NEW YORK - Harry Bertoia was an unmistakably prolific artist, having produced over 50,000 works during his life.
Sotheby’s is staging Bertoia: A Celebration of Sound and Motion, a selling exhibition of more than 30 of the artist’s sculptures, from private collections and public commissions. The featured works are both large and small and made over the course of a 25-year time period. One thing the exhibition does not attempt to be is encyclopedic, says Megan Whippen, an assistant vice president and specialist in 20th century design at Sotheby’s. Instead, she notes that when organizing the show her department sought stylistic signposts from each era: the 50s through the 70s. “The uniting principle, which is also a part of the title, is focusing on this idea of movement and sound,” she explains.
Harry Bertoia Sculpture Screens from the First National Bank of Miami, Florida, 1959.
Bertoia is perhaps best known for creating his sonambient, or tonal sculptures, which consist of metal rods, bars, and gongs that vary in size from a few inches to 20-some-feet. When activated, they produce a musical sound. They also bristle with movement.
As an artist, Bertoia was a multi-hyphenate – working not only as a sculptor but also as a furniture and jewelry designer, a printmaker and a creator of architectural installations. His rather abstract imagery was often drawn from natural phenomena – for example, a dandelion flower gone to seed.
But above all, as his son (and fellow artist) Val Bertoia has stated: “Harry was a metal man. When Harry was making furniture he was making metal comfortable for the human body. When Harry was making sound sculpture, he was making metal comfortable for the human mind.”
Born in San Lorenzo, Italy, Bertoia immigrated to Detroit in 1930 at the age of fifteen. He won a scholarship to the famous Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where he would study with the likes of Florence Schust (Knoll), Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, all of whom would prove influential in the artist’s career later in life.
Harry Bertoia Dandelion, circa 1960.
After his studies, he began teaching metal work at the academy. With the wartime need for metal, Bertoia was forced to work with jewelry, which did not require as much raw material. He designed wedding rings for Charles and Ray Eames, whom he would follow to California in 1943 to pursue work in molded plywood, specifically chair solutions. This first foray into furniture design would not be his last.
In 1950, Bertoia moved to Pennsylvania upon the invitation of Hans and Florence Knoll of the celebrated Knoll, Inc. furniture design company. Within a couple of years, the artist introduced his wildly popular wire-mesh Diamond chair series, followed by his Bird chair series, a high-backed version which looks like a bird with spread wings.
But from 1953 until his death from lung cancer in 1978 at age 63, Bertoia would concentrate on sculpture. In addition to his sonambient or tonal works, he would create over 50 large public commissions prompted by such architects as I.M. Pei and Eero Saarinen, who commissioned a striking altarpiece in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Chapel.
Harry Bertoia Maquette for the Monumental "Comet" Sculpture from the W. Ferris Hawkins house, executed in 1960.
Sotheby’s is selling an iconic architectural work: sculptural screens executed in 1959 for the First National Bank of Miami, Florida upon the request of architect and interior designer Florence Knoll. Made of brass-coated steel and composed in 10 tree-like panels, the work suggests a sense of movement captured in the complexity of its sheen. The piece is being offered by the University of Virginia to benefit its School of Architecture.
Other sale highlights include a circa-1960 Dandelion done in stainless steel, brass, and slate, as well as two monumental sound sculptures made in 1975 for the Standard Oil Commission and for the Colorado National Bank.
Though Bertoia was not an especially market-driven artist – known for never signing his own works, Whippen thinks he would be pleased to see the now global reach of his oeuvre. “When I first started in this market a while ago, his pieces were primarily staying in the United States. Now they’re going all over the world,” she comments.
Bertoia’s daughter Celia is currently at work on a biography of her father due out next year, the centennial of the artist’s birth, while Bertoia retrospectives are in development for this year and next at institutions including the Susquehanna Art Museum and Allentown Art Museum, both in Pennsylvania.
Bertoia: A Celebration of Sound and Motion runs from February 11 through March 9.