Albert Paley

17 Minute Read

An exhibit of this new work was mounted last spring at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts, comprising 20 sculptures executed from 1989 through 1991, along with sketchbooks, maquettes and installation photographs. Together with a concurrent exhibit of tables, lecterns and plant stands at the Snyderman Gallery, Philadelphia, this exhibit provided a venue to measure the success of Paley's new "non-functional" designs.

Albert Paley
Aurora, forged, fabricated mild steel, polychromed, 1990. Photo: David Diaz Guerrero. Courtesy: Fendrick Gallery, Washington, DC

Although Joseph Giovannini in the U. of A. catalog essay states that Paley's functionalism has receded in these new sculptures, they can be seen as an extension of his earlier architectural commissions. When Paley was making functional objects, he had certain constraints, i.e., gates had to fit doorways and be architecturally compatible, tables has to be flat and the right height to put objects on. With sculpture, these guidelines are nonexistent or ambiguous, to say the least.

With the pylons for the Wortham Theater Center for the Performing Arts in Houston (1987), Paley still had architectural scale to contend with, determined by viewers entering and/or navigating the space of the center. The sculptures, on site, are not as nonfunctional as they appear in photographs. Paley's pylons are, in effect, jewelry for the architecture, dressing up the locale with sparkle and a faux orientation.

The visual focus of the interior is provided by Paley's decorative sight lines. The tiered complex of the Wortham pylons expressively supports the visual axis of the escalator. Ascending the stair, the four pairs increase progressively in size and movement, making a metaphoric transition from the "quotidian external world into the magical world of performing art." They contribute to the mise-en-scene but are not fundamental to its direction, which remains the power of architecture. They are more like signage, beckoning, welcoming the audience. Without them, however, the space would not flow differently; the audience would still ascend the stair and enter the doorway as the path of least resistance.

In Paley's earlier functional work, the repetition of vegetal forms, neo-Art Nouveau arabesques, built up triumphant syngergistic rhythms. The whole was greater than the sum of the components. In this, he was probably influenced by his mentor Stanley Lechtzin at Tyler School of Art and by the concurrent revival of interest in 19th-century Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements. These early works evolved as a result of usage, functioning as gates or jewelry. Jewelry usually does not violate the physical integrity of the body, i.e., a brooch does not pierce the chest wall, a ring retains a smooth interior surface as it surrounds the finger. Jewelry radiates from the foundation of the body outwards; it is planar relief. A gate or fence also delineates a plane, a territorial limit, sanctuary from frontier. A fence outlines space, defining property by its height and length. It does not consumer space as fully volumetric constructions do; it segments it, partitioning it in a formalized sequence. Paley's functional sculptures often derived from this type of operational structure, compositionally around an axis in one plane. For example, in the Renwick Gallery gates, the central vertical division of the gate-opening is over-emphasizing by parallel ridges that unfold bilaterally like fronds. For all their seeming complexity, the "Art Nouveau" Paleys are compositionally repetitive, building up diversity by units across the surface. Paley's new sculptures, moreover, are compositionally more Baroque, with haywire, daring compositions. They tease the eye to follow strong verticals, then fan out.

Olympia, formed and fabricated steel, polychromed, 1990. Photo: John Dale. Courtesy: Fendrick Gallery, Washington, DC

At their best, Paley's new sculptures could be characterized as organic cubism. He seems to be striving for a recombinant mixture of New Free Style decoration and David Smith. The tops of Paley's sculptures give way to the decorative impulse. Synergy (a.k.a., Ceremonial Archway, 1987) and the Wortham stairway sculptures end in a kind of finial, fascia or flower bud. In Aurora (1990), this blossom has unfolded into an array of flattened plates, literally radiant as dawn. Beneath Aurora's plumage are stalklike forms that spread like the papyrus columns of Egypt. In Sculpture VI (1989), this flower erupts organically from a stalk complete with tendrils. These metal flowers are subliminally reassuring and peaceful, like plowshares forged from swords. They also provide Paley with a sophisticated solution to capping the stolid constructions of vertical stalks. More mechanical inorganic plates top Olympia (1990), Hector (1990) and Moment (1991). In Composition 1 (1991) and Diagonal (1991), smooth vertical stock is bent down, pulling the viewer's focus back to the center of the composition. Diagonal's polished limblike forms remind one of abstract figure by Noguchi or Fritz Wotruba.

The most insistent characteristic of the sculptures are the banners. Paley's earlier tendrils forms are flattened into a planar ribbon, often unfurled in bilateral symmetry but with-out the obsessive mirroring of the Renwich gates. The issue with these lateral banners is their specificity. Paley refers to them as trompe l'oeil, and they do briefly suspend belief of their material mass. One see them, however, as pretext, mere representational accents, at odds with the rest of the formal and austere work. In the case of the Wortham Center, the ribbons deck the stairway in a celebratory and festive way. This is relevant for a theater, but what happens when it's outside an apartment complex (Synergy, 1987, Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority) or the Birmingham Museum of Fine Arts? How do these banners function in Olympia (1990) outside the AT&T building in Atlanta?

Even more germane is the question of the banners' originality. Initially, the Wortham project was to have involved palm-shaped lanterns, knockoffs of designs for the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, England. When the architecture was modified, Paley arrived at the present solution, ribbons that are often defined by the adjective "festive." That same approbation is used to describe a major work of Post-Modernist architecture sui generis, Michael Graves's Portland Building (1980), whose lateral facades are appliquéd with flat, draped garlands. "Originally Graves's garlands were to be free-floating 3-dimensional ribbons." Since Paley attributes his influence as Greco-Roman, and Graves has similar affinities, is this a case of cultural convergence? If, to follow this logic, Paley now considers himself a Post-Modernist, it is an odd restrictive interpretation of the term based on the assumption that PoMo involves mere decoration. If Modernism is misunderstood as progressive reductivism to a personal artistic essence, then Post-Modernism involves the hybridization of diversified sources of cultural pattern as oriented by the audience in tandem with the artists. Post-Modernism can be considered the condition of the post-Industrial age; therefore Post-Modern blacksmithing is probably a contradiction in terms. Post-Modernism is a pastiche, an impure blurring of forms and formats "displaying an acute self-consciousness about the work's constructed nature." Post-Modernism questions the authority of the Author, the internal originality of genius, of creativity emerging from one individual. Memphis designers, for example, combined lowly patterned Formica with high art marbles, Italianate classicism and the zap of Minnie Mouse. Compared to these cross dressers, Paley merely meanders in style.

Governor's Arts Award, forged and fabricated steel/brass, 18"h x 4"d, 1986

Although Paley's new sculptures are the most mannerist of his career, they still situate themselves squarely within mainstream Modernist sculpture concerns, Paley's sculptures are additive, aligned along a vertical, priapic axis and built upon integrated bases. They deviate and challenge the welded steel tradition of sculpture on several counts. First, the lineage from Julio Gonzalez to the Bennington School of the 1960s relied on speed of technique and the implied direct automatism of found materials derived from Cubism and assemblage. Paley uses welded assembly, but because he fabricates his individual components, speed becomes a factor not of welding but of staff time.

Second, welded sculpture customarily dealt with drawing in space. Instead of investigating line and drawing open, pictorial compositions, Paley keeps his sculptures surprisingly tight, creating solid volumes from individual units. There are few openings in Paley's monoliths that would allow for the environment, the chaos of the void. Line is determined by the edges and the outline of the component themselves. Paley manipulates the steel but rarely uses its tensile strength. In a perverse reversal of welding's norm, Paley's sculptures deal with mass by accretion, mass by collective detail, relinquishing the strength of metal's line for its solidity.
Third, Paley's sculptures deal with the issues of ornamentalism in a new way. David Smith, whose name is virtually synonymous with modern welded sculpture, ground the sides of his Cubi series and earlier scumbled their painted surface; in these were residual traces of Abstract Expressionist handwriting. Paley, on the other hand, often tortures and tests the limit not just of the skins but of the entire body of the steel stock. The striations and ridges (twisted into being with a modified elevator motor) are in effect the decoration. Process and procedure create a surrogate for design. It is a continuation of Paley's involvement in the "ornamental surface-movement" of Art Nouveau. By controlling the speed of twist, Paley varies surface effect from tight, clotted convolutions to half-inch grooves that spiral, then unravel in whorls. In Moment (1991), a small threaded ovoid sits on an elevated platform, like a seed pod in a naturalist's collection table. In Sculpture VI (1989), the surface of a wide erect plane is covered in ripples that are reminiscent of Bryan Hunt's waterfalls; it seems that Paley has fused the surface of the steel with the action of a torch.

Scultpure Group I, II, IV, fabricated corten steel, black patina, 8' h, 1989. Private collection

In an arch-conservative act, Paley build his sculptures upon tiered bases. The elimination of the base, like the introduction of welding, is a basic feature of Modernism. A baseless structure becomes a literal object in the real world, set into real space without the defensive artifice of the plinth. The plinth is a traditional, culturally established setting for the perception of sculpture. The sculpture's base eliminates distraction from other non-art objects in the viewer's field of vision, insulating the sculpture, ordering perception and acceptance. The Paley statues revert to art and not to experience. The pedestal makes his work statue-like. Ironically, his gates, beds and plant stands do not have bases and one can approach them, relate to them more directly as both objects and literal sculpture. Paley's recidivistic bases literally elevate the welded masses away from Modern grounded sculpture in a fit of classical elitism.

Consistent with his elitism, his sculptures appear distanced, almost afraid of being touched. Compared to other contemporary sculptors Martin Puryear, John Duff or Christopher Wilmarth, Paley actually flees from tactile handling of his material. No matter how frantically he twists his spiral elements, they remain aloof, visual documents understood by the eye and the mind rather than emotionally, viscerally and haptically through the body. His drop-forge makes a machine's impression, not the hand's hammermark. There is no evidence of welding, grinding or any direct hand-finishing. Even his signature is stamped as a corporate, impersonal, jewelrymaker's chop.

Spraying or brushing paint uniformly (sans brushstrokes) makes Paley's color seem to emanate from within the body of the steel, to glow (perhaps like his experiences at the forge). They seem to dematerialize form. The hues are metallic, industrial. The impersonal facture of his paint may be a function of his studio approach (Vincent Massaro, a local artist, was given charge of his painted surfaces), or some architectural requirement, as it seems to stem from a corporate mentality rather than an individual sensibility.

The critical problem with Paley's sculptures is placing them contextually. Analogies are made by Paley's supporters to Abstract Expressionism and Post-Modernism. Paley himself states, "There's an alignment with what Abstract Expressionism was about; you have certain materials and they behave in a particular way. The artist engages with this; one thing is nor primary with another; an interchange takes place. The work - the final object - is just a byproduct of this relationship…the link with Abstract Expression does not imply that I am dealing with an abstract vocabulary but [a visual language] where the sense of logic is organic." Process, however, was not all there was to Abstract Expressionism; in Paley there are no Jungian archetypes, no motifs found in the oneiric subconscious, no transcultural dalliances, no existential doubt, no heroism that rooted Abstract Expressionism so deeply in modern culture.

Proposal Maquette, forged and fabricated steel, 28 x 15 x 13', 1990

Paley's sculptures involve two types of gestures. The first is an implied biomorphic thrust, the fanning out of space by sequential juxtaposed elements, like arm movements and the ripples of banners. Donald Judd wrote, "A beam thrusts; a piece of iron follows a gesture; together they form a naturalistic and anthropomorphic image." The work is an index for the body; as Paley states, "It's all to do with weight, movement, gravity, my own physical sense of my body." Relational sculpture, like this, "made part by part, by addition, composed with specific elements… separate from the whole…setting up relationships within the work" remains traditionally mimetic. Because it refers to the gestures of the body, we relate to it as we would to abstract totemic personages. It consumes personal space, molding and blocking passage through territories as another person's presence mitigates our own.

Paley's symmetry is a reflection of the organic world, transferring the property of balance, of biomorphic gesture, to statuary. It refuses to come off its ivory tower base into the real world. Its conceit, its hubris, recreates the role of man over nature. True site specificity is dictated by environment, by symbiotic architectural intervention and interaction.

The second gesture is more mechanical, the corkscrew twists not of a bodily motion but of time's permutations. The turning elevator motor traces a record of its speed and revolutions in Paley's steel. Dense coiled helixes or larger crisp convolutions are results of mere process, malleability of metal, direction and duration of cycle, disassociated from a knowing hand. This fabricated gesture, as much as it mimics and seemingly refers to an animate growth, has no somatic dimension. If, as Giovannini claims, Paley is now questioning the basis for his work, "the direct relationship of design to its materiality," of ornament integrated to structure, it explains why the current transitional works may be considered research into new spatial zones. Still, because they share certain characteristics with the new functional works (less curvilinear, more planar, beribboned, more interest in color), there are many contradictory impulses at work; gestural and restrained, Modernist and Post-Modernist, handcrafted, yet reluctant to touch. "Torn between the replica and the invention, between the desire to return to the known pattern, and the desire to escape it by a new variation," Paley's skewed historicism does not generate a prime paradigm for sculpture. From the position of the functional work, which truly shares some concerns with mainstream Post-Modernism, these sculptures are a step back to mannerism without reason. He seem to bully the viewer into acknowledging his skill by virtue of size. Paley's sculptures are too self-consciously satisfied with the effects of masterful metalsmithing not to be taken seriously. Paley is an arch-traditionalist; his truth to materials (waning as he paints them), his contorted illusionism, his staggered bases (allowing approach respectfully, like an altarpiece) and his placement (as in architectural niches), is absolutely medieval.

This exhibition, organized by the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, was documented by a catalog with essays by Joseph Giovannini and Edward Lucie-Smith. The show will travel to the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, Naples, Florida, from September 1991 through January 1992.

Animal Sculpture, mild steel and limestone, 10 x 7 x 5', 1985
Albert Paley, acclaimed as America's finest artist in iron, has recently shifted his focus from jewelry, domestic objects and architectural embellishments, to sculpture.
Sid Sachs lives in New Jersey and often writes about art.
  1. Patricia Johnson, "Albert Paley's Forged Steel Ascent," Sculpture, July/August 1987, page 23.
  2. In writing of Islamic arabesque, Gardner's basic text states, "The natural forms often become so stylized that they are lost in the purely decorative tracery of the tendrils, leaves, and stalks. The relationship of one form to another…is more important than the totality of design: the patterns have no function but to decorate. This system offers the potential for unlimited growth, as it permits extension of the designs in any direction." Horst de la Croix, Richard G. Tansey, Gardner's Art through the Ages, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, NY, 1986, page 299.
  3. To an extent, the Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction to and rejection of the progress of the Industrial Revolution, rejecting lathe-turned columns and veneered furniture for the handwrought complexity and solidity of work by medieval guilds. John Ruskin urged a return to nature for inspiration and banned all steam machinery, calling steam hammers "the toys of the insane." Bevis Hillier, The Style of the Century, 1900-1980, Dutton, NY, 1983, page 48.
    In the 1960s, and early 1970s, Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement were heavily reexamined by museum retrospectives and books. Among the most important were: Peter Selz, Art Nouveau, Museum of Modern Art, NY, 1959; Robert Schmutzler, Art Nouveau (originally written in Germany 1962), Thames and Hudson, London, 1977; Roger B. Stein, John Ruskin and Aesthetic Thought in America 1840-1900 Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1967; Ray Watkinson William Morris as Designer, Studio Vista, NY, 1968; Robert Koch, Louis C. Tiffany's Glass-Bronzes-Lamps, Crown, NY, 1971; Gillian Naylor, The Arts and Crafts Movement, Studio Vista, London, 1971; and, most importantly, Robert Judson Clark, The Arts and Crafts Movement in America 1876-1916, Princeton University, 1972, the same year as the genesis of Paley's Renwick gates commission.
  4. For use of this term, see Ian Latham, New Free Style, Architectural Design and Academy Editions, London, 1980.
  5. Similar, much more veristic forms are evident in studies for the Central Park Zoo Gates (1983-87).
  6. Volker Fischer, "Michael Graves," PostModern Vision, Drawings, Paintings, and Models by Contemporary Architects, Abbeville Press, New York, 1985, page 66-69.
  7. The Dealer Holly Solomon relates that Kim MacConnell and Robert Kushner were experimenting with decorative pattern as early as 1972. By 1975, Joyce Kozloff, Tony Robbin, Miriam Shapiro, and Robert Zakanitch were meeting with Amy Goldin in New York to discuss similar issues. Pattern and Decoration painting also had transcultural imperatives. Solomon states "Pattern and Decoration is concerned with a cultural heritage that is not American. It is the insistence on rhythmic design, nuance and symbol. The vision is rooted in values and culture of the East - in China, Islam, miniatures from Persia, craft and archetypes. It is also concerned with religion: Eastern Zen and Buddhist thought," as quoted in Sam Hunter, Aspects of Post-Modernism, Decorative and Narrative Art. E. R. Sqibb & Sons, Princeton, New Jersey, 1982, unpaginated.
    For a study of the cosmological implications of pattern in Islamic culture, see Keith Critchlow, Islamic Patterns, An Analytical and Cosmological Approach, Schocken Books, New York, 1976.
  8. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984, page 3.
  9. Todd Gitlin, "Hip Deep in Post-modernism," The New York Times Book Reviews, November 6, 1988, page 35.
  10. Barbara Radice, Memphis; Research, Experiences, Result, Failures and Successes of New Design, Rizzoli International Publications Inc., New York, 1984.
  11. Here Paley is going against his academic training in sculpture, which at Tyler emphasized problems in spatial construction, combining metal with wood and other materials and the use of "found objects"; see, Tyler School of Art class catalog 1963-1964, Temple University. See also, "Almost any use of a found object tends to insist on a metaphorical relation to the structure of the human body." Rosalind E. Krauss, Terminal Iron Works, The Sculpture of David Smith, The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1971, page 161.
  12. Schmutzler, Art Nouveau, p. 9.
  13. For an example of a 19 th century form of pedestal with concentric disks, see Scott Burton, Artist Choice pamphlet, Burton on Brancusi, Museum of Modern Art, NY, 1989.
  14. Morse Peckham, Man's Rage for Chaos; Biology, Behavior & the Arts, Schocken Books, NY, 1969, p. 65.
  15. Michael Fried "Art and Objecthood," reprinted in Gregory Battcock, ed., A Critical Anthology, Dutton, NY, 1968, p. 128.
  16. Albert Paley: The Art of Metal, Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA, 1985, p. 27.
  17. Pamela Scheinman, "Dialogue with Architecture: Albert Paley," American Craft, June/July 1988, p. 59.
  18. Edward Lucie-Smith, "Sources of Inspiration," Crafts, May/June 1990, p. 46.
  19. Donald Judd as quoted in Fried, "Art and Objecthood," loc. cit.
  20. Lucie-Smith, loc. cit.
  21. Robert Morris as quoted in Fried loc. cit., p. 118-119.
  22. Giovannini, ibid.
  23. George Kubler, The Shape of Time, Remarks on the History of Things, Yale University Press, 1973, p. 72.
By Sid Sachs
Metalsmith Magazine – 1992 Winter
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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