I go beyond the visible…I go to the sound, and the sound, to me, is what I think makes it possible for me to get a little close to what I want to say.
Experiencing the Void
Sound Sculptures by Harry Bertoia
Harry Bertoia’s sculptural philosophy was not unlike that of Isamu Noguchi or even Henry Moore, artists who believed in the significance of the negative space created by their physical works. However, it was Bertoia who perhaps took this philosophy one step further, believing that “the reality of sculpture is to be found in the void” and that matter was simply “an introductory device to the essential”. Intent on materializing this philosophy into something tangible, Bertoia began to experiment with sound as a vehicle for experiencing “the void”. He further explained “I go beyond the visible portion of this; I go to the sound, and the sound, to me, is what I think makes it possible for me to get a little closer to what I want to say.”
It is not until he creates his first Sonambient sculpture when Bertoia is able to fully engage in this void beyond what a purely visual experience could offer.
Bertoia’s early sculptural works illustrate his preoccupation with void and matter—the airy wire constructions and dense welded forms represent the conflicting physicality of the concept and the artist’s struggle to express them simultaneously. He takes this exploration a step further in his Spray and Willow forms by introducing a kinetic component – thin bundles of wire that sway and shift in their environment. However, it is not until he creates his first Sonambient sculpture when Bertoia is able to fully engage in this void beyond what a purely visual experience could offer. In 1972, when asked if there was a relationship between his early spill casts and his sound sculptures, the artist was quick to respond that there was indeed a connection; “If you photographically were able to capture that emotion—all the information which is a result of high temperature and forces in the earth would come very close to the sound that we actually heard.”
Bertoia even created double-sided gongs which he particularly enjoyed because they were large enough to envelope him with sound.
Building on the success of his Sonambient sculptures, Bertoia created his first gongs in the early 1970s. Cut from a single sheet of metal, or formed by welding two sheets together with a void between them, his gongs were produced in a variety of shapes and sizes, each with a unique tone. The single sheet gongs were often slit through the middle to give the gong a deeper sound, the resulting cuts often curving into various sensual, female forms. The surfaces ranged in patina and texture and depending on the material he chose, the gongs could be appear golden and glowing or hammered and green. Bertoia even created double-sided gongs which he particularly enjoyed because they were large enough to envelope him with sound. At his estate in Barto, Pennsylvania, a massive gong hangs above the late artist’s grave which when played, can be heard for miles.
The present lot is constructed of two massive sheets of bronze, welded along each edge enclosing a cavity of air. Across the surface, Bertoia has dotted the copper with small protrusions. Arranged like constellations or points on a map, the reverberating soundwaves are interrupted sporadically by these divots, adding to the complexity of the resulting sound and when struck, this double-membrane gong produces a deep, resonating tone.
When Bertoia conceptualized the term Sonambient, his intention was for it to describe all of his sounding sculptures—gongs, tonals and singing bars alike. While the general understanding of the term has narrowed slightly, it remains clear that each component was integral to creating an environment of sound, Bertoia’s ultimate vision for experiencing sculpture.
One prevailing characteristic of sculpture is the interplay of void and matter. The void being of it is no exaggeration to say, the reality of sculpture is to be found in the void. Matter simply being an introductory device to the essential.
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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