THIS WINTER, Albert Paley's cast-iron benches and tree gates are being installed the length of Pennslyvania Avenue, Washington's ceremonial link between the Capital and White House.
In the spring of next year, he will be one of 20 sculptors from all over the world to exhibit contemporary iron and steel work in a show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
His recurring metaphor is most often a gate.
In a day when glass doors, which read as an absence of barriers, are ubiquitous, Paley's gates are a throwback to a time when entrances were ceremonial, when the act of stepping from outside to in, or from hall to room, was an event.
Paley's sculpture is distinguished in another way. Though his work seems abstract, it is all functional. Even the most convoluted and intricate pieces of his work are intended to be used. All work well.
Paley is a master at two archaic crafts that began more than 6,000 years ago. He is a goldsmith and a blacksmith, two occupations that in the beginning were thought to be occult arts. The master of the molten metal transmuted base material into objects of delight. In our day, Paley has transformed these ancient crafts into major art forms.
He recently completed a set of six-ton forged steel and cast bronze doors for the New York Senate chamber in Albany. They are the largest such ornamental metalwork made in the last 50 years. The doors stand 15 feet high and 12 feet wide. They move on ball bearings, which Paley, a perfectionist, made himself.
A year ago Paley completed a huge commission for Clyde's restaurant in a Virginia suburb of Washington. He made the columns, door handles and balustrades. The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought one of the door handles for its permanent collection.
Fendrick Gallery, one of Washington's major art craft showplaces, has its second one-man show of Paley work through Feb. 5. Paley has commissions for gates, furniture and monumental sculpture that he figures will take him three years to complete.
"The Pennsylvania Avenue street furniture is the first new ornamental ironwork design to be commissioned by anyone in 75 years," Paley said. "Ornamental ironwork has still been made, but only in the old traditional patterns. The making of cast iron molds was almost a lost technique."
"It was hard to find a foundry that would take the job on. I had to make models for them to follow. Most of the foundries thought the design was too complicated."
Robert Sprowls, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) architect who has been working with Paley on the project, said, "We called foundries all over the country, but there was only one that could do the job, the Neenah Wis. Foundry Company."
The 50 round benches and 460 tree grates are expected to cost $900,000, Sprowls said.
Selection of Paley for the job was a long, drawn-out process that took 2 1/2 years or so. It's greatly to the credit of the PADC that it went to the trouble of commissioning a top-flight original design, instead of using standard parts.
Eight iron and steel craftsman were invited to submit designs in a competition. Three each were given a $5,000 fee to make futher designs. Two finalists were given $2,000 more for advanced designs. Paley was chosen over the other finalist, Philip Baldwin of Arizona, to do the final design, the models and the inspection. His fee was $55,000. All along the way, the designs were judged by boards and eventually the Fine Arts Commission.
Both the benches and the tree grates have a similar design:See PALEY, Page 2, Col. 1 Albert Paley standing beside his first big architectual commission: the gate at Renwick Gallery; photo by Richard Timothy Conroy. Master of ----Molten Metal - PALEY, From Page 1 spokes radiating from a center. The grates are about 88 inches in diameter and rise in the middle to receive the trees. The benches sit on the grates and form a circle around the tree, much like the old velvet poufs commonly used in Edwardian drawing rooms. Most of the benches will be stationed at bus stops.
Neither the benches nor the grates will be painted; they'll rust to a dark color.
The Paley project is part of a massive effort to make Pennsylvania Avenue worthy of its ceremonial function. The project began at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, when Patrick Moniyhan pointed out the shabby condition of the street.
Paley's first big architectural commission is also on the avenue, in the Renwick Gallery, adjacent to the White House.
"We decided in 1974," said Lloyd Herman, director of the Renwick, "to commission an important metal work, a pair of gates for the entrance to our museum shop.
"It wasn't an easy design, because it had to be a contemporary work, yet apropriate to the building's Second Empire design. We asked for submissions from the few designer craftsman working in iron and steel. Paley's was so good, so wonderfully extravagant, that we were compelled to accept it right away."
The 1,200-pound gates of forged steel and brass took Paley and his assistant, Richard Palmer, 3,800 hours of work, about seven months.
The gates may be the most important metal works of useful art since Louis Sullivan's Art Nouveau iron work in Chicago at the turn of the century.
The gates are full of sensous curves, whiplashes, intertwining tendrils and asymmetrical forms.
Paley once explained, "People ask me if the whiplash forms I use 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's cooled, the motion is frozen. I find the Art Nouveau shapes very seductive. When I first studied design, I had Bauhaus teachers. At first, when I realized I was a romantic, I was sort of shocked and ashamed. But it is true, as you say, that the material I work most with is emotion."
Paley's curves are not slavish copies of Art Nouveau forms but rather an extension and outgrowth. Paley visited England, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland and Denmark from May to September of 1968. But in July 1973 he went to Portugal and Spain. In Barcelona, he was much impressed with Antoni Gaudi, the freest and most exuberant architect of all.
Like Art Nouveau, Paley's designs seem to be frozen movement, as if copied from chalk lines for a ballet, scrawled on a raked stage. Unlike the regular, geometric, clean-lined logical (some would say dull), shapes of Bauhaus and the modern movement, Paley's work is unpredictable, sometimes rash, asymmetrical, extravagant, passionate, obeying only its own rules or order. Paley's pieces look as though they are alive. You wouldn't be at all surprised to find one tendril reach out and grab you.
Not all the shapes are friendly. Some can be threatening. A brass-based lectern, for instance, has a base shaped like snake poised to strike. Several pieces remind you of medieval torture devices.
Paley is fortunate that his interest and mastery of ornamental ironwork has come at a time when architects are increasingly interested in elaborate architectural detail. Paley's work has just the right balance of homage to ancient forms and yet is shaped with freshness and originality.
"We embraced industrial techniques early in this century," said Paley. "And now we're bored with its conformity. It lacks personality and quality. Humanism is reasserting itself. People today respond to color and texture. There's a real market for people who can produce handmade ornament.
"My architectural iron humanizes the environment. The ornament gives an individual identity to a building. I as an artist become a part of the cultural fabric."
Paley is not hesitant about designing useful objects, sculpture that works for a living.
"In the 1960's, the struggle for the craftsman was to raise crafts to art objects, to break out of that straightjacket thinking," he says. "Now we're at another extreme. We need to make art a part of life. For instance, the glassblowers broke away from making containers to try to be accepted as artists. Now we need glass art which can be used as drinking glasses and pitchers.
"For awhile, the efforts to use art in buildings were limited to sculpture and paintings. Now art is becoming integral to the structure -- fountains, elevator doors, screens, mosaic floors."
Paley believes that in many cases an original artist-designed and made architectural element may be cheaper than an ordinary mass-produced building element.
"The steel and bronze doors I made for the New York Senate were cheaper than an ordinary industrial glass door. A plain revolving door, after all, cost $60,000."
The New York Senate gates, with installation, ran about $130,000 for four doors.
"When I made the fence for the sculpture court at Chattanooga's Hunter Gallery of Art, the cost was the same as their budget for an ordinary industrial fence."
(The fence is 85 feet long, 6 feet 4 inches high and weighs 13,000 pounds.)
Not that his work is cheap. His gates vary from $15,000 to $80,000. The oxidized silver door handle he made for Clyde's has been replicated for the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $4,000.
He still makes metal furniture: lecterns, dining table bases, plant stands and torchieres, perhaps the handsomest of all. All of these are in the Fendrick Gallery show, including a fantastic bed commissioned by a Washington collector.
With the demand for his work so high, Paley now is working out ways to multiply himself. He's working on a series of cast-iron and bronze lamps, tables and shelves.
"Casting reproduces the original work exactly, every detail is the same," he explains.
He went recently to see the Rodin exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. "I have seen many things in museums that changed my life," he said.
"Rodin worked in plaster and terra cotta. He didn't carve marble or cast bronzes himself. After he'd worked out his ideas in plaster and clay, it was left to the mason or the foundry craftsman to make the design smaller or larger as needed."
"By making multiples, the artist becomes more accessible. An object doesn't have to be one of a kind to have quality. Look how much work Tiffany and Lalique produced. That's why we know them so well today. I'm sure there were other designers of that period who were just as good, but their work wasn't made available to as many people."
He has no problem with separating the functions of artist and craftsman.
This view represents a swing away from the artist/craftsman philosophy of the '60s and '70s. During those years, artists were experimenting with techniques; they were trying out many different forms of materials and ways of working with them. It was necessary for the artist to do his own translation from drawing to actual object. No one was too sure exactly how things would come out because so many materials and methods had not been tried before.
Paley says a return to the traditional separation of artist and craftsman may be a maturing of the mid-century craft revival.
Paley made his first reputation as a goldsmith. About half of the pieces in his one-man show at the Renwick Gallery in 1977 were jewelry. He made only about 50 pieces a year. His jewelry is very large, body sculpture.
One necklace of Paley's is made of forged and fabricated silver and gold set with tourmaline crystal, pearls and labradorite. The supporting structure is an ellipse, a spiral of rods supporting the crystal on top and dangling jewels below. He also made a dicing knife of stainless steel and brass with a rosewood and plastic handle.
Today, he doubts he will make any more jewelry.
He once said he doesn't really enjoy the work of making objects. "If I could draw it just the way I wanted it to be, I wouldn't have to go to all that heavy work. I have to work it through as I go. I don't actually care very much about making objects -- they're just what are left behind, the visual record of what I was thinking.".