ruly, Bertoia has not left us, nor will he. His prodigious legacy of joyful, timeless sculptures, monoprints, and furniture designs have found their way to all corners of the world. Bertoia was a lover of life and all its bounty; the seasons, the sounds, the beauty of the day, the celestial glory of the night. He would often work late under the stars.
James Elkind, owner of Lost City Arts, New York City, has been a long-time admirer and is a "keeper of the flame". Elkind is a truly passionate and knowledgeable dealer of Bertoia’s works. Our 1stdibs team arrived last week to photograph his newly acquired treasures – the Grieg Hall double gongs produced in 1976 for the grand opening in Bergen, Norway. This magnificent and monumental silicon bronze sculpture is nine feet tall and the round gongs are six and eight feet in diameter respectively. It required the efforts of six men to install them in the gallery. As we walked through the door we were greeted by yet another striking Bertoia double rectangular gong from 1976. It is titled, “Orion,” which is unusual because Bertoia titled very few of his works. "Orion" is a constellation of the stars visible throughout the world and recognized by its brilliant stars. Its two planes of patinated bronze are joined together, creating a hollow core, and standing ten feet tall.
James Elkind encouraged us to sound the gongs. "Orion" is majestic, like a rolling thunderstorm, and the double gong takes you back in time and forward into infinity, to some sacred Tibetan temple. No matter what your personal interpretation (and Bertoia himself resisted categorizations), Harry Bertoia’s presence and spirit was deeply felt.
Here are just a few of the many wonderful interpretations available on 1stdibs
Harry Bertoia, a foremost sculptor and a most extraordinary human being, was born Arieto Bertoia in San Lorenzo, Italy on March 10th, 1915. His credo, "Man is not important, humanity is what counts," was adhered to throughout his life. At fifteen, he left Italy with his father to visit his brother Oreste in Detroit, Michigan where he decided to remain in America, believing it afforded greater opportunities than his European home.
After learning English, he went to the Cass Technical High School, which offered instruction in fine and decorative arts and excellent training in metal work and jewelry making. In 1937 he received a full scholarship to Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. As part of the program, the Art Director of the Academy invited Harry to supervise the silver and metal workshop studio. The studio thrived and the following year he was given the status of faculty member and became head of the studio, an extraordinary achievement for someone so young. At that time Cranbrook was the top in its field and enjoyed an exclusive reputation. Many names associated with the school are now icons of the Twentieth Century: Carl Milles, Eliel Saarinen, Walter Gropius, Eero Saarinen, the ceramist Maja Gotell, Charles Eames, Kay Kaiser Eames.
In 1943 Harry married Briggita Valentiner. She was a student at Cranbrook Academy and was the daughter of Wilhelm Valentiner, Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Wilhelm Valentier had a wonderful collection of works by Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, and he knew them personally. Harry was greatly influenced by the art works he saw in their home and this is evident in Bertoia's later works.
In the evenings at Cranbrook, Harry spent time experimenting with the creation of monoprints; these carefully drawn "gems" were to become the future blueprints for his sculptures. Bertoia experimented with small pieces of metal and wood blocks coated with printers’ ink, pressing the blocks onto paper to produce geometric compositions. These early beginnings were the designs for the beautiful metal screens he was to produce in his later life. Harry sent a group of a hundred monoprints to the Solomon Guggenheim Museum and was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. The Director, Hilla Rebay, decided to buy some for her personal collection and the Museum bought the rest; none were returned. Nineteen of the prints were exhibited at the Guggenheim Foundation in the same year, 1943.
Due to the war effort, metals became scarcer and more expensive. The metalcraft department at Cranbrook was suspended and Harry was asked to teach in the graphics department instead. He had learned how to make jewelry at Cass Technical High School and because of its small scale he was able to continue working with brass and silver. For Harry, making these very articulated bone-like compositions;was akin to working on his sculptures in miniature. His jewelry (mostly brooches and necklaces) was shown at galleries up until 1947, and thereafter only created to mark special occasions, and very often generously given away as personal gifts.
The Eameses soon invited Harry to join them in Southern California, where they were developing techniques for laminating and molding plywood, for their Plyformed Products Company. Harry and Briggita moved to Venice, California and joined forces with the Eameses and Eliel Saarinen. In the evenings Harry attended welding classes at Santa Monica College. Harry contributed many technical solutions and ideas to improve the design of the chair including the use of bent rods and rubber welded parts. Bertoia believed that Eames took full credit for it with no mention of Harry’s contribution.
Thereafter, the Eameses and Bertoias parted company. Harry took his family to San Diego where he started to work on larger scale metal sculptures, creating his first in 1947. During this year his immigration papers were successfully realized and he became an American citizen. One day an old friend from Cranbrook, Shu Knoll (born Florence Schust), arrived with a proposition for Harry to come back east and design for their company Knoll Associates. Brigitta accepted and the family, including son Val and daughters Celia and Lesta, moved to start a new life in Pennsylvania. They found an idyllic wooded property in Barto, Pennsylvania of eighty acres, with an old farmhouse and a barn against a backdrop of rolling hills and meadows. It was the same area in which George Nakashima also lived and the two families were to become friends. Interestingly, both Harry and George refrained from signing their work, especially in the beginning of their careers; both gave credit to a higher power, claiming their work belonged to the universe.
Inspired and stimulated by his new environment, and with the creative freedom suppled by the Knolls, Harry began to create entirely new forms. His first exhibition of sculpture in 1951 at the 575 Madison Avenue Knoll Showroom was well received.
In 1952 he designed a series of wire pieces for Knoll, amongst them his famous Bertoia Diamond chair, which was originally known as the “421” chair and is in production to this day. By the mid 1950’s, the chair manufactured by Knoll was such a popular success that Harry was able to retire and devote himself entirely to sculpture. In Bally, five minutes from his house, he created a studio and converted the barn on his property to start his exploration of tonal sculptures. He named it "The Sonambient Barn" and made his own recordings there for his sound sculptures. It was his "thank you" to the universe. From 1950 until 1973 created large-scale commissions and many of his sculptures are on public display across the country.
James Elkind says, "The word that best describes my experience with Harry Bertoia is 'Surprise!' whether it was the resonant sound of the sound sculptures- or the perfect symmetry of his bushes-the play of light in his panel screens, or the technical dexterity of his monoprints, Bertoia continually surprises."
Bertoia captured the very essence of nature especially in his beautiful delicate dandelions, which shiver at the slightest touch, the quietest stroke, or the softest breeze. He died of cancer on November 6th, 1978 at age 63. Despite the repeated warnings of the toxic nature of beryllium copper he had received, Harry Bertoia continued to work with this metal because of its high tonal quality. He has left us a host of perfect drawings, prints and wonderful sculptures to transcend all time and all generations. His spirit and his innermost being fill the air. "Every time you see some tree tops moving in the wind you will think of me."
The World of Bertoia
by Nancy N. Schiffer & Val O. Bertoia
This comprehensive book reveals, for the first time, all the design innovations, original and beautiful forms, and tonal experiences that have given the Bertoia name a highly respected place among mid-20th century artists.
Harry Bertoia, Printmaker: Monotypes and Other Monographics by June Kompass & Harry Bertoia
Each Bertoia print is a spontaneous work of art, born afresh each time out of the whole cloth of the artist's imagination, brought to life in a matter of minutes of hours.