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Harry Bertoia (1915-1978)
September 8, 2010 - December 12, 2010
Works on Paper and Sculpture
“Harry Bertoia’s drawings are the diary of his creative life, expressing his inner vision of the world around him at the moment he was experiencing it. As a record of his thoughts and ideas and the source for all his art, they have just begun to be fully appreciated.” -Anne R. Fabbri, from the catalogue Harry Bertoia: Forty Years of Drawings
Harry Bertoia was born on March 10, 1915, in the small village of San Lorenzo, Udine, Italy, about 50 miles north of Venice. He had one brother, Oreste and one sister, Ave. Another sister died at just a few months old (she was the subject of one of his first paintings). After attending high school in Arzene, Carsara, till age 15, he accompanied his father to Detroit to visit his brother Oreste. Instead of returning to Italy, Bertoia stayed behind to attend Cass Technical High School, a public school with a special program for talented students in arts and sciences.
A one-year scholarship to the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts allowed him to study painting and drawing. By the fall of 1937, another scholarship entitled him to be a student, also of painting and drawing, at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Cranbrook was, at the time, an amazing American Renaissance attracting many later famous artists and designers: Carl Milles, resident-sculptor, Maija Grotell, resident-ceramist, Walter Gropius, visiting Bauhaus-architect, and many more. In 1939, Eliel Saarinen, director of the art community, asked Bertoia to stay on at the academy to re-open the department of metalworking. With the war-time need for metals, Harry was soon forced to concentrate on jewelry, which did not use as much metal. Many of his jewelry pieces were exhibited through the Nierendorf Gallery in New York. He also shared jewelry with his friends at Cranbrook and made wedding rings for Charles and Ray Eames and Edmund Bacon. Harry also continued an after-hour activity he began as a student, experimenting and producing one-of-a-kind prints and drawings later known as monoprints.
Fellows students at Cranbrook made an impressive list: Florence Shust (Knoll), Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. In 1940, Harry met Brigitta Valentiner, the daughter of Wilhelm Valentiner, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the foremost expert on Rembrandt in the U.S. He and Brigitta were married on May 10, 1943. While at Cranbrook, Harry Bertoia sent 100 prints to The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Non – Objective Paintings for evaluation. To his amazement, Hilla Rebay, the director, kept all 100 prints. She bought some for herself and some for the museum. In 1943, 19 of those prints were exhibited by the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation. Harry had the most works by a single artist in that show, which included works by Moholy-Nagy, Werner Drewes and Charles Smith. That same year, he also exhibited prints and jewelry at Cranbrook. Supported by a stipend from Karl Nierendorf, Nierendorf Gallery, New York, Harry continued to hold exhibits of jewelry and drawings. Harry designed two tea sets; one for Eliel Saarinen which remains in the Cranbrook permanent collection.
After Cranbrook, Harry joined Charles Eames in California to do ongoing experimental work on molded plywood, moving to California in 1943. The plywood work stemmed from a continuation of the Eames/Saarinen chair design that won the MOMA furniture competition, which could not be succesfully produced. In addition, he contributed to the war effort making airplanes parts manufactured by Evans products Co, where Eames was director of Resarch & Development. Harry’s chair solutions were being absorbed with no credit to him, so he moved on. He spent two years in San Diego, at Point Loma Naval Electrical Lab. He worked on a project involving human engineering and stroboscopic photography, designed to evaluate equipment. This is where he began making sculptures after hours, while still creating the drawings as well.
In 1945, Harry held a show of his monotypes at the San Francisco Museum of Art. He became an American citizen in 1946.
In 1950, at the invitation of Hans and Florence Knoll, Harry moved to Pennsylvania with his growing family. They offered him free rein to design what he wished – furniture or sculpture – with full credit, which was their policy with all designers. The Bertoia Diamond chair series was introduced in 1952 by Knoll. Harry also designed all the jigs for the production of the item. Harry set up shop in Bally in an old leaky garage building. The chair was introduced in 1952 and became part of the “modern” furniture movement. After completing several chair designs over a span of a couple of years for Knoll, they paid him handsomely enough to be able to afford the purchase of the farmhouse Bertoia had been renting as well as his shop in Bally. This 1800’s rural stone house and the shop are still in the family.
The first architectural sculpture commission that Harry earned was in 1953 for the General Motors Technical Center. Commissioned by Eero Saarinen, the MIT Chapel altar piece was created in 1955 and is one of the most striking sculptures by Harry Bertoia. It ushers in the contemporary era of spacial sculpture, liberated from a base.
In 1957, Harry received a grant from Chicago’s Graham Foundation, which allowed him to return to Italy for the first time since 1930. He visited his relatives and the great Italian museums. During this period, he began earning awards, which would continue for the rest of his life. In 1955 he received the American Institute of Architects Fine Arts Medal, and in 1956 the Craftsmanship Medal of the American Institute of Architects was awarded to him. The first European exhibit of his work was at the US Pavilion of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.
1959 brought the first of many shows to the Staempfli Gallery, New York. They held a retrospective show in 1981. Each exhibition boasted beautiful catalogs.
The drawings were part of Harry’s creative process throughout his career. Many of them clearly show his planning and experimentation with ideas for sculptures. He enjoyed the ability to get his ideas on paper quickly and spontaneously. June Nelson authored an informative and well-illustrated book on the monoprints entitled Harry Bertoia, Printmaker, in 1988.
In 1960 Harry Bertoia started the exploration of tonal sculptures. The “tonal”, or sounding sculpture, is the sculpture that is most often associated with Harry Bertoia. Their sizes vary from a few inches all the way to 20 feet. Many metals were used for the rods, the most common being berillyum copper. Some rods are capped with cylinders or drops of metal, which, by their weight, accentuated the swaying of the tonal rods. Harry and Oreste (his brother) loved music and spend much time in tuning and finding new sounds.
In 1964, the New York World’s Fair Kodac building displayed 7 gold-plated dandelions around a fountain. These created quite a stir and are still extremely popular.
From 1953 to 1978 Harry Bertoia created numerous large commissions. Harry Bertoia made over 50 public sculptures, which are on public display in cities throughout the United States. Harry Bertoia was hired by the greatest architects of the time, including Eero Saarinen, Henry Dreyfuss, Roche & Dinkeloo, Minoru Yamasaki, Edward Durell Stone & I M Pei. Three documentaries were done on Harry Bertoia, one of which was made by Clifford West, a colleague from Cranbrook.
Harry set up his remodeled barn in 1968-1969 to hold his sculptures and be a sound recording studio. It has remained as he left it to this day. He gave concerts to visitors and friends. After his death, his wife Brigitta, his son, Val, and his daughter Lesta continued the musical tradition. His wife Brigitta died in 2007. His children Val and Lesta are artists in their own right, while daughter Celia has taken over the handling of his drawings or monoprints.
In 1971, Muhlenburg College of Allentown, PA, paid tribute to Harry with an Honorary Doctorate. The Allentown Art Museum, close to his home, showed their respect with several exhibits both during and after his life. Bertoia was honored by local admirers near his residence in Pennsylvania as well as collectors and designers all over the country.
There are 11 albums of recorded sounds of sculpture, Sonambient, that Harry made during his lifetime. Harry was an explorer and invented new musical instruments that were used in many recordings. The albums have been transposed to CD’s.
The studio in Bally, PA, is still used today by Val Bertoia, his son, who is also a sculptor.
Harry Bertoia died on November 6th, 1978, from lung cancer that resulted from working with toxic fumes such as from the berrilyum copper. He is buried in Barto, PA, on his farm, underneath one of his huge gongs.