This lot is offered together with a certificate of authenticity from the Harry Bertoia Foundation, Bozeman, Montana.
Important "Sunflower" and "Dandelion" Sculptures by Harry Bertoia
In 1972, when Harry Bertoia was interviewed by Paul Cummings for the
Archives of American Art, the conversation inevitably came around to wire. His Diamond chair for Knoll, with its criss-crossing wire web structure, had first been produced twenty years earlier and become an indelible icon. Also in the 1950s, Bertoia had developed his first radially arranged wire sculptures, colloquially known as Sunflowers and Dandelions. “The wire has been a constant element, I have seen it curved and I have seen it straight, I’ve seen it still and I’ve seen it in motion,” Bertoia told Cummings. “And it still has an interest.”
Does it ever. As their summertime garden names suggest, the Sunflowers and Dandelions are among Bertoia’s most joyous works—which is saying a lot, as this artist’s oeuvre was possessed of an incurable optimism. The examples offered here are no exception. Though executed in two different metals (of the many that Bertoia
experimented with), both have the burnished gold color of a Byzantine mosaic seen by candlelight. While neither is literally kinetic or “playable” in the manner of Bertoia’s later Sonambients, both beckon to the touch, offering innumerable light elements that can be brushed into vibrating action.
The presentation of the Sunflower (lot 115) and Dandelion (lot 116) here offers a unique opportunity to observe Bertoia’s exploration of his treasured sunburst-form sculpture. The Sunflower, executed in 1956, is an early example and has a distinctly handmade sensibility. The slightly reflective pins mounted at the wire tips of the Sunflower are actually constructed from pairs of opposing square nails coated in brass, and they produce an endlessly lively, dancing array of highlight and shadow.
Seven years later, Bertoia was commissioned to create the present Dandelion sculpture for the Consolidated Gas Company in Detroit, Michigan. Compared to the Sunflower, the Dandelion is fuller and perfectly spherical, a very different effect achieved with the wire medium. While the open format of the Sunflower’s wires imbues the sculpture with wild energy, the densely clustered Dandelion bristles take on a seemingly soft and delicate texture, appearing luminous at its spherical extremity and holding a darkened core within itself.
Wire went even deeper into Bertoia’s artistic imagination than might at first be evident, because it was for him the three dimensional equivalent of a drawn line.
Ever since his student days at Cranbrook, he had alternated between works on paper
and constructed forms. The closeness of the relationship can be seen by comparing both the Sunflower and Dandelion to roughly contemporary sketches. It can be tempting to think of these drawings as preparatory works for Bertoias sculptures, but in fact he was equally inventive in both two and three dimensions, seeing both as an equally generative context for form.
A final aspect of these two works that merits attention is their overall format, with the
primary zone of sculptural interest held aloft on a slim stand. This was unorthodox by the standards of the 1950s and ‘60s, when American sculptors broke violently with the logic of the plinth, either using it as a platform for expressionist gesture—as in the works of David Smith, Seymour Lipton, or Herbert Ferber—or dispensing with it altogether, as in the still more avant garde works of the Minimalists. Bertoia’s composition is decorous by comparison, consistent with the public artworks he was creating at the time, which often featured similar attenuated armatures. At the time, such choices positioned him as relatively restrained and "domesticated.” One reviewer wrote in Art News (May 1960), “Harry Bertoia’s metal sculpture projects a sense of installed decoration; as such it represents a kind of contemporary Victorianism for an over-industrialized bourgeoisie, steel and bronze counterparts of the aspidistra and the potted palm.” In retrospect, such judgments bespeak the prejudices of an art world bent on ambitious overstatement. Bertoia’s contrarian habit of presenting his works as accessibly as possible, almost like bouquets, reminds us of his inherently generous spirit.