Three weeks before “Towards A New Iron Age” was to open at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, it arrived in a huge truck from its prior location at Southern Illinois University. An exhibition of this size (18,000 pounds of iron) would place demands on the Mint Museum beyond the capabilities of the facility and the staff. Yet the significance of the show, its potential appeal and the possibility of showing such an extraordinary collection of works by international blacksmiths seemed worth the commitment to push beyond normal limits.

People in the community, interested in having the exhibition come to this area, were willing to help: A local steel company loaned a forklift, and architecture and art students from the local university, along with local blacksmiths, sculptors and metalsmiths arrived on unloading day. Within several hours, the truck was emptied and the objects inside the museum. Other institutions which participated in the tour shared similar experiences the Flint Institute had the largest visitor turnout in its history while the exhibition was on display there.

The exhibition was a joint effort between the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the British Arts Council (an organization similar to the National Endowment for the Arts). Its purpose was to recognize the changing status and growing autonomy of the black- smith. A renaissance in the art of blacksmithing has occurred in Britain in the last few years, mostly due to the interest of the British Arts Council and some of the most notable and forward-thinking English smiths who propelled the age-old art from its static state to a more creative and artistically assertive future. The V&A, with impressive holdings in ironwork in their collection, recognized the rebirth of iron-working and, through this exhibition and other efforts, has supported and encouraged the movement.

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Towards a New Iron Age Exhibition - Stuart Hill (England) Sunburst Firescreen, 1981

Stuart Hill (England) Sunburst Firescreen, 1981. Mild steel, made from a single piece of steel plate cut, and fanned into shape. 63.5 x 91.5 cm. Photo: F. Jack Hurley

Research on the exhibition began in 1978. Blacksmiths submitted slides and a selection committee of 25 (including painters, sculptors, smiths and arts administrators) selected the 51 participating artists. The V&A did originally plan to travel the exhibition, but Jim Wallace, director of the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis and an internationally recognized blacksmith, received funding from First Tennessee Bank, the Tennessee Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts to bring the show to the United States.

Among the artists, not surprisingly, was a healthy representation of English blacksmiths. The other countries represented were Switzerland, the United States, Japan, East and West Germany, Italy, Austria, Scotland, Czechoslovakia, France and Finland. Blacksmiths from the United States were Philip Baldwin, MO; Brent Kington, IL; Jan Brooks Loyd, NC; Albert Paley, NY; John Dittmeier, DE; and Jim Wallace, TN. One criticism of the exhibition had been that other noteworthy blacksmiths in the United States
were not included. Jim Wallace attributed the oversight to the fact that many smiths, not in the habit of submitting to art exhibitions, had poor-quality visual presentations that did not adequately represent their work.

I found the work by the smiths from the United States to be among the most innovative and to reflect a sensitivity to the disciplines of painting, sculpture, surface design and jewelry more so than works by smiths in other countries. This supports my belief that not over the past decade the lines between what has been designated craft and the other arts have become less and less distinct. This is indicative of a lively discourse among artists in the United States, fostered by publications, exhibitions and the educational system. 
When works by artists of different nationalities are juxtaposed, the unique sensibilities of the American artists are obvious. American blacksmiths seem to have more effectively moved into the 20th century, bringing with them the knowledge of the tradition but not clinging to its application.

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Towards a New Iron Age Exhibition - Kanko Moisio (Finland) Dining Chair, 1981

Kanko Moisio (Finland) Dining Chair, 1981. Stainless steel and leather, 68 x 52.5 x 46 cm. Photo: F. Jack Hurley

Albert Paley, recognized as one of the most important figures in contemporary blacksmithing exhibits Rectilinear Gate (1982) which was unquestionably the most awe inspiring piece in the show. Paley, known for his organic twisted forms-convoluted, fluid tendrils that intertwine, brings his training as a jeweler to his work, and this can be seen in the extraordinary attention to detail and the fine finish. This work is undeniably 20th century. The tremendous scale of the steel pieces that Paley manipulates could not have been made without the help of modern machines. The smooth finish, a sensuous softness of color and surface, the fact that the method of joining metal to metal is not obvious are all clues that Paley’s interest lies in the art object. The metal is clearly subservient to the concept. The finish on the gate is not durable, and as it is now it would have to remain in a protected environment, on display, as an art object. To be used in a functional, architectural outdoor setting, it would have to be painted.

Brent Kington, nearly as influential as Paley, has taught many of the metalsmiths now working in the United States. The two pieces in this show were typical of the best of Kington. Both are finely balanced weather vanes which function as kinetic sculpture. The smaller of the two is a spectral figure an owl-like face, counterbalanced by two finger-like fins protruding from the back. The whole piece is a scrambled white, created by layers of Gesso, and the little benign, ghostly figure bobbles mysteriously on a tiny point.

Jan Brooks Loyd, one of Kington’s students, had one of the most graphic pieces in the show. Her sculptural wall piece recognizes the basic plate form which it both denies and reveres simultaneously. Loyd typically explores surface texture and coloration of metal in her work and uses techniques for coloring that are centuries old, as well as those she has discovered herself. Within this exhibition, her piece was the most far- removed from a functional origin. A strong piece, it excellently represents contemporary applications of metalwork.

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Towards a New Iron Age Exhibition - Jan Dudesek (Switzerland) Griddle with Stand, 1980

Jan Dudesek (Switzerland) Griddle with Stand, 1980. Mild steel, 40 cm h.

There seems to be a consensus among artists, curators, architects and other blacksmiths who have seen the show that three of the strongest works were made by Swiss artist, Jan Dudesek. Dudesek’s work combines the best of “form follows function” with a keen and sensitive aesthetic sense. His work demonstrates that clean and simple, typically Scandinavian design sensibility. Fire lrons With Stand are three beautifully simple linear tools which use a smooth rock with a carved groove as a base. The tools are neither too light nor too heavy for actual use. His Griddle with Stand is ingeniously designed. A gliding metal ring on a vertical upright becomes a stationary support in response to the weight of the cantilevered griddle. The work is assertive as a strong, abstract graphic design. Form and function in this work are equivalents.

Blacksmithing in Germany is apparently thriving and for a number of reasons. Commitment of 10 percent of the income tax to churches establishes a pool of funds from which commissions for repair and embellishment of structures is available. Apparently the state is also a ready patron, and there is a healthy apprenticeship program which encourages the growth and preservation of the craft. The German work in this show was to me the toughest, visually, the least lyrical, the least delicate. I was much more aware of the iron itself, of its having been bent, hammered and joined.

This was also true of some of the grill work. Sections of grills by Ian Lamb, an English smith, are exemplary. A power hammer had been used by Lamb to impress the hot iron as he turned each iron bar underneath the hammer, creating a repetitive, often twisted pattern. These sections, like salesman’s samples, are used by the smith to indicate what might be done on a larger scale.

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There were many sections of fences or gates in the exhibition. In almost all cases,
the section was unable to relay the visual impact of an actual fence. Manfred Bredohl of West Germany exhibited a piece of a lattice gate, part of the design of a gate for Munich Town Hall. The section showed forged pieces which crossed in an “X” pattern with blobs of iron hammered flat on the ends of the cross pieces. The section shown was fairly unimpressive, but a photograph of the gate installed showed it to be an intricate, almost lace-like design that is truly exquisite.

Towards a New Iron Age Exhibition - Jan Brooks, Loyd (United States), Crossed Signals, 1981

Jan Brooks, Loyd (United States), Crossed Signals, 1981. Mile steel, 33 cm d. Photo: George Erml

The Millbank Fence suffered. similarly. This piece by Stuart Hill was one of the few pieces in the show with color. The vertical posts were painted a bright green and the adjoining tubular elements, which looked like sausages, bright blue. The section of the fence that we see was intriguing, lighthearted and interesting because of the joining technique. But we missed the overall effect of this bright contemporary design repeated and making its way across a vast expanse of lawn.

The European masters in this show were Fritz Kuhn and Antonio Benneton. Both of these revered blacksmiths have sons with national reputations who also had work in the show. Fritz Kuhn, now deceased, was represented by a section of the entrance doors to the Berlin City Library. This beautiful piece consists of 117 squares of metal, each bearing a different calligraphic representation of the letter “a”. Its forged steel surfaces are embellished by copper fusing, enamel and gold leaf. Each of the letters is either carved or punched on the individual steel square, and the color flashes across certain parts of the squares randomly.

Most of the pieces in the show were hot forged. Some more effectively illustrated the plasticity of iron in its malleable state. Kuhn’s forged bowl is a massive piece in which the sides of a very thick slab have been pushed in toward the center, resulting in an undulating, powerful form.

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Kuhn’s son, Achim, exhibited Swinging Steel, a complex screen of steel forged with hardened high grade steel. U-shaped polished rods with steel balls on their ends are forged to steel upright rods. These groups of U-shapes are positioned at varying levels on the uprights with the upper U-shapes pointing upward and the lower U-shapes pointing downward. The pattern established is very rhythmical. As an outdoor piece, it is an irresistible play toy. People responded to it as they might to a musical instrument.

Antonio Benneton, the Italian master, and his son Simon are both known for sculptural pieces which are not forged but gas cut from a flat piece of steel and then bent or folded into sculptural pieces. Stuart Hill applies this technique of gas cutting to more functional pieces. Hill’s firescreen and fire-basket are excellent examples of the single-sheet, non-forged process. Gas cutting leaves a typically ragged edge to the pieces, but this is not an undesirable feature.

Towards a New Iron Age Exhibition - Fritz Kuhn (Germany) Panels, 1965

Fritz Kuhn (Germany) Panels, For the entrance doors to the Berlin City Library, 1965. Forged steel, enameled copper, gold leaf, 1.4 x 1.25 m x 49 cm d. Photo: George Erml

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Of the functional pieces in the show, there seemed to be an inordinate number and wide variety of fire baskets. The best of these had a beautifully abstract sculptural quality and the worst were square and boxlike, their aesthetics having been sacrificed to function. Other functional pieces included fire dogs, candle holders, door knockers, book ends (the work of one Japanese artist) and knives. A dining chair by Kauko Moisio of Finland is beautiful to look at one stem branches into four supporting feet and blossoms at the other end to hold a piece of leather which flows from the edge of the seat to the top of the back. The appeal, however, wears off quickly once one is seated. Two small knobs are positioned at kidney level. Having a snack would be difficult in this chair and dinner unthinkable.

The jewelry was the most pleasantly surprising. The craftsmanship was very fine and without exception, each artist had refined the work to a degree of perfection. There were many innovative designs-ovular bracelets, asymmetrical neck-pieces and rings fashioned from gun barrel sections. Some looked unwearable but I did not try them on, so I am not certain this was true. I was absolutely captivated by the work of Pierre Degen of England. His works are tiny sculptural constructions of steel rod triangles conjoined with whipping thread and often including a tiny hook or two. They were the smallest pieces in the show, and, for me, the most intriguing. Though Degen calls them brooches, I couldn’t figure out how one would wear these pieces. For me,  however, their wearability, or the lack of it, was inconsequential.

Allison Varley, another English artist, created two tiny hinged boxes of mild steel, inlaid with white, yellow and green metals and oxidized black. They have a very oriental flavor and make direct reference to Japanese sword decoration.

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This collection of works was incredible just in the breadth of scale and the diversity of objects. Its significance to blacksmiths and those who wish to follow the progression of a centuries-old craft lay in the historical documentation and in the recognition of its resurgence as an art form. It was an exhibition to be enjoyed by people who may know of a blacksmithing tradition in their own families, by connoisseurs of fine art or by anyone who enjoys the uniqueness of a beautifully hand- crafted object.

Organized by the Victroia & Albert museum, London, England

United States Touring Schedule:

National Ornamental Metal Museum, Memphis, TN
September 10 – October 17, 1982

Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, MI
November 7 – December 15, 1982

University Museum, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL
January 15 – February 27, 1983

Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC
March 27 – May 22, 1983

American Craft Museum, New York, NY
June 17 – September 4, 1983

A catalog of this show is available from the American Craft Council Publications Department,401 Park Avenue South, NY, NY.  10016; members’ price $9, nonmembers’ $10 (including postage); plus appropriate sales tax.

Jane Kessler is assistant curator of exhibitions at the Mint Museum