Harry Bertoia

Life Dates
1915-1978

Harry Bertoia (1915 - 1978) was a jewelry and furniture designer, sculptor, sound engineer, and self-taught printmaker. Born in San Lorenzo, Italy, he came to the United States as a teen in 1930. He lived in Detroit with his family, attending Cass Technical High School, and the Cranbrook Academy of Art. After just two years of instruction, he was asked to teach at Cranbrook, first in the metalwork department and later in the graphics department. His passion for both sculpting and printmaking continued throughout his career.

While teaching metalworking at Cranbrook from 1939-42, he used the printmaking facilities at night, producing exploratory prints and developing his own monoprint technique. When the metal workshop was suspended because of World War II, Bertoia became an instructor in the school’s graphics department. He continued to make monoprints up until the 1970s, creating over one thousand of them throughout his career. Bertoia felt this method of working allowed him to create without any intellectual or emotional interference and believed that working in this medium gave him the ability to most directly express his inner creativity.

Bertoia left Cranbrook to design furniture at the Evans Products Company in California. In 1950, he relocated his family to Bally, PA, to work for Knoll Associates, a modernist furniture design company. In 1952, while working for Knoll he created the Bertoia Diamond Chair, a lattice basket-like chair that is considered a masterpiece of midcentury design. With his success at Knoll, he was able to resign from commercial design in 1953 and focus entirely on sculpture. He received prestigious commissions throughout the next two decades. In 1959, he began creating what he called sonambient sculptures, examples of which are on view in this gallery. Until his death, Bertoia explored the nuances of sound, creating an orchestra of instruments that he played in a barn on his property in Bally.

Bertoia invented the word sonambient—a combination of sound and environment—to describe his sculptures that make sounds when they are manipulated. In 1959, the artist was creating a sculpture out of standing rods when he bent one rod too far, snapping it into pieces. As the broken rod crashed against the others, it made a reverberating sound. This accidental occurrence inspired him to further explore the possibilities of incorporating sound into his work, and over the next decade, he made over one hundred sonambient sculptures, each with a unique sound. From 1968–69, Bertoia remodeled the barn where he created his monotypes so that he could arrange his sonambient sculptures into an orchestra and perform concerts for guests. Inside the modest structure, the sound would appear to ripple through the space, becoming louder and softer as the sculptures hypnotically swayed to a quiet stillness. Together, the sounds are like a call and response between the varied tones and pitches.

Explaining the goals of his sonambient sculptures, Bertoia recounts, “When I was a very young boy, living in a small Italian village, I sensed one day that a celebration was about to take place […] and someone told me, ‘Yes, a bishop from China is coming for a visit.’ All the cathedral bells in all the little village were ringing, and the visitor from China seemed to me to fill the world with a wonderful sunny color. I think my work with sound may be an attempt to recapture the magic of that moment but, of course, it’s much more than that."

The term monoprint can be used to describe a number of methods of direct printing from a unique inked surface onto paper. Unlike most forms of printmaking, which allow for multiple copies of the same image, monoprints are one of a kind. Bertoia’s technique involved rolling ink over a large plate, often made of glass. He would then lay paper over the plate and, working from the back of the paper, use his fingers and other tools to draw the image, pressing the paper into the ink from the reverse.

The monoprints in this exhibition relate to prints that functioned as studies for the artist’s sculptures as well as independent explorations of the organic forms and shapes he invented. The selection on view in this gallery relate to the undulating waves and flower-like silhouettes of Free Interpretation of Plant Forms, illuminating Bertoia’s explorations of scale relative to the human form and his commitment to a language of biomorphic abstraction inspired by the natural world.

In order to translate the flowing, organic shapes in his monotypes into sculpture, Bertoia had to work with malleable materials. He made his pedestal-scale sculptures, such as the three on view here, by welding copper wire with bronze alloy to create soft, curving forms. To make the large-scale Free Interpretation of Plant Forms and other public commissions, he used a torch to heat and bend copper pipes, welding them together with bronze. He created these larger works in stages, starting at the base and building up.

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