Here at The Modern Archive our goal is to present not only remarkable modern works, but also the stories behind their creation. This is the first of our changing exhibitions featuring exclusive essays, interviews and archival images found nowhere else. Albert Paley was always our first choice for our opening exhibition, having had the privilege of watching him work from sketches (sometimes in chalk on the studio floor) to meticulous drawings, steel models and huge public sculptures. The work itself is amazingly hard, but finding opportunities to create the large works is often more difficult. At times, setbacks come from beyond the studio. Paley’s 1984 concept for NYC’s Central Park Zoo gates languished unfunded for twenty years, only to be reborn (and built) as 120’ gates for the St. Louis Zoo. “Animals Always” featured here, personifies Albert’s vision, perseverance and heroic dedication to the realization of his creative ideals.

Albert Paley is perhaps America’s greatest living artist working in metal, producing a staggering array of work - from jewelry to decorative arts, from monumental sculpture to architectural structure. At The Modern Archive, we have avidly followed his career for decades. Paley’s work (and his work ethic) embodies all we find fascinating about the intersection of design, craft and art. He moves between contexts with a fluidity that belies the rigors of his process, always with an intensity of focus, constantly defiant of classification.

2014 finds Paley at the peak of his remarkable powers. Fresh off the success of his New York public exhibition, Paley on Park Avenue, he is simultaneously opening his retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and an outdoor exhibition of sculpture on view at Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, in Stockbridge, MA. Add in multiple public commission proposals, a private sculpture commission, and even his schedule seems heroic.

We caught up with Albert just days after the opening of his exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The retrospective exhibition "American Metal: The Art of Albert Paley" offers a curated overview of Paley’s most significant works, including jewelry from his early acclaim as one of the greatest contemporary goldsmiths, prime examples of his decorative arts, and an overview of his portals and gates, ascending to major models for his most monumental sculptures. In our view, one can imagine how the uninitiated could be overwhelmed, but in spite of the disparate scales, we see heroic works created with courage, sheer will and material integrity. If viewed individually in either a telescopic or microscopic way, the scale of the piece becomes irrelevant to the vision and minute detail in every element. In Albert Paley’s universe each detail becomes a sculpture of its own, highlighting his signature techniques, and his courageous vision.

Alt text © Michael Galatis 1992. Collection of The Modern Archive

In our interview, we broached the subject of scale with Albert and here are some excerpts:

TMA: What was your experience when you transitioned from making jewelry at the bench to forging larger elements for your first large commission for the Renwick Gate?

AP: To me, the evolution was seamless…. When I would deal with jewelry, because it was fairly small scale, the sense of attachment, the sense of joining materials, has the same structural integrity as the way a building goes together or the way a boat is manufactured. So, for me, it was all the same. But it existed in a different realm for the viewer. So for me, going from the jewelry, a large pendant might have been 24 inches, the first candlestick I did was 24 inches, and I did a floor standing stick and then I put numerous elements together and created the Smithsonian Gate, so there was not really a jump in scale. I mean, there’s a jump in scale but there really wasn’t-

TMA: Not in your way of thinking.

AP: Its a perceptual thing. And obviously you use a very small hammer to do small work and you use a bigger hammer to do bigger work. (Laughter from both sides.)

TMA: At The Modern Archive we are aware there is this intersection with design, craft and art, and in your work we see classical composition, extreme craft, pure expression…so are you trying to put forth a certain message with different works, or is there an underlying object?

Personally, there’s just as much integrity if I design a chair or a table and if I design a large sculpture or an architectural piece. So that doesn’t really bother me, it’s just that the categorization becomes awkward at times.

AP: Obviously, I think all of those categories have been skewed because of commercialism by and large. When I was a goldsmith, doing jewelry, it was always seen as a studio endeavor. And then there was a major exhibition of artists doing jewelry, so they had Salvador Dali, Picasso, and all of the sudden, because Picasso and Dali did it, it was, I don’t know…different. The same thing with architecture, you have architects that design furniture, or you have furniture makers that design architecture and it’s viewed in a totally different way. It’s not really battles to fight, but the acceptance and the appreciation of quality and form should be outside of that conditioning, but nevertheless that’s part of what it’s all about. Personally, there’s just as much integrity if I design a chair or a table and if I design a large sculpture or an architectural piece. So that doesn’t really bother me, it’s just that the categorization becomes awkward at times.

TMA: One of the things we were discussing earlier is the significance of the accidental, which can happen at any stage -- You never know what may happen along the way.

AP: Well, the accidental thing, if it’s an accident, it’s either unexpected or an accident and by its nature it is seen as detrimental. But, actually, it’s kind of a gift…Because you create a scenario and then, say something goes wrong, perceptually something goes wrong, but in that going wrong it creates a whole dialogue that you were unaware of. I’ll never forget when I was heavily involved with forging, one of the things I really wanted to do was to accentuate the plasticity of the material by twisting. So I would get a bar of steel, I would build machines that would twist it, and the twist would develop and develop and I would think, oh, this is fantastic, it’s a great shape and then all of a sudden the metal would shear and break and I would be all pissed off and throw it in the corner, because I figured what I wanted to achieve was this massive organic form, and it developed metal fatigue and it broke. So therefore I didn’t achieve my goal at that time.

Literally years later, I would look at these pieces on the floor and then in thinking about it; I was really passing judgment on the form development and material that really, the material didn’t care about. If anything, the shearing or the snapping of that steel was the furthest manifestation of that form. So, therefore, if anything, that was expressing, ultimately, what the form development was. It was my limitations of understanding. Then I even started using (those pieces) in my work. If you think of the Dutch painting, of the 16th and 17th centuries, you have the idealized, if somebody says, draw me a flower, they draw you a flower. They don’t draw you a bud, they don’t draw you a withered up petal on the floor. They draw you a flower – an idealized version of what a flower is. But if you take a look at the Dutch paintings, they’ll have the flower, but then there will be petals lying on the table and it shows the extent of that process, rather than the idealization of it, which gives you a better understanding of the continuity of form.

Alt text © Michael Galatis 1992. Collection of The Modern Archive

TMA: Early on I had seen some forged and twisted elements and realized that that was all very experimental work and then to see them again incorporated into your work through the years has been super exciting for me.

AP: The thing is, it’s interesting, but people, when you think of somebody viewing it, experience and understanding are two different things. You look at antique bronzes and they have incredible patinas. The patinas are blue and green and it’s called surface enrichment. Everybody sees it as a higher aesthetic quality. You get a piece of steel and it rusts and corrodes and it’s considered as a negative because it’s deteriorating. Why not that same appreciation to that process? The same process, the same materials, the same thing is being done. Usually steel is utilitarian and if utilitarian rusts, your use is gone, and then the value is gone. So it’s a whole different set of variables. But if you think purely aesthetically, one should be open to all of that, but there’s so much preconditioning that happens. I think that’s also the role that the designer or the artist plays is to take things that are just the most obvious and reframe them in a position to force people to think of it in a different way, to experience it in a different way.

Albert Paley’s career, much like his work, has been decidedly organic, energetic and nonlinear. He has fearlessly confronted fine art, craft and architectural norms with works which defy classification, and which appeal to our collective sense of human triumph. We love the quote from the very end of Susan Stamberg’s recent review on NPR titled “With Swirls of Steel, these Sculptures Mark the Passage of People and Time." “Paley's portals frame transitions — they elevate an otherwise routine path through the day. They ornament modern life.”

He incorporates elements of his past, he moves from one challenge to the next, changing scale, changing material, leaving behind exuberant works of consummate artistry, courage and humanity. Here at The Modern Archive, we believe these are some of the greatest artistic treasures of our time.

Additional biographical information, books and works for sale