Albert Paley: Giving steel a new twist

Years ago, it was not uncommon to find artists and architects working together, one embellishing the building the other had designed. With the rise of modern architecture, however, ornament was proscribed, and the age-old craft of iron working nearly became extinct. Today, with many architects revolting against the excessive stylistic restraints of modernism, decoration is once again back in vogue. It's none too soon, says Albert Paley, a metal artist whose studio is in Rochester, N.Y. For the past 15 years he has been creating a wide range of architectural ornamentation, such as gates and screens, as well as smaller pieces like tables and plant stands.

With a red hot furnace and myriad ancient tools, Paley treats seemingly implacable steel bars like rubber, twisting, bending, turning, and forming them into phenomenal shapes. Many examples of this talented artist/craftsman's work can be seen in an exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Mass., and now on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts until July 20.

This is an especially felicitous location, for Paley was commissioned to design and build two gates -- one for a pedestrian entrance and the other for the service entrance -- on the Virginia museum's new west wing. Visitors can not only see the full range of Paley's oeuvre in a museum installation, but they can also observe some of it in situ and begin to understand the collaborative nature of his efforts.

Architect Malcolm Holzman of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates in New York City has long been a fan of Paley, who started out making gold jewelry but who switched to steel in the early 1970s, when he won a competition to design a set of gates for the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It was Mr. Holzman who recommended Paley to the Virginia museum.

The two seem like birds of a feather, for just as the architect's primary task in designing the west wing was to double the size of the museum without overpowering the existing 1936 neo-Georgian original building, so the artist's task was to design ornamentation that wouldn't draw excessive attention to itself.

Says Holzman, ``Paley has a great ability to listen. He understands what the building is about and made his work adjust to it. Many artists would try to do their own things.'' Explains Paley, ``I'm not trying to create a piece of sculpture and impose it on an architect's building.''

Design of the entrance gate derives from Paley's long-standing interest in tree-inspired motifs, adapted to the opening in the rear wall. The service gate was considerably more difficult since, at 10 tons and 32-feet-long by 12-feet-high, it was the largest piece Paley had ever created. The sliding wall, which resembles a set of vertical Venetian blinds, is constructed of some 900 individual pieces of steel all welded together.

``I wanted it to be impressionistic, similar to the facetting of the stone,'' he says, adding, ``The grid in the stone wall is continued in the gate.''

The limestone-walled west wing is designed to hold a large collection of contemporary painting and sculpture and a collection of Art Nouveau objects. What is especially fascinating is that the very different collections fit comfortably within the same space. The galleries for the contemporary works are hardwood-floored, have painted walls, and some double-height ceilings, while those for the older works have carpeted floors, deeply coved ceilings, and raised panels on which the art hangs.

So, too, it is with Paley's muscular works. Fusing structure and ornamentation, they are fully integrated works of art that add to the design. The Virginia Museum is fortunate to have acquired two very functional Paleys for its permanent collection, along with its stylish and dramatic new building.

Carleton Knight III reports regularly on architecture for the Monitor.

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