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Certified Organic

Rooted in the Art Nouveau aesthetic, Albert Paley infuses his architecturally-scaled sculptures with life force.


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During the past four decades, Albert Paley has installed more than 50 of his monumental sculptures on sites ranging from Toronto to Houston, from Asheville, N.C., to San Jose, Calif. Now, at long last, he has arrived in Manhattan, with 13 pieces that will spend the summer on Park Avenue’s median strip. Sponsored by the Sculpture Advisory Committee of The Fund for Park Avenue, the installation reaches from 52nd to 67th Street—a daunting space defined by facades not only high but also relentlessly elegant. Paley’s works are more than equal to the setting. Up to 21 feet in height, they approach the scale of architecture.

Yet the artist has built them from complex, often organic forms intricately layered and interwoven. There may be a key to his aesthetic in Counter Balance, the title of the sculpture that stands at the intersection of 58th Street and Park. For these sculptures have an urban building’s power to dwarf the human presence and yet, counterbalancing that effect is their distinctively individual presence. Each has its own characteristic posture, which shifts as one’s point of view changes. Alive with gestural energy, these sculptures declare a kind of kinship with the viewers over which they loom.

Paley has been a celebrated monument maker for so long that it is a bit of a surprise to recall that he began as a jewelry maker and a designer of household furnishings—though his early brooches and pendants often had a sculptural heft. Moreover, his tables and candelabras were often asymmetrical, a quality found more often in artworks than in functional objects. From the beginning of his career, Paley worked in the border region where art and design meet and, on occasion, merge. His first major commission was to construct a pair of gates for the Renwick Gallery of the National Gallery of American Art, in Washington, D.C. Made of forged and fabricated steel, brass, bronze and copper, the gates were completed in 1974. Six feet wide and over seven feet high, these are imposing objects. Like the door of a vault, they announce that what lies within is precious. Yet their sinuous forms give them a certain lightness. With this commission, then the most important of his career, Paley declared unequivocally his aesthetic allegiance to Art Nouveau, a style that flourished in Europe from the late 19th century until the early years of the 20th.

Hector Guimard, Victor Horta, and other proponents of Art Nouveau used the most advanced technology of the time to adorn the urban landscape with stylized suggestions of vines and shrubbery and flowering trees. Encouraging form to follow function, architects were following a path that would lead, in a few decades, to the severities of International Style architecture. But why not include a capacity for metaphor among the functions of building and design? Art Nouveau followed from an affirmative answer to that question, and we see an echo of that affirmation not only in Paley’s Renwick Gates but in the sculpture he began to make as the 1970s turned into the ’80s.

Direct references to Art Nouveau quickly faded from Paley’s art, and yet the organic energy of the style remains with him to this day, endowing his sculptures not only with a kind of botanical lushness but also the musculature that gives his works their postures and gestural liveliness. One might say that, in getting beyond Art Nouveau, Paley did not so much abandon it as enlarge its spirit to include animal as well as vegetable form. And thus he became all the more effective as a counterforce to those reductive tendencies that reduced the geometric subtleties of International Style architecture to the banalities of the postwar era’s glass-and-steel tower. More to the point, perhaps, Paley established himself as a master of organic form at a time when the Minimalist box had become an icon of modernist history. Claiming impersonal facture as a virtue, Donald Judd, Robert Morris and other Minimalists had their works fabricated by others. Paley’s works are no less the product of a manufacturing process—his immense workshop in Rochester, N.Y., looks like a factory for the production of heavy-duty machinery—and yet each of his forms is inflected with an immediately recognizable sensibility.

A Paley sculpture often originates in a rough, quick Conte Crayon sketch on paper. These flurries of line and texture are haunted by Abstract Expressionism, still a flourishing style when the artist was a student at Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art, in the 1960s. Of course, his forged and highly finished forms have sharp clarity of outline, a quality that appears in the next step of his process—stark black-on-white drawings that lead to cardboard models and onward to three-dimensional maquettes in metal. Often a small maquette is succeeded by another twice its size, and only then does Paley begin on the full-scale piece. At every step he revises a sculpture’s shapes and their interrelationships, sometimes drastically but more often so subtly that a change can be detected only with minute comparisons.

Paley’s sculptural process is one thing, and the process of ushering a sculpture from concept to placement on a public site is of course quite another. Over the years, he has become familiar with the labyrinthine channels of public and corporate bureaucracy that must be navigated to bring a large-scale project to fruition. Because these channels are so very complex, there is sometimes a long wait between first and last step. In 1984 Paley made a series of drawings for a massive gateway to a zoo. Two decades went by before St. Louis Zoo commissioned him to follow through on the project. He began with a minutely detailed cardboard-and-wood model that counts as a work of art in its own right. Next came Ceremonial Archway, 2004, a luminously rusted steel structure over 20 feet wide and nearly 6 feet high. Despite its dimensions, this is a model for an even larger work—Animals Always, the entryway to the zoo that was finally installed in 2006. This full-scale version is 130 feet wide and 36 feet high, a sculpture at the scale of a habitat. Its arch of metallic vegetation is home to life-size figures of over 60 wild species.

These are the most frankly representational sculptures that Paley has ever made. Yet they are not exercises in a minutely accurate realism. Here as elsewhere, the artist’s basic elements are irregular shapes with the power to evoke life-forms and living energies. For this project, however, he leaned toward specificity, so that when each cluster of shapes was assembled it would constitute a statue of an identifiable creature—an elephant, a lion, a zebra whose dark stripes are the voids in a pattern of curving metallic bands. A giraffe stands beneath the arching fronds of Animals Always and a shark swims through the in the denser regions of this metallic environment. If jungle fronds can conjure up an underwater environment, then it is clear that we are not dealing with the work of a realist closely tied to observable fact. This spectacular work is at once figurative and abstract, lush and linear. Marking extremes, it includes everything in between, as does Paley’s entire oeuvre at a still grander scale. His art sets us to thinking about the world and its plenitude.

In 1990 Paley made a meticulous graphite-on-paper drawing for a sculpture entitled Portal. It shows a severely rectangular slab with a tall, narrow opening at its center. Though this is the portal that gives the work its name, it is easy to overlook amid the forms that cluster nearby—tall, pole-like shapes and wide pennants that flutter upward in an imaginary breeze. Portal did not appear in three dimensions until 2008, when Paley had the opportunity to realize it in one of his favorite materials, Cor-ten rusted to a warm reddish brown. The work now stands on a site in Arcade, a town in western New York State.

Moving from drawing to sculpture, Paley added a pedestal. Consisting of a small platform resting on several vertical elements, this is a surprising addition. One of the avant-garde’s most decisive moves was to dispense with pedestals. When sculptures rested directly on the ground, it was thought, they were more accessible, less idealized. It follows, then, that Paley’s Portal returns to an earlier era, when sculptors tried to loft their works above ordinary life. Another interpretation is possible, however, for the elements I have called a pedestal could also be seen as fragments of architecture. According to this reading, the horizontal form signifies floor and the vertical ones stand for infrastructure. Moreover, a short section of an octagonal column lies on its side at the foot of Portal and conjures up the architecture of classical antiquity. With this allusion a question arises: where does Paley stand in the history of his own time?

This is a difficult question to answer, for Paley’s earliest mature work appeared at a time when the clear patterns of avant-garde succession where beginning to blur and lose their authority over the imaginations of younger artists. In the 1960s, Abstract Expressionism had been challenged first by Pop Art, then by Minimalism and its offshoots—everything from process art to conceptualism to earthworks. It was no longer possible to chart in any convincing way the progress of the avant-garde. Throwing up their hands, critics said that art had entered the era of pluralism. Everything was permitted, nothing seemed historically necessary. Though some artists foundered, Paley flourished.

A practitioner of Art Nouveau nearly half a century after it went out of style, he had never taken cues from history, much less fashion, and his development over the decades has been driven by an inward need to find a rapprochement between organic and architectural form. In Portal, for example, the vertical opening seems strangely narrow until we see that it has the proportions of a person of heroic stature. Reversing solid and void, Paley has rendered an opening in steel and the human presence as an opening—an emptiness that viewers might imagine themselves filling.

As Cubist collage acquired three dimensions in the work of Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwitters and many others, assemblage was born. If we insist on applying a label, we might call Paley an assemblagist, though he manufactures the elements of his constructions instead of finding them readymade, as the inventors of the medium did. Pointing to thin, linear elements in certain works, we could say he makes drawings in space, like Picasso, Juan Gonzales or David Smith. The trouble with labels like these is that they encourage us to narrow our focus and thus overlook the fullness of Paley’s art. Intuiting early on that that all options are open and equally legitimate, he sometimes combined the figurative and the abstract in a single work. He played formal delicacy off against monumental weight. Most powerfully of all, he merged the solidity of architecture with evocations of human gesture and natural form.

The balance of these themes—humanity, nature, architecture—shifts from work to work, and of course the larger a sculpture the more it tilts toward the last of the three. Threshold, 2006, is a cut-and-welded-steel construction as tall as an eight-story building. Painted bright yellow, it stands in front of the headquarters of Klein Steel, in Rochester. A cluster of massive columns raises into the air an intersecting array of immense panels. Tilted, pierced with intricately-shaped openings, these squared-away elements have the dimensions of walls and the airy, floating lightness of massive fronds. The outlines of their openings are variations on the fronds and leaves and branches that proliferate throughout the artist’s oeuvre. Threshold merges built and natural form at a stunning scale. At first, the human presence seems to be absent, but perhaps it is to be seen—or intuited—in the sculpture’s gesturing I-beams.

A look at models and drawings of Threshold shows just how impressive a feat of engineering this work is. Yet we do not see it as a solution to a set of definable problems. This sculpture is alive with the improvisation that generated it. As certain I-beams lean and others extend outward, like gigantic arms, every element in this sculpture acquires the air of doing something with grand and sublimely confident deliberation: holding, reaching, buttressing, tilting to reflect the sky. On a day of shifting sunlight, Threshold flickers, as the upper panels cast transient shadows on the ones below. This sculpture engages the entire landscape.

Speaking of the sculptures he has installed on Park Avenue, Paley acknowledges that they “are not technically site-specific.” Yet they look as if they are thoroughly at home. If “site-specific” does not apply, what would be a better phrase? Site-responsive? This possibility receives support from the artist, who says that he placed each sculpture to “give focus” to its site. “For instance, the open plaza area of the Seagram Building is emphasized by a horizontal sculpture.” At 61st Street “are two sculptures that function as a ceremonial archway, each gesturing to the other and emphasizing the act of passage.” Or we could see this pair of monumental presences as representatives of a natural order in which we and our ceremonies have only a peripheral place. Paley’s sculptures never stand still for a single interpretation. With focused intention, his art invites what life itself invites in a sprawling, haphazard way: not just one definitive understanding but an echoing, amplifying sequence of speculative responses.

This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Certified Organic”

By Carter Ratcliff

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: June 2013

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