by Dr. Lori Verderame
A student of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and a resident of Bally, PA, Harry Bertoia produced pieces like Starburst in the tradition of constructed metal sculpture as well as modern design. He worked as a designer of furniture, decorative arts, and jewelry and he enjoyed a very successful career as an accomplished sculptor creating metal sculptures, sounding pieces, and kinetic works of art in metal. His kinetic sculptures define the marriage of art and science.
Harry Bertoia was born on March 10, 1915 in San Lorenzo Udine, Italy. After visiting with his father on a trip to Detroit, MI, he decided not return to Italy. Staying in the United States, Bertoia received a scholarship to the School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts in 1936 and a year later was awarded a teaching scholarship at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Later, he received a scholarship to study painting and drawing at Cranbrook. In 1940, Harry met Brigitta Valentiner, the daughter of Wilhelm Valentiner, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. While at Cranbrook, Bertoia taught metalworking from 1937 to 1942 and then graphics for one year. After marrying Brigitta in 1943, Bertoia moved to Los Angeles to work as a furniture designer. He also took welding classes at Santa Monica City College and in 1947 he created his first welded sculptures. In the 1940s, Bertoia’s monoprints were purchased by the Guggenheim Museum in NY and were exhibited at the San Francisco Museum. He exhibited his monoprints and jewelry until 1947. Later, the monoprints became inspiration for his sculptures. Bertoia also became an American citizen during this time period.
Success in the 1950’s
In 1950, at the request of Hans and Florence Knoll, Harry relocated to Bally, Pennsylvania, USA just outside of East Greenville, PA where the Knoll factory was located. In the 1950s, he designed chairs for Knoll which became very popular in the post-war period. Knoll Associates, introduced the Bertoia Collection of furniture in 1952 and the following year he received his first commission for a large-scale sculpture for the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. During 1953-1954, at the request of Joseph Albers who was the Dean of the Art School at Yale, Bertoia was invited to be the visiting critic in sculpture at Yale University. From that time on, Bertoia received commissions from architects to make sculpture for major institutions and corporations. His work was exhibited at the US Pavilion of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.
In 1960, Harry Bertoia started the exploration of tonal sculptures, sounding sculptures or as they are often called sonambient scuptures. These sculptures, constructed of various rods of metal range in size and various metals are used, including beryllium copper. Some rods are capped with cylinders or drops of metal which, by their weight, accentuate the swaying of the tonal rods.
Bertoia subsequently resigned from Knoll Associates to concentrate on his sculpture. His distinguished work brought him other major commissions for the Massachussetts Institute of Technology Chapel, Lambert Airport in St. Louis, Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., and the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond, Virginia. Many of Bertoia’s pieces were wire structures or screens as they were called and were commissioned for major corporations in cooperation with major architects of the 1950s and 1960s such as Eero Saarinen, Max Abramovitz, and Charles Eames.
From 1953 to 1978, Harry Bertoia received large commissioned sculptures for private collectors and institutions worldwide. He produced more than 50 public sculptures and completed numerous groups of constructed metal sculptures including forms based on trees and plants, screen forms and rods, and the popular starburst sculptures. He is one of the most prominent and important designer/sculptors of the 20th century as he offered new solutions to constructed metal art through his sonnambient and other pieces. Harry Bertoia died on November 6, 1978 in Barto, PA.
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