Harry Bertoia, Free Interpretation of Plant Forms
This monumental sculptural fountain was commissioned of Harry Bertoia by the City of Philadelphia in 1967 and was originally installed at the Civic Center in West Philadelphia. It was removed in 2005 when the Civic Center was scheduled for demolition and put into storage at a police impoundment where it remained for over a decade. In 2016, the Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy gave it to Woodmere under a long-term loan, and it was relocated to Woodmere public grounds later that summer. In celebration of the new installation, Woodmere held an exhibition on Bertoia’s sculptures, the catalogue for which can be found here.
Upon completion of the piece, Bertoia produced an eloquent statement of his vision, saying,
“Conceptually, the initial intent was to produce a work embodying gentleness and strength. To partake of basic qualities, to have an inherent sense of growth, movement, and vitality and to make poetic sense to every walk of life. I endeavor to shun the particular, such as a wave, but to capture the motion of all waves through time, to echo the sound of the first, the viscera of the female, the unfolding blossom and the shadow of the mother’s hearth and lapping water, briefly to offer the observer a glimpse of identity with the formative power of an earthly life and the associations from his own experience. Simply stated - to have a fountain that would be great fun and enjoyed by many.”
For the creation, two sizes of bronze welding rod, ¼ and ⅜, and about five sizes of copper tubing from ¾ to 1 3/8” were used, each part formed by hand and welded in place together. Starting from a cement base, he formed the bronze and copper tubes, bent by heat and shaped progressively to create the undulating forms we see today. Bertoia stated, ”The dynamics of balance, poise, and dimensions were arrived at by constant observation of all growing forms in relation to each other and keeping in mind the spatial volume and dimension of the architectural setting “ of the Civic Center.
Originally commissioned by the City’s Percent-for-Art program, Bertoia’s fountain was installed in the central plaza of the Philadelphia Civic Center in West Philadelphia in 1967. The sculpture was placed in storage in 2000 when the plaza and the adjacent buildings of the Civic Center were slated for demolition.
Woodmere’s director Bill Valerio had been investigating the future of Harry Bertoia’s sculpture, Free Interpretation of Plant Forms, for some time and was in conversation with Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy who had put out an RFP, or request for proposal, for the piece. After a competitive process, they decided Woodmere would receive the sculpture as a long term loan courtesy of the city.
In July of 2016, the sculpture was secured on an enormous flatbed truck and brought to Woodmere, in the early hours of Thursday, July 22, at 3:00 a.m. It was escorted by Philadelphia police as it was determined to be too large to transport during busy daytime hours.
At its new home, the sculpture underwent a conservation process that included cleaning, minor repairs of tiny cracks, and a refinishing. It also was reconfigured to function as a fountain in the manner Bertoia wished, having water come up from its center and flow outwards along the forms. At the Civic Center, the water surrounded the sculpture rather than coming up from its center. Plumbing was created to have the water recycled. Now on Woodmere’s public grounds, it regains its rightful place among the city’s public artworks.