Acoustic Form

Though known primarily for his art and design, Harry Bertoia was engaged with music from an early age. Growing up, he often listened to his brother and father play their accordions and wished to create instruments that everyone could play without years of training. As Bertoia grew up, this idea remained in the back of his mind. In adulthood, as a well-respected sculptor and designer, Bertoia constantly experimented with metal in a variety of forms. While bending a single heavy wire, the two sides grazed each other, creating an alluring sound that inspired the artist to experiment with the creation of sculptures that had an aural element. This desire to push the boundaries of what sculpture could do was in line with the interests of other artists working in the fifties and sixties. Following in the footsteps of Alexander Calder, who was known for his mobile sculptures, artists such as Jean Tinguely, George Rickey and Pol Bury were creating sculptures with kinetic elements. Bertoia wanted to utilize kinetics to create sound. His experimentation led to the creation of Sonambient sculptures, collections of metal rods that vibrate when stroked to produce sound. He created a wide variety of Sonambients of differing scales, metals and forms. After evolving his Sonambient practice, Bertoia began creating gong forms, which in many ways were historical antecedents to the Sonambients, as their sculptural and aural qualities were intertwined. In the late 1960s, Bertoia converted the old barn on his estate in eastern Pennsylvania into a concert hall by moving over 100 Sonambients inside and organizing them for optimal aural impact. He staged concerts for close friends and continued to utilize the barn as a musical laboratory, constantly teaching himself how to achieve different sounds.

It is clear that sound was an indispensable aspect of the work that Bertoia considered some of his most important. For this reason, he was delighted by the commission to create artworks for the opening of Grieg Hall, a contemporary concert hall in Bergen, Norway. A concert hall was clearly the perfect opportunity to create Sonambients and place them in relation to a space dedicated to the preservation and performance of music. For this commission, Bertoia focused mainly on the gong, creating many different iterations of the form, from outdoor installations, to wall-mounted works. The present lot was created for the opening and exhibited along with two other similar gongs, each suspended from the ceiling at different angles, as Three Split Gongs. The artist was able to blend old and new by hanging each of the antiquated elements of Three Split Gongs at novel angles that make the overall sculpture appear to be kinetic. This conversation between the contemporary and antiquated suited the unique nature of the concert hall, which was architecturally contemporary but named for Edvard Grieg, the music director of the facility in the 1880s. Beyond this, the gong itself is a potent symbol of complex cultural evolution on its own.

There are debates as to when the first gong was created, but it is widely agreed that they came into use during the Bronze Age around 3,500 BCE in Asia. The Chinese used the gong for religious, courtly and military rituals, playing it to signal the entrance of important figures associated with these sectors of society. Starting in with the rise of Buddhism in China, all sacred Chinese gongs were inscribed with the phrase “Tai Loi”, meaning “happiness has arrived”. Over time, gongs became increasingly more ornate and attracted the attention of Westerners, who came to the East in ever greater numbers during the eighteenth century. In 1791 Westerners incorporated the gong in symphonies. Over the decades, Western royals and wealthy elites began collecting gongs for their decorative, artistic and cultural value. The gong held a variety of meanings to each society that incorporated them in to their culture. They were praised for spiritual and artistic power while also being prized as symbols of power and dominance.

By selecting such a loaded global cultural symbol to inaugurate Grieg Hall, Bertoia succeeded in not only celebrating the space’s importance within the realm of contemporary and historical music, but in placing the hall in a larger musical history. It is clear that the powerful symbol of the gong was more than a simple choice for the commission, since Bertoia had experimented with the form many times in the years before he created works for Grieg Hall. After creating so many different sculptural forms in his nearly forty year career, Bertoia chose to be buried under a one-ton gong of his own design on his estate in eastern Pennsylvania, by his Sonambient barn. At the end of his life, Bertoia wanted to be remembered for his ability to blend music, art and design. The gong is the perfect union of all three.

One prevailing characteristic of sculpture is the interplay of void and matter. The void being of it is no exaggeration to day, the reality of sculpture is to be found in the void. Matter simply being an introductory device to the essential.

—Harry Bertoia

Harry Bertoia 1915–1978

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 studied under the direction of Maija Grotell and Walter Gropius. Bertoia 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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