Forging a Pure Artistic Expression

The Work of Albert Paley

After a decade working primarily with silver and goldsmithing for jewelry designs, by 1969 Albert Paley began working with metal. The present lot, created in 1971, is the largest piece of metal work and almost certainly the first piece of ‘furniture’ made by Albert Paley. Executed in forged steel, bronze and copper by Paley independently, without assistants, and made completely by hand without the aid of power tools, this work represents the purity Paley sought in his work as he began the investigation of new materials and forms. This extraordinary work directly precedes his seminal Renwick gates of 1972, which put Paley’s work on a national stage and brought wide acclaim.

Portal Gates for the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1974. Courtesy of Paley Studios Archives.

The form of the music stand is based on the forged aesthetic. Seeking a pure expression of his artistic investigation, all the finishes are derived directly from the heat and scale (the term which black in blacksmithing refers which is the layer of oxides that form on the surface of metal during heating). The piece itself is constructed without welding using either rivets or wrapping techniques wherein a hot bar is wrapped around a cold bar thus shrinking and making a structural bond.

Albert Paley at work on an end table, 1984. A Sue Weisler, photographer. Fendrick Gallery records, 1952-2001. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Ultimately, Paley sought a work that strikes a balance between structural and functional concerns and aesthetic values and artistic expression. Paley notes, “One informs the others”. All elements play a role in finding that balance. If a rivet is needed, it must also serve the aesthetic concern. This work shows Paley’s interest in how one interacts with an object. The jewelry created early in Paley’s career was worn or placed on the body therefore becoming activated. Here, the music stand gestures to you through its upward arc. The coils on the shelf rest are made with in mind the experience of standing and touching as one would turn pages and employ the stand. 

Looking back and every piece you do is a foundation for the next work. For this, the main element probably took me four days to forge. When I see it it’s better than what I remember. I’m a perfectionist and not conservative. I try to experience the broadest spectrum I can. This was a personal challenge and represented the limits of what I could do. After this work, I started using power machinery.

—Albert Paley

Albert Paley b. 1944

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