Public Masterworks

Monumental Sculptures by Harry Bertoia

Working with the greatest architects of the 20th century, such as Eero Saarinen, Gordon Bunshaft, I.M. Pei, Minoru Yamasaki and Edward Durell Stone, Harry Bertoia created more than fifty large-scale sculptures in prominent public spaces located in cities throughout the United States and around the world (Norway, Venezuela). Like his private works, Bertoia’s commissioned sculptures are aesthetic objects that explore natural phenomena such as light, motion and sound. Much larger in scale, these works function within the broader constraints of architecture, transforming and interacting within the spaces in which they reside.

Multi-Plane screen by Harry Bertoia for General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, 1953

Much larger in scale, these works function within the broader constraints of architecture, transforming and interacting within the spaces in which they reside.

Bertoia’s first large-scale commission was completed in 1953 for the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan designed by Eero Saarinen, a colleague and friend from his days at the Cranbook Academy of Art. For this project, Bertoia created a Multi-Plane screen to separate the restaurant from the entryway of the interior. The welded screen, of brass melt-coated panels connected by rods, features alternating patterns of solids and voids that create a constantly shifting and beautiful play of lights and shadows while providing privacy for those behind it. The following year Bertoia was commissioned by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company in New York to create a screen dividing the public and private sides of the bank’s main floor. This seminal Multi-Plane screen, nearly twice the size of the work he created for General Motors, located on 5th Avenue in New York, is widely admired and critically acclaimed; it has become the most recognizable work by Harry Bertoia. Also in 1954, Bertoia was invited to design a sculpture for the Chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts designed by 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. The individual elements, increasing in density as they near the floor, capture and reflect the light from the domed roof creating an ethereal experience.

Sculpture by Harry Bertoia for the Chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1954

These early masterpieces opened the door to many significant sculptural commissions, both from friends and colleagues as well as other noteworthy architects, and to invitations to participate in internationally acclaimed exhibitions such as the World Fairs of 1957 in Brussels and 1964 in New York. While many of Bertoia’s early large-scale forms were Multi-Plane screens, by the 1960s he was exploring other ideas for public sculpture which paralleled the techniques of his smaller scaled works. Significant projects such as his Dandelion fountain for the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska (Stone 1963), a molten bronze mural for the Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia (Saarinen 1963) and a Welded Form fountain for the Civic Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Stone 1967) illustrate the depth and variety of Bertoia’s unique artistic vision. 

Sonambient sculptures by Harry Bertoia for The Standard Oil building, Chicago, 1974

Bertoia repeatedly rose to the challenge of creating works that aligned with the architectural vision for a given space by creating works to highlight and complement the unique characteristics of their environments. Over the course of his career he created more than 50 large scale public commissions across the globe.

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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