Recently I was at the NYC20 Decorative Arts Fair in Manhattan and walked into the space of Manhattan dealers Lost City Arts whose specialty is original vintage 20th century decorative arts and the works of Italian-born, American designer/artist Harry Bertoia (1915-1978).
Truthfully, for years I had admired the artist’s work but I knew little about him. So not one to miss the opportunity I asked these experts who gave me a quick introduction to the artist. I was so impressed with Bertoia that I have since supplemented the info with my own research on his life and works.
I won’t go into biographical minutiae, but there are some facts one needs to understand to get his art. Bertoia, more than any other artist I can think of, was dramatically influenced by the countryside of his native Italy. In his works, one can see the shapes of nature and hear the sounds of the country, whether a dandelion or a rock; the blowing of wind on the fields, the rustling of trees or the gong of church bells from afar.
Bertoia entered the Cranbrook Institute of Visual Arts in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan in 1937 – surrounded by the countryside around the school, which must have been a constant reminder of the natural wonders of his beloved Italy – and specialized in metalwork. It is here he befriended Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen.
Upon graduation he moved to California to work for the Eames’ with whom he had a falling-out allowing him to later design furniture for the Knolls. With them, he designed the accomplished “Diamond Chair” (image below) and from their encouragement to exhibit his art with his design, came his first commission as an artist – a metal screen sculpture for a GM building in Detroit in 1953. From then on and until his death in 1978, Bertoia moved away from chair design and into feeding his creative needs as a sculptor.
In the 1960s, Bertoia started exploring his sound sculptures with which he is generally associated. Made of different metals and in sizes that range from a few inches to 20 feet tall, these sculptures are meant to not only be seen, but played as they reproduce sounds one hears in the countryside. I remember quite vividly a recent trip to see a collector in Dallas who played his Bertoia like a harp. Between us, there is only so much of this “music” I can take!
I’m happy and grateful to Lost City Arts for their introduction to Harry Bertoia. Now I have a better sense of the wonderful art behind this uber talented artist!
Note: For more info on the artist, please visit the official website by his daughter Celia here.
image credits: all collages clockwise from top left; (top) Rago Arts, Abby M. Taylor Fine Arts, unknown. (middle) Sotheby’s, Wright , Phillips de Pury, Wright. (bottom) Knoll.
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