ALBERT PALEY practices two archaic and diverse arts: goldsmithing and blacksmithing.
When he first turned from gold to iron, "I felt rather like Gulliver. It didn't seem as though the objects I was working on changed in scale but instead it was as if I had sudddenly shrunk to Lilliputian size.
"It's hard to explain to people who aren't used to working in miniature. But when I am making a peice of jewelery, in my mind I project myself into the work - through the spaces, around the elements - along with the tools. I can feel the pressures of the material. It was a strange paradox, when I started doing blacksmithing. I would suddenly stop and catch my breath and feel for a second as though I had been transformed or the proportions of the world were different."
Paley, probably the best-known artist in the country to use iron as material for his sculpture, sometimes used as furniture or jewelry, was in Washington recently to open a show of this latest work at the Renwick Gallery, 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The one-man show is a companion to another Renwick show, "Iron, Solid Wrounght/USA." Both will be open through Oct. 24.
Paley's experiences with altered senses of proportion sometimes affect people who look at his work. His jewelry is very large. His iron work is very intricate. Neither is what you'd expect.
"To me it all seems the same. It's all structure and the relationships of the elements."
Someone at a lecture he gave while he was here asked how he expected anyone to wear such big necklace.
"You learn to manage it. When you buy a sports car, you learn with some difficulty how to get in and out of it. The same is true with the body sculpture."
Paley likes to point out that jewelry for many cultures was scaled to cover large portions of the human anatomy. "Perhaps it was the class-leaveling effect of World War 1, but anyway people began to be afraid of conspicuous consumption - wearing anything that would attract notice. Now people aren't so concerned about what others think."
When Paley was working only as a goldsmith. he made about 50 pieces a year. Now that he alternates between large and small, he does about half that number in jewelry.The iron pieces vary greatly in size, use and complexity.
A dining table is made up of interlacing curves, as though several whips froze as they cracked. It is a major piece in the Renwick show, thought eh glass top seems too small for all that activity in the base below. A mirror, 32 by 21 inches, is formed of curling tendrils of iron and brass. A dicing knife combines stainless steel and brass with a rosewood and delrin (a variety of plastic) handle. A torchere swirls upward 95 inches high to hold candles to smoke the ceiling. The lectern would inspire alomost anyone to make a speech, so handsome is its brass stand.
A table, with the top several feet higher than you'd expect, is meant to hold only small, precious objects. "A friend said the table was so strong, anything put on it would seem insignificant. Not so, I said, the object becomes important, because all the strength focuses on it.
Michael Monroe, associate curator of the Renwick, performed miracles to make it all fit into an impossibly small space. The show stands just outside "The Paley Gates," as everyone at the Renwick calls them.
Loyd Herman, Renwick director, in 1974 invited four artists to submit plans for a set of gates to the museum shop. Paley's design was chosen, and the Renwick gates became his first important architectural iron commission. He has won several design award for the gates. Since then, he has had an even larger commision, a fence around the sculpture court of Chattanooga's Hunter Galley of Art. The gates might well be one of the most important iron and brass works of art since Louis Sullivan was designing fanciful art nouveau iron work in Chicago at the turn of the century.
"People ask me if the whiplash forms I use often come from the art nouveau period. I explain that the shape comes about because when the iron is hot it has a great deal of natural movement. It just flows into curves, and when it is cooled, you've frozen the motion. I do have a lot of sympathy for the art nouveau shapes because they are very seductive. When I first was studying design, I had Bauhaus school teachers! I was sort of shocked and ashamed, at first, when I realized I was a romantic. But it is true, as you say, that the material I work most with is emotion."
Paley's sensuous curves do indeed have much of the feeling of art nouveau's realistic depictions of plants. His work does not copy art nouveau, but extends the style. He begins with the 1890-1910 forms, but brings them to the 1970s. In terestingly enough, Paley went to Spain to see the work of Antonio Gaudi, the art nouveau architectural master, after he had done the Renwick's postart nouveau gates.
The 1,200-pound gates of forged steel and brass took 3,800 man hours of work - seven months - by Paley and his assistant, Richard Palmer. They were installed in the Renwick last year.
The dance-movements-in-metal so characteristic of his style can also be seen in the 10 pieces of jewelry, mounted nicely on a moss-green velvet background and covered, for safety, with plexiglas. Pabably the most remarkable piece is of forged and fabricated silver and gold with tourmaline crystal, pearls and Habradorite. The supporting structure is an elipse, with a spiral of rods supporting the crystal on top and dangling below. In another piece, a series of unbelievable fine rods rise up to hold gems.
Paley, like many artists, didn't know he was an artist until he was almost of age. He grew up in Philadelphia, where he was born on March 28, 1944, as the oldest of three children in what he calls "a lower middle-class family financially."
As a boy he built model airplanes and drew a great deal. As a young man he rebuilt automobile engines and raced cars. (He still indulges himself with a classic Austin-Healy sports car, though he drives a 1966 Oldsmobile in Rochester, N.Y., during the half a year when the streets are paved with salt to melt the ice. "I rode a motorcycle for 15 years until not so long ago when I had a very serious accident. Since then, I have the feeling I want as much metal around me as I can get.")
When he finished high school, "like a lot of others of my age, I was hostile to educational institutions. I didn't want to go on to college. But I worked as a salesperson for three years, from 17 to 20, in a department store and that really turned me off. Then this girl told me I should go to the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. And I got a scholarship. And I realized that art was who I was."
Paley went on to get a master's from Temple as well and then in 1969 moved to Rochester where he taught at the School for American Craftsmen of Rochester Institute of Technology. He is now an associate professor at New York State University College at Brockport.
Paley didn't begin to work in iron until he attended a three-day blacksmith's workshop at Southern Illinois University, Car4bondale, in 1970. Brent Kington, a professor at the university, organized the workshop to show artists and craftsmen, many of whom had never seen a lit forge, the possibilities of blacksmithing.
Paley says he and a companion, who is a disigner of production jewelry, share a big Tudor house with a third-story jewelry studio. He also has a fair size blacksmithing shop where he works with two assitants. His teaching commitments take 14 hours on two days. He works on his own projects the other five, beginning at 5:30 in the morning, working until 7 at night, then answering his heavy correspondence and reading until 12 or 1 a.m., he says.
"I really hate to take time from work for sleeping or eating. People ask me, 'Don't you takea day off?' Off from what? The kind of work I do, you're always at least thinking about it."Paley says his preoccupation with his work makes him difficult to live with - at this time he doesn't feel that he has time for children or a regular social life or much involvement with people other than his students and his colleagues.
"When you're an artist, you communicate, you reach out to people through your work. When you're finished a piece, you're said it all."
Looking around at the work in the Renwick, Paley said, "I don't draw things before I make them. If I could draw it just the way I wanted it to be, I wouldn't have to go to all that heavy work - which I don't enjoy. I have to work it all through, as I go. I don't actually care very much about making an object - the objects are just what are left behind, the visual record of what Iwas thinking."