A Rare & Early Sculpture

By Harry Bertoia

Harry Bertoia had a natural talent for working in metal. He first learned the craft of metalsmithing while attending Detroit’s Cass Technical High School and by the young age of twenty-two was invited by Eliel Saarinen to oversee the metalworking studio at Cranbrook. Bertoia’s experience at Cranbrook was his artistic awakening. From 1937-1943 he was an integral part of the artistic ferment of the famed school. As Eliel Saarinen commented in an address to the American Institute of Architects in 1931, “Cranbrook is not an art school… it is a working place for creative art.” And Bertoia worked: he ran the metal studio, learned printmaking and developed his monoprint technique that we would explore throughout his life. 

This present lot is a rare and early masterwork. It is directly related to Bertoia’s explorations in jewelry but it also marks Bertoia’s breakthrough as a sculptor.

During this time, he also made jewelry. Even after the metal shop was closed due to war restrictions, he would salvage and make pieces from scrap. The relative ease of making jewelry was akin to sketching, a place for Bertoia to try new ideas and explore. His jewelry forms, like his later sculptural work, were influenced by nature and he took an almost microscopic perspective with anthropomorphic forms of amoebas and insects. He created myriad branching shapes delicately shaped, beveled and tooled to reflect light—the results expressing the dynamism of movement. 

This present lot is a rare and early masterwork. It is directly related to Bertoia’s explorations in jewelry but it also marks Bertoia’s breakthrough as a sculptor. The ebony base is a carved and dimpled landscape of light and shadow while the delicate, but strong, vertical rods and kinetic elements are a precursor to his later sounding sculptures. Bertoia himself referenced the work as “ebony fantasy,” and the overall expression is indeed an ethereal and sensational experience, one that can be likened to Bertoia’s later large-scale, architectural commissions. 

This piece is also exceptional for its provenance. By the mid-1950s Harry Bertoia’s artistic career was taking off, he was designing furniture for Knoll and had already completed several important large-scale commission works. His furniture designs and masterpiece sculptures opened many doors and introduced Bertoia’s work to an international audience and interestingly to Venezuela where at mid-century there was an appreciation for modern design aesthetics both in regards to architecture and sculpture. 

In 1958, Bertoia was commissioned to create a screen for the US Embassy in Caracas designed by the architect, Don Hatch. Hatch had established himself in Caracas in the 1940s and also ran a high-end gallery and decorative arts store, Galeria Don Hatch. Bertoia’s works, both small and large scale, were exhibited and sold at Hatch’s gallery. The present lot was included in an exhibition there the same year that Bertoia’s screen for the embassy was completed.

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, Bertoia 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