Explorations of light

An Extraordinary Study for the MIT Chapel

Harry Bertoia collaborated with the 20th century’s greatest architects making more than fifty large-scale sculptures in public spaces around the world during his lifetime. Bertoia repeatedly rose to the challenge of creating works that aligned with the architectural vision for a given space by highlighting and complementing the unique characteristics of the environment. Tangible objects of beauty, Bertoia’s commissioned works transform and interact within the space that they reside by adding elements of luminosity, sensuality, and tactility.

Bertoia’s screen for the chapel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, 1954.

It is Bertoia’s own explorations into the phenomena of light, space and proportion that led to his intimate understanding of architecture. One of his earliest and most noteworthy architectural commissions was the screen Bertoia completed in 1954 for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge designed by his friend Eero Saarinen. For the simple brick curved apse with a shell-dome ceiling, Bertoia suspended brass-melt coated panels and cut out shapes from twenty threads behind the altar. Increasing in density as they near the floor, the panels capture and reflect the light from the domed skylight creating an ethereal experience of lights and darks.

The present lot is a likely an early study for the important MIT commission. A free-standing sculpture, this important work features metal shapes on vertical rods ascending from a wooden base. The wood base and the nails to which the rods are adhered indicate that this work is a study for a larger project. Like the suspended elements of the large-scale work, the geometric shapes are placed horizontally (not common for Bertoia) at irregular intervals catching the light from various angles imitating the fluttering of wings or leaves falling from a tree. Bertoia used studies such as this to explore the qualities of light and space. Unlike this work, where the density of the pieces remains consistent along the rods, the screen at MIT features a gradient.

Jewel-like in its execution, this rare and extraordinary study is emblematic of this highly experimental time in Bertoia’s career which ultimately led to numerous projects and installations related to architecture. 

Harry Bertoia

Harry Bertoia was a true Renaissance man well-versed in the language of art and design. Born in San Lorenzo, Italy in 1915, Bertoia relocated to the United States at the age of fifteen and enrolled at Cass Technical High School in Detroit to study hand-made jewelry. In 1937, Bertoia was awarded a scholarship to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan where he was drawn to the mostly empty metal shop and, after two years in the program, was invited to head the department.

At Cranbrook, Bertoia was introduced to a number of designers whose names would become synonymous with mid-century modern design. Here he met Eero Saarinen, with whom he would collaborate on numerous architectural projects, and Charles and Ray Eames with whom, for a short period during the war, he would work for at the Molded Plywood Division of Evans Products in California. In 1950, Bertoia moved east to Pennsylvania to open his own studio and to work with Florence Knoll designing chairs. Bertoia designed five chairs out of wire that would become icons of the period, all of them popular and all still in production today.

The success of his chair designs for Knoll afforded Bertoia the means to pursue his artistic career and by the mid-1950s he was dedicated exclusively to his art. Using traditional materials in non-traditional ways, Bertoia created organic sculptural works uniting sound, form and motion. From sculptures sold to private buyers to large-scale installations in the public realm, Bertoia developed an artistic language that is at once recognizable but also uniquely his own.

Today Bertoia’s works can be found in various private and numerous public collections, including: The Art Institute of Chicago, Denver Art Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., Museum of Modern Art, New York, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Learn More

Upcoming Lots Harry Bertoia

Auction Results Harry Bertoia