To the Manner Reborn
Originally commissioned by Rago Auctions, January 2018.
“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.
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 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, like a set of fireplace tools and an early rectangular gate. 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.