Along the Avenue

Along the Avenue

Albert Paley, Sculpture at 52nd Street

The 2.5-ton work at 52nd Street will be 10 feet high, 13.5 feet wide, and 7 feet deep. Photo: Myers Creative Imaging, courtesy of the Paley Archive

This June, Albert Paley will install 13 new works on the malls of Park Avenue, at sites starting at 51st Street across from St. Bartholomew’s Church and running uptown to 67th Street. The project, some three years in the making, is the first major outdoor presence in New York for Paley, who received the American Craft Council Gold Medal in 2010. It’s also the first time the eminent sculptor, who works in Rochester, New York, with a staff of 16, has created so many works at once. American Craft asked Paley about the monumental undertaking.

Editor's note: An excerpt of this conversation appeared in the print edition of American Craft.

Could you begin by telling us how you became involved in this project?
On Park Avenue, you basically have an outdoor space serving as an exhibition area. In the past, people would submit proposals, but recently that’s changed; now you have to be invited by the steering committee [the Fund for Park Avenue’s sculpture committee and the public art program of New York’s Department of Parks and Recreation].

Based on work I had done, I was approached and asked for a proposal. With all of Park Avenue to deal with, and based on the time frame – these are all new works – I felt that I could do 13 sculptures.

Talk about choosing your sites.
Site-specific work deals with architectural scale – how the sculpture relates to the buildings and the environment – as well as the scale of the pedestrian. Even though these pieces won’t be permanently on Park Avenue, I wanted them to relate to their sites – and along the avenue, I wanted a spectrum of pieces.

The most horizontal location is in front of St. Bart’s; there’s a very low-profile building there that emphasizes the horizontal nature. It was the first site I chose – there’s nothing like it elsewhere on Park Avenue. The biggest, most impressive site is at 52nd Street. It’s a broader cross-section, so the pieces had to have a presence to balance that. On 53rd, where the buildings are fairly small, it’s condensed. There’s a delicacy about the environment, so the pieces I designed for it are more vertical, more open and lyrical.

What was your process for developing work for an urban corridor?
I spent time in the city on numerous occasions; I would walk the avenue during the evening and during the day, taking photographs and developing where the sightlines would be.

Because this is an urban center, you also have to think about structural engineering and city code requirements, in addition to the actual visual impact of the work. And that’s before considerations for shipping and installation. The scale, the size, how long cranes can be on site – it’s quite complex.

Do you find those complications informative?
With a project of this magnitude – or any large scale project – you have to deal with structural engineering, with weights considerations, foundation considerations, also the aspect of public safety. It’s just the nature of such a project.

What were the reactions of the groups you worked with in the city?
I forget how many meetings there were ­– there were many, many meetings – but they were all very positive and very constructive. One of the things that comes into play because the installation is in the spring is the flower beds and plantings on Park Avenue. We have to take the dirt out, put our foundations down, then the dirt goes back in for the plantings, and there was concern about the past history of that site – just so that it doesn’t become problematic for the people. But the works were all designed in a way that they would have minimal impact.

How large is your team?
I’m in Rochester, New York, with 16 people full time. About half are in administration and support systems and half are hands-on – so I have a project manager, a director of the studio, I have a full-time archivist who is involved with the documentation. My design process goes from drawing to models, so there is an individual onsite who only deals with the computer generation of patterns and the appropriate scaling. Other individuals are dealing with the subcontracting - some of the sandblasting and the painting, the logistic of shipping and installation, plus a foreman on the floor who works directly with me to develop the logistics of the project. The actual fabrication is actually the shortest period of time, all of the financial feasibility studies that have to take place, all of the subcontracting contracts, all of that has to take place before we even touch the metal.

The installation will be on view June through November. What’s the future of the individual pieces?
The goal is to sell and place the work. To date, we have eight sculptures presold, which has allowed us financially to make the project happen. Some are going to cities, others to universities and individuals. One is going to a museum.

How does this project compare to your previous site-specific installations?
A lot of times with my work there is a sense of symbolism implied. If I’m designing something for a religious institution, that’s totally different from designing for, say, an athletic stadium. With this project, there were not those direct references, but in the city, I think there’s just the energy of the urban environment.

The pieces aren’t kinetic, but they imply movement. They appear to be coming together and coming apart at the same time. There’s a sense of alterability and change that’s very much the emotional construct of a city.

Think about a street – the traffic, the pedestrians, the play of light during the day; it’s very dynamic. Every time somebody passes by, it will be a different experience.

One of the things that I tried to do – besides each piece being visual different one from the other – is I wanted to deal with a spectrum of work. So some pieces are painted monochrome; others are polychrome. Some are dealing with weathering steel or Cor-ten steel, others combine stainless and Cor-ten steel, and then there are some pieces that are just stainless steel  so that each one has a different character.

Has this project afforded you any opportunities to think about your work differently?
It is different. For lack of a better term, it’s all speculative. Usually for large-scale work, you wouldn’t just do a piece and then try to find a permanent home for it, but this was such a great opportunity. I also made a studio move about three years ago, and now have a 50,000-square-foot space. Prior to that, I couldn’t do this many sculptures at one time. Logistically, that was the biggest challenge for the studio.

Artistically, while certain design sensibilities are consistent in my work, just by the nature of it, the work evolves one piece to the next. This total body of work – 13 pieces that happened simultaneously – deals with the whole spectrum, with the relationships of color, with form. It’s been quite demanding.

Perry A. Price is the American Craft Council’s director of education.