To the Manner Reborn
by Glenn Adamson
“Mannerism” is a term that doesn’t get around much anymore. It used to be a key concept in art history, like Baroque and Rococo, referring both to a specific movement and to a stylistic tendency. The original Mannerists lived in the sixteenth century: the painter Parmigianino, the architect Giulio Romano, the goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini. They were fated to grow up in the shadow of the high renaissance. Some were even able to watch the ageing Michelangelo, as he completed his Sistine Chapel frescos. They reacted to all this intimidating greatness with surprising confidence—indeed, overstatement. Master technicians, they twisted matter into impossibly refined and improbably elaborate forms. Their style was exaggerated; the emotional pitch of their work, high.
The greatest exponent of the Mannerist impulse is Albert Paley. This is partly a matter of style—his way of drawing in space, at once attenuated and muscular.
Like other style descriptors (Impressionist, Fauvist and Cubist included), Mannerist was not originally intended as a compliment. The term implies a certain overwroughtness, a negative connotation which has perhaps led to its falling out of fashion. Yet it remains a useful concept, and not only for understanding the sixteenth century. Art Nouveau, for example, is clearly a Mannerist style: the pots of George Ohr, the furniture of Hector Guimard, the glass of Emile Gallé. So too is Bebop, with its articulate variations on—and deformations of—previous jazz standards.
In our own day, the greatest exponent of the Mannerist impulse is Albert Paley. This is partly a matter of style—his way of drawing in space, at once attenuated and muscular. But it is not only that. Paley shares much more with his forebears of one and five centuries ago. First, unlike modernists and classicists, he has no interest in hard-and-fast rules. His compositions are intuitive rather than “correct.” They obey only their own logic. His formal maneuvers replicate themselves in breathtakingly extended series, each a riff on all the others, like a physically manifested Coltrane solo.
Second, Paley’s objects are excessive, and purposefully so. They explore the outer limits of ornamental intensity. This is particularly evident in his furniture, because he allows the nominal function (that of a table, plant stand, or candelabrum) to be almost—but not completely—overwhelmed in a surfeit of embellishment. Utility functions for him like a diver’s springboard, a familiar footing from which his imagination can leap into free space. Look particularly at the way his vertical forms, such as standing lamps and candlesticks, whirl upwards into being like dust devils made of steel.
Paley has been able to infuse forged iron—that most elemental and recalcitrant of mediums—with such sophistication. He has breathed new life into an old idea: when attempting to do justice to the possibilities of art and craft, too much is never enough.
Paley also registers as Mannerist in his self-awareness regarding precedent. He is deeply knowledgeable about decorative art, and an accomplished collector of Art Nouveau. Like the artists of the sixteenth century, his creative intelligence is highly attuned to past achievement, including in his own discipline of metalsmithing. The aforementioned Cellini, and other historic blacksmiths like Samuel Yellin, are ever-present echoes in his work; the selection at Rago includes some decisive nods to the past. Paley didn’t come out of nowhere. He is an artist with a well-positioned rear view mirror.
The Mannerist mode is worth holding on to partly because of just such intelligent relations with the past, but also because it manifests, in extreme form, a crucial creative formula: the desire to master materiality in order to transcend it. It is remarkable that Paley has been able to infuse forged iron—that most elemental and recalcitrant of mediums—with such sophistication. He has breathed new life into an old idea: when attempting to do justice to the possibilities of art and craft, too much is never enough.
As you work, the form leaps and changes, it moves, maybe subdivides. It follows the same steps as organic growth. It enables you to deal intimately with the physicality and malleability of material and process…I wasn’t trying to design the movement and motion. They were generated.
Albert Paley is an American jewelry designer and sculptor whose work defies strict categorization as either art or craft, instead embracing the finer aspects of both disciplines.
Paley was born in Philadelphia in 1944 to lower middle class parents. Despite showing a natural inclination towards the arts, Paley held misgivings about pursuing a career as an artist. He believed the only way to earn a steady income in the arts was to find work in advertising—a proposition he found distasteful.
It was Paley’s girlfriend, a student at the Tyler School of Art, who convinced him otherwise. A single Saturday spent touring the campus and Paley was sold; he enrolled at the Tyler School of Arts with hardly enough money for a single semester’s tuition. Paley began taking classes in jewelry making and sculpture during his sophomore year and soon found himself enthralled with both crafts. Paley graduated from the Tyler School of Arts in 1969 with a Master in Fine Arts.
Paley began his professional career as a jeweler creating works of wearable art that merged the sinuous and organic lines of European Art Nouveau with the visual weight of metalwork. Later in 1969, Paley accepted a position teaching goldsmithing at the Rochester Institute of Technology, but continued to pursue his sculptural aspirations on the side. In 1972, Paley was commissioned to produce the Portal Gates at the Smithsonian Institute’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. Completed in 1973, and installed in 1976, the monumental steel, bronze and copper doors earned Paley national recognition as a metalsmith of truly unique vision.
Albert Paley’s sculptures don’t simply occupy space; they command it. Paley possesses a rare ability to transform iron from a lifeless and unyielding metal into a moving, almost liquid, element. Despite the seemingly spontaneous and organic nature of his work, Paley is a consummate draftsman, envisioning the majority of his creations on paper before stepping to the forge.
Crossing the boundaries between art and craft, Paley has established himself as one of the greatest metal artists in the country. Throughout his career, he has completed several important private and public site-specific commissions including the Clay Center Sculpture at the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in West Virginia and the Animals Always installation at the St. Louis Zoo. Further, his works have been widely published and can be found in multiple major museum collections around the world.
Auction Results Albert Paley