Bertoia Sculpture

The Path to Sound

Drawings in space is one way to characterize many of Harry Bertoia's sculptures. Bertoia “drew” through his monotypes, using them as a type of notebook, working out the composition and form of later works. Monotypes by Harry Bertoia in the 1940s reveal sheets of parallel lines that twist and fold in space, emulating Surrealist image-making. These explorations lead to more linear abstractions resembling combs and clusters or shapes found in nature. Free-floating compositions became organized on a structural frame in these drawings with rows of lines now adhered to a perpendicular bar, whose shape is then repeated along a central spine vertically or set upon a horizon. Bertoia’s first sculptural expression along this theme is found in his jewelry created at Cranbrook in the early 1940s and indeed we find examples arranged along this logic. The present lot makes a dimensional leap, retaining the delicacy of jewelry in its finely constructed vertical elements while creating a dynamic composition only available through scale. 

Parallel lines stem from a Surrealist impulse in the early monotypes, and are found in numerous incarnations throughout Bertoia's oeuvre.

An example of fine line work in the jewelry of Bertoia which develops into sculptures utilizing grouped lines.

Bertoia was influenced by the art of Paul Klee, whose work he experienced in the collection of his father-in-law and former director of the Detroit Institute of Art, Wilhelm Valentiner. Bertoia's art channels notions of the invisible made visible; his art is expansive, it moves beyond the boundaries of the physical medium to a more philosophical endeavor. Like Klee and Kandinsky, Bertoia sought a spiritual realm where art can pursue matters of space and time. In doing so, Bertoia developed ideas of space by incorporating kinetic characteristics in his work. In the early 1950s when the present lot was made, the added element of sound had yet not been discovered (this epiphany occurred in 1959 when an attempt to bend a rod produced a tone). This sculpture is a clear marker and an oracle, predicting the Sonambient works Bertoia has become most famous for. Like the Tonal works a decade later, this sculpture organizes regular vertical lines along a horizontal support. Each linear cluster, numbering approximately 110 wires, forms a plane which interacts visually with adjacent planes, veiling and repeating the composition like a musical score. Bertoia enhances the composition of the sculpture by slightly turning each segment, creating a visual rhythm that is a counterpoint to the regular beat of the individual wires.

Monotype illustrating clusters of fine lines which directly correlates to the present lot. The theme of grouped lines finds its apex in Sonambient sculpture installations such as Bertoia's barn in Bally, Pennsylvania and at Standard Oil Plaza in Chicago.

This masterwork is a touchstone for the entire oeuvre of Harry Bertoia. It marks a shift toward refinement seen in his later work while staying true to the immediacy and experimentation of his drawings. The work stands as symbol of what was to become: numerous sculptures existing in proximity to one another creating an orchestrated whole. The culmination of this ideal finds its apex in the collection of works contained in Bertoia's Sonambient installation and in the refined ensemble of Tonals made for the Standard Oil Building.

One prevailing characteristic of sculpture is the interplay of void and matter…the reality of sculpture is to be found in the void. Matter simply being an introductory device to the essential. 

—Harry Bertoia

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.

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