A new Corcoran Gallery retrospective of metal work by Albert Paley is a bittersweet pleasure. Plans for a Paley show date back to 2008, during the tenure of former director Paul Greenhalgh. Now they’ve come to fruition as the last major Corcoran exhibition before the gallery and school close as an independent entity, the art to be taken by the National Gallery, the school delivered into the insatiable maw of George Washington University, and tens of millions in cash (from the dubious sale of material from the collection) divided between the two institutions as a kind of macabre death dowry.
These are the last days of the Corcoran, and yet the old spirit is still vital. The Paley show has a deliciously local flavor — his work is richly represented in Washington — and it looks very fine in the light-filled, high-ceilinged galleries. But this show will be part of the institution’s epitaph, unless a D.C. Superior Court judge asks some serious questions — and defends the public’s interest — when the gallery requests permission to shred the intent of William Corcoran’s founding documents at a hearing on July 18.
Paley’s work deserves consideration independent of the sad circumstances of this show. One of the world’s most virtuosic forgers of metal, he does almost miraculous things with hard, intractable material. Inspired by Art Nouveau, and as keenly aware of the French Rococo style as the currents of contemporary art over the past half century, Paley’s metal gates, furniture and sculpture are sinuous and organic but have a strange sci-fi edge to them. A set of plant stands made in 1984 looks as if it was woven from vines, but on closer inspection it suggest a dystopian concatenation of tubing, flexible pipe and thick wires. Jewelry he made in the 1960s and ’70s is wonderfully crafted to hug the body, but it feels weirdly alien, as if designed for rituals on some planet more advanced yet more brutal than ours. Throughout the exhibition, one notices small details — a nub of metal, an errant spike — that have wandered in from the auto shop and nestled themselves into otherwise biomorphic forms.
One of Paley’s pivotal works is seen early in the exhibition, the 1974 Portal Gates he created for the Smithsonian’s Renwick Museum. Fabricated from steel, brass, copper and bronze, the Renwick gates marked a decisive turn from jewelry to larger, more sculptural forms. They are exquisite, earthy and beautiful balanced meditations on Art Nouveau, and they were made only two years after the opening of Mies van der Rohe’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, a modernist box of glass and steel, less than 10 blocks away. The contrast, if anyone thought to make the comparison, must have been stunning: fluid metal, born of an ornamental impulse, flowing in loosely symmetrical patterns, vs. a grid of lines and girders, with little or no decoration to be found.
It’s a welcome reminder that only in retrospect did modernism and the so-called International Style triumph over all else; in fact, resistance was everywhere, complicating the narrative, channeling human impulses that couldn’t be assimilated into utopian ideals of mid-century architecture. As if to underscore the point, a 2004 sculpture, called “Epoch,” stands directly across the street from the District library, bristling with colorful energy, like a metal mushroom in the shadow of the Great Black Box.
Paley’s work has been in a state of continual and healthy evolution since then. A gate he made for an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1982 feels borrowed from a fable by Edward Gorey, a bit gothic and intimidating, sturdy and yet weirdly ramshackle at the same time. A 1983 architectural screen looks as if it jumped straight off the sketch pad into full, three-dimensional, metallic life, with looping lines and tendrils undoing any sense of a straight line.
In 1985, Paley worked on unrealized plans for an entrance sculpture at the Central Park Zoo. Ideas from that proposal, however, came to life in a 2006 monumental gateway at the St. Louis Zoo. “Animals Always” was Paley’s first representational work, an elongated and flattened cross section of the natural world, with all manner of flora and fauna cohabiting in 130 feet of horizontal steel work. The animals, including giraffes, elephants and birds, are clearly rendered, but in a style closely linked to Paley’s abstract forms, which always suggested disconnected vertebrae and ribs. For the zoo sculpture, he simply brought these fragments into alignment to reveal recognizable forms.
The St. Louis Zoo structure, represented in the exhibition by cardboard, wood and steel models, is the most horizontal of Paley’s work on display. In recent years he has also worked in more vertical forms, with a decidedly different, more violent energy. The vertical sculptures are often a curious mix of the jagged and the floral, like bouquets of barbed wire and shards of leftover metal plating found at a construction site. “Evanesce,” a 2009 explosion of steel along a highway in Monterrey, Mexico, feels almost in argument with its patch of the urban wasteland. At the least, it is struggling to command the space, dominate the highway and draw attention away from the dispiriting ribbon of concrete, noise and traffic.
The horizontal gate at St. Louis feels grounded in a way the vertical work doesn’t, as if going up unleashes ideas that Paley has yet to contain and organize. Vertical forms also come with a built-in suggestion of the anthropomorphic, which when combined with the sci-fi sensibility makes some of them look like deconstructed robots.
More compelling than these colossal and sometimes chaotic forms, often marooned in bland, post-modern plazas, are his ongoing efforts to add ornamental metal work to existing structures. A 2007 design study for a gate at Washington’s National Cathedral is as lovely as anything found in the entire show.
The exhibit was curated by Eric Turner, curator of metalwork, silver and jewelry at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Turner’s catalogue essay is smart and to the point, and his decision to include sketches made in advance of the sculptures is revelatory. At times it may seem as if Paley’s work is purely intuitive, as if everything is spontaneously twisted and bent as necessary to fit. But in fact, it is cooked up in the mental laboratory first, in detailed drawings that show the intersection of planes and interconnection of pieces. Envisioning precedes the making, and nothing is left to chance.
is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through Sept. 28. For more information, visit www.corcoran.org.