ARTIST’S TALK: 27 & 28 November 2019
Albert Paley’s talk and slide show at Messums London traced the 50 years that he has been working in metal; from making intricate pieces of gold and silver jewellery measured in centimetres to sculptures the size of houses, 30 feet high.
At the root of all his designs are his drawings in pencil he said, that fill the drawers and sketchbooks of his 50,000 square foot studio in Rochester, New York. ‘Drawing is fundamental – it gives you a vocabulary so you can understand what you see,’ he said, adding that his jewellery expressed ‘an attention to detail, a refinement of line.’
Thinking through doing is how he works he says, and as his technical skill has grown so has the ambition of his sculptures. ‘Technique is a way to manage thought development; I don’t know what I’m doing until I start working,’ he explained.
Born in Philadelphia, Paley attended the Tyler School of Art where his earliest works were direct carvings in wood and stone in the tradition of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth and he showed us a picture of a delicate, sensuous Rodin-esque sculpture of a woman he carved out of white marble.
Paley’s training was not only manual but academic with an education in the techniques of Renaissance masters like Cellini, Leonardo and Michelangelo as well as the Mannerist and Viennese Secessionist painters of which he is particularly fond.
Early in his career Paley had imagined he would be a goldsmith ‘for the rest of my life,’ but irked by the perception of jewellery as a ‘minor art, rather than what it truly is – a fine art,’ he started making bigger pieces starting with a set of enormous gates facing the White House.
‘Using metal is like drawing in space’ he said. ‘Punching, ribboning and blasting, the gates enriched my public exposure and allowed me to interface with architecture, pushing me into a new arena’ he said. Going through gates is an act of passage, he said, ‘they are ceremonial archways.’
Consistently throughout all his work appear flowing, sinuous, natural forms – in particular vegetation – within ordered, mathematical structures.
‘My design philosophy is organicity in that one line begets another whether it is in metal or any other material,’ he says.
In 1979, Paley was asked to make two gates for the antechamber of the New York Senate. The Albany gates, as they are known, reflected the nascent fear of terrorism in public spaces in their spiky, thorn-like design protecting the heart of government.
In his talk, Paley rattled through an astonishing array of gates and fences, benches and grills and freestanding ‘sentinels’ or sculptures that he had made, all created with an unerring sense for form and each bigger than the last. He describes his studio as his sanctuary adding that his 16 staff were like the members of an orchestra of which he is the composer.
Paley said he tried to use design to bring a sense of modernity into historic spaces and talked much about the play of light and shade in his work and the beauty of rustification.
The Fence of the Hunter Museum is one of Paley’s wildest works to date where the lines of metal seem to hover in space like banners or whips.
In his recent works, Paley has tended increasingly to paint metal and patinate it in a range of hues.
‘Colour solicits emotion’ he said. ‘Shadows are beautiful but ephemeral and colour adds into that.’
Pointing to a range of eight sculptures he made to adorn the staircase of the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts in Houston, he said the effect was to create ‘a whole sensuality of folded metal, play of light and tromp l’oeil.’
The talk ended with a description of how Paley created the gates for St Louis Zoo, and we saw a fine picture of him next to a metal rhinoceros he had made.
In a question and answer session after his talk somebody in the audience mentioned that the computer has led to the dematerialisation of form and that the importance of objects in the realm of fine art is in a state of flux.
‘Fundamentally, art deals with the human condition’ replied Paley, ‘whether it’s a personal response in canvas or in the public arena like the music of Wagner. Metal articulates emotion beautifully; there is an honesty and integrity to being a blacksmith. It’s all about sharing that language.’
Albert Paley’s talk was part of his exhibition ‘Drawings and Sculptures’ at Messums London which comprised of his architectural two-dimensional works and smaller scale sculptures and maquettes. An exhibition of Albert’s ‘Large Sculptures and Architectural Works’ including examples of his monumental gates, will be open at Messums Wiltshire 4 July – 30 August 2020.