Paul Evans: Crossing Boundaries And Crafting Modernism

The Argente armoire cabinet from 1970 is from the series of the same name for Directional. It is made of welded and etched aluminum and colored pigments. —Richard Goodbody photo

DOYLESTOWN, PENN. — A Bucks County institution celebrates one of its own in “Paul Evans: Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism,” on view at the James A. Michener Art Museum through June 1. The exhibition is the first to survey Evans’ metalwork, jewelry, sculpture and furniture, tracing the course of Evans’ career.

“Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism” explicates Evans’ place in midcentury American modernism and the unique contributions he made as he embraced new technologies and the innovative use of nontraditional materials. For Evans, his extraordinary and extraordinarily diverse furniture was sculpture.

Evans began as a metalsmith working in the 1950s creating flatware and hollowware, and later copper chests and sculpted steel-front cabinets. From the beginning he was a restless artist, constantly generating new ideas and new techniques. His ever-evolving artistry and continuous experimentation led him from silver and metalsmithing to jewelry, to furniture and sculpture. His work is both brutal and beautiful; he has been described as an artist with an anvil.

Born in Newtown, Penn. (Bucks County), Evans studied first at the George School in Newtown, then at the Philadelphia Textile Institute (now known as Philadelphia University), the School for American Craftsmen (SAC) at the Rochester Institute of Technology and Cranbrook Academy of Art. At the George School, Evans studied woodworking and design at the Hallowell Arts Center, and several pieces from that period are on view. At the SAC, he studied metalworking, and his journeyman’s piece was a silver coffee service with ebony handles; the coffee pot was awarded first prize in the metals section of the Young Americans exhibition in 1952. Over the course of his studies, he won a number of prizes.

From Cranbrook, he headed to Old Sturbridge Village where he was the first independent living craftsman in the metal shop, producing objects based on traditional American colonial designs, jewelry and other pieces drawn from contemporary Scandinavian design.

By 1955 he returned to Bucks County, by then a growing center of Midcentury Modern studio furniture, and opened a showroom in New Hope with woodworker and family friend Phillip Lloyd Powell. As a teenager of 18 or 19, Evans hung around Powell’s studio and cajoled him into displaying some of his work in the gallery. Far more than mere showroom partners, the two often collaborated and Powell encouraged Evans in his move toward large pieces. Their showroom was for display and sales; it was open at first only on Saturday night from 8 pm to midnight in order to catch the out-of-town trade visiting the nearby Bucks County Playhouse. Their shops were elsewhere. Evans’ first workshop was in a converted chicken coop across the river, just outside Lambertville, N.J. His second was a former Pontiac showroom in New Hope and the third, in 1960, adjoined his home on Aquetong Road.

The showroom partnership endured until 1966, when Powell chose to spend more time traveling in Europe and Evans preferred to tend to his expanding furniture business.

Evans’ ultimate workshop was a 1965 combination of the Lambertville and Aquetong Road facilities into a larger one at nearby Plumsteadville to widen the production of his furniture for Directional, Inc, for which he created a number of furniture lines. Evans made sure that every piece made for Directional — and other clients — was made and finished by hand and supervised by the artist at every step, one piece at a time.

By the late 1970s the demands of constantly producing new lines for Directional became overwhelming and the relationship ended in 1979 after Evans had produced 12 collections comprising more than 800 pieces for the company. He then opened his own showroom in New York and associated himself with Design Institute America (DIA), for which he created kinetic furniture, and even revolving rooms with mirrored walls. He maintained that association until his death in 1987, on the first day of retirement. He was 55. In his eulogy of his friend and collaborator, Phillip Lloyd Powell said, “Paul Evans danced on the edge of the volcano.”

As Evans expanded his oeuvre to include unique metal furniture and sculpture, his workshop served as a laboratory where he experimented with innovative materials, technology and designs, stretching the limits of each. He developed ways to give his furniture and sculpture their remarkably tactile, earthy and textured surfaces patinated with paint and acid and other chemicals. He treated steel by forging, burning and oxidation, achieving a distinctive patchwork effect. For example, he wanted to use bronze without casting to create a sculpted, architectural product. In his later work, particularly the Cityscape line for Directional, he began with chrome and then moved to brass and burl. Evans’ later work employed reflective, shattered mirrorlike surfaces.

The objects on view here allow a visitor to see the way Evans moved from one technique to another throughout his career. The earliest works were made by the artist at 18. They are the round, laminated walnut vessel and a brass cigarette box with his initials on the top, both from about 1949. A 97½-by-67-inch walnut fireplace surround, circa 1956–1958, is stunningly fluid, with the play of the whirls and eddies of a stream. His later 1950s wall-mounted loop cabinets in verdigris copper with patchwork bodies and bifold doors with gold leafed studs and linear copper loops are rare. A three-panel screen of band iron, walnut and 23K gold leaf by Evans and Powell around 1960 illustrates Evans’ use of welded steel in a fish-scale pattern, a technique he used in several pieces around then.

The 1961 exhibit of the work of Evans and Powell at America House in New York really put the two on the map. America House was the earliest midcentury retail outlet selling crafts of all kinds, and the work of Evans and Powell was particularly well received. Seven examples very similar to works from that exhibition are on view in “Crossing Boundaries.” A drum coffee table with gold leafed steel spindles supporting a slate top, circa 1968, is based on an earlier work. A similar example here was made with fish scales instead of spindles. Another example similar to a work in the America House show is a colorful, welded and steel patinated steel wall collage with colored pigments and gold leaf.

A 1962 coffee table of welded and patinated steel with colored pigments and a glass top looks like nothing so much as a box of chocolates. It was the precursor to Evans’ “Sculptures in the Fields” of 1962 and 1964 when he made welded and enameled aluminum sculpture and furniture.

Shortly thereafter he introduced Argente, mostly for Directional, which involved the play of dark and light surfaces, etching and bold welded seams. Evans used an acetylene torch to heat and melt the aluminum, causing it to pool and then flow.

Another innovation in the mid-1960s was Evans’ sculpted bronze technique by which he applied epoxy resin on a plywood base or steel frame. The resin could then be sculpted, sandblasted and coated with atomized bronze. An example of his use of this technique is the Cat cabinet that he made for his wife, who loved cats.

The front of a 1972, two-door, forged-front cabinet recalls collage, as it comprises various sized boxes with 23K gold leaf edging and design elements inspired by Evans’ jewelry. It is somewhat of an external wunderkammer. The example on view is one of only six and it is signed “Paul Evans ‘72D,” for Dorsey Reading.

In the mid-1970s, Evans even turned to cardboard. His “Corrugates” furniture pieces were made of corrugated cardboard and burlap.

A later polished steel sideboard with lacquered acrylic and polished brass, from about 1981, resembles four cylinders bound together.

By 1983, Evans was producing kinetic furniture, such as a glass table with a glass top and chrome rods and a glass base that moved toward or away from anyone seated at it. A 1984 electronic table on view measuring 40 by 40 inches is made of steel, travertine, Naugahyde and plywood, and it rises and falls, converting from a cocktail table to a dining table. Utilitarian, these pieces are highly sculptural. Evans’ kinetic rooms for DIA were 10 by 10 feet and revolved by a hydraulic system. They retailed for $18,000 and could be kitted out as living, dining or bedrooms with external storage shelves. An 84-inch electronic cabinet from around 1986 is cylindrical; the piece, Turning Column, is of reverse painted Plexiglas and it rotates.

The exhibition catalog, Paul Evans: Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism, is dedicated to Dorsey Reading, who went to work for Evans as his apprentice right from high school and became the artist’s most valued employee and shop foreman. Along the way, he became the keeper of the Paul Evans legend.

The catalog, by exhibit curator Constance Kimmerle and published by Arnoldsche Art Publishers, is available at the Michener.

The James A. Michener Museum is at 138 South Pine Street. For more information, or 215-340-9800. “Crossing Boundaries and Crafting Modernism” opens at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., June 21.

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