Art-curious visitors to the home of Robert and Carolyn Springborn didn’t have long to wait. They were greeted right at the entrance by one of the collection’s most spectacular works: this pair of doors by Albert Paley.
By Glenn Adamson
This artist will need little introduction as one of the preeminent American sculptors of the last half century. He is also the nation’s leading blacksmith – a craft that nearly died a century ago, with the advent of the automobile (countless smithies closed, or were converted to mechanic shops), but had a dramatic return in America, marked by the founding of the Artist-Blacksmith Association of North America (ABANA) in 1973. Paley, already renowned for his work in jewelry, was the clear artistic leader of this renaissance.
Paley’s great early masterwork was a set of gates, which won a competition for the then-new Renwick Gallery in Washington. The project made his fame, launching his career as an architectural-scale metalworker. The Springborns’ entrance doors, made three decades later, show how he progressed from that early success. The Renwick gates are composed of delicate tendrils, which fling themselves up the center of the composition and then curl away into numerous whorls and squiggles, suggesting that ancient mythological emblem, the Tree of Life. The Springborns’ doors feature a similar concentration in the lower central passage, but there the resemblance ends: the composition is disjunctive rather than sinuous, with something of the jagged, explosive vocabulary seen in Paley’s contemporaneous public sculptures.
The doors are further enlivened by the incorporation of glass elements, made by Paley’s frequent collaborator Martin Blank, an important figure in the circle of Dale Chihuly (who did for glass what Paley did for metal, transposing it several keys upward into a spectacular, baroque sculptural medium). Blank’s polychrome glass introduces a lightness of gesture to the doors, like brushstrokes standing out against an intensely worked backdrop. The effect is gloweringly theatrical, bringing to mind the paintings of Clyfford Still, or, closer to Paley’s heart, the avatars of French Art Nouveau, such as Hector Guimard. Such comparisons aside, the doors show Paley himself operating at the height of his powers. With a true sense of dramatic occasion, the portal promises marvels that might lie beyond – that was certainly the case at the Springborn residence – while also constituting a wonder in its own right.
Glenn Adamson is a curator and writer who works at the intersection of craft, design history, and contemporary art. He has previously been a Senior Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art, Director of the Museum of Arts and Design; Head of Research at the V&A; and Curator at the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee. Adamson’s new book, “Craft: An American History,” examines how makers, carpenters, and blacksmiths took on the central role in shaping America’s identity.
Featured Work: Albert Paley (b. 1944), Important Entrance Doors, 2004, glass elements executed by Martin Blank. Estimate: $30,000 – $50,000