turner: “A virtuoso demonstration of Paley’s bravura style and craftsmanship.”); Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, Florida (a complex series of flat patterns welded together at the building’s entrance and lit from behind at night to dramatic effect), and Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Tennessee (an appealing jumble of vertical tendrils overlaid with strips of metal). Each has its own personality suited for its site.
A particularly flamboyant sculpture, “Sentinel,” designed for a new pedestrian plaza at Rochester Institute of Technology, where Paley teaches, is 73 feet tall and has undulating stainless steel strips setting off bronze forms. Its open base has become a gathering place and ceremonial area. Comparisons to a missile launching pad are inevitable.
Paley is known for the bright colors of his works, which often resemble the saturated palette of 1960s Pop artists. An example is “Threshold,” a brilliant yellow sculpture designed to enhance the new corporate headquarters of Klein Steel company in Rochester. Symbolizing the steel industry and the company’s growth, the sculpture uses products distributed by the company — beams, pipes, square tubing and varied structural steel elements — in a magnificent, eye-popping combination.
Paley’s first venture into figurative imagery, “Animals Always,” is a sprawling, 130-foot-long ceremonial archway for the St Louis Zoo. Forged from Corten Steel, it shelters independent sculptures of animals that are sighted by visitors passing through. Turner notes, “The dragon details on the fence around New York City’s Dakota Apartments…1884, have an obvious relationship with Paley’s figurative animals” in the St Louis Zoo archway.
Turner could well have had in mind “Animals Always” in discussing Paley’s efforts to adapt large-scale sculpture to its specific environment, when he underscores the sculptor’s “pushing the language of modern metal into a new terrain.”
Quite different are two “Kirins” — Asian dragons — commissioned by MGM Grand to flank the main entrance of the Aria Casino in Las Vegas. The kirins — bristling, scary-looking celestial deities made of Corten Steel — are supposed to bring good luck.
Similarly, “The Beckoning” is sited at the main entrance to a new development just outside Washington, National Harbor, a conference center and marina on the Potomac River. Designed to help define and set the ambience of the ambitious project, the 100-foot-tall, polychromed mélange of shards of metal — blue, purple, red, yellow — dominates the landscape, and is even more striking when lit at night. Paley also created two soaring eagles set on pylons high above the development’s central pedestrian plaza.
Also symbolizing and setting the tone for visitors is “Hallelujah,” a nearly 70-foot-tall sculpture set at the entrance to a cultural complex, the Clay Center in Charleston, W.Va. A bold amalgamation of stainless steel scrolls and bronze, it suggests the vitality and diversity of the arts and culture in the Mountaineer State.
Many of Paley’s large works call to mind the sinuous complexity of Art Nouveau. Curator Turner observes, “Metal worked by Paley appears as supple as cloth, as fluid as a calligraphic line drawn lightly with a brush or as malleable as a potter’s clay.” Overall, as Turner observes, the “principles… underlying Paley’s aesthetic” are a “seamless synthesis of the fine arts, craft and design….”
Thus far in his remarkable half-century career Paley has dramatically demonstrated the value of ornamentation growing out of world-class craftsmanship. As Turner puts it, “Ornamentation supplies a basic human need, whether at a personal level, in the form of a piece of jewelry; at a domestic level, such as a table; or at the urban level, such as freestanding sculptures in public spaces. Albert Paley is an artist who has magnificently managed to meet and supply that need.”
Today, Paley continues to work in several spacious studios in Rochester. Not one to rest on his laurels, he is always seeking the next challenge to his metalsmithing genius. It will be interesting to see what lies ahead for this special artist who continues to believe in the power of natural forms to humanize the stark architecture that too often surrounds us.
The 80-page, illustrated exhibition catalog contains thoughtful essays by former Corcoran director and president Paul Greenhalgh and Turner. Published by the Corcoran, it sells for $40.
The Corcoran is at 500 Seventeenth Street NW. For information, www.corcoran.org or 202-639-1700.