Visual artist Harry Bertoia’s name may not be as familiar as other 20th-century artists’, yet numerous visitors to the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton have heard of him, or, to be more exact, have heard one of his sculptures.
“Two Rod Tonal,” a pair of 30-foot-tall cattail-topped rods made of beryllium copper and brass, has stood outside the front entrance to the museum for more than three decades. Its church bell sound has marked shifts in weather and the attraction of museum-goers who discover that the rods speak.
The 1978 artwork’s creator — the late Berks County-based Bertoia — is the subject of an exhibition opening this Saturday, July 20, at the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown. Curated by Michener Museum director Lisa Hanover Tremper and continuing to Sunday, October 13, the event promises to help make this artist’s name more familiar, even though his work is more familiar than one may realize.
“Harry Bertoia: Structure and Sound” includes nearly 60 objects that illustrate Bertoia’s artistry, ranging from his exploratory monoprints, innovative furniture designs, metal figures and reliefs, and the ethereal-sound-producing sculptures (or Sonambients). The latter category involves an aural extension of the artist’s visual work, a subject worthy of an exhibition of its own, and a focus of interest later in this article.
But first, some background. Arieto Bertoia was born in 1915 in San Lorenzo, Italy. By all accounts, including art critic Anne Fabbri’s 2010 essay on Bertoia, “Forty Years of Drawing,” he was a precocious talent. So much so that he was sought out by village brides to create designs for their wedding dresses.
In 1930, with Italy’s economy still in shambles from World War I and worsened by fascism, the 15-year-old Bertoia and his father, Giuseppe, traveled to Detroit, where the artist’s older brother had moved and worked with the Ford Motor Company. While his father — from a family connected to farming, stone quarrying, and wine making — returned to Italy and perished in World War II, Bertoia remained in America, learned English (with difficulty), found his name “Ari” transformed to Harry, and was sustained by his talent.
The young artist attended Cass Technical High School (for talented arts and science students) and then received scholarships to attend the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts and the Cranbrook Academy of Art, located 25 miles outside Detroit. Cranbrook practiced an atelier approach to learning and engaged leading arts innovators and masters; the influential Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius was just one guest artist during Bertoia’s time there.
Bertoia’s talent and ability impressed the academy’s administration, and he was asked him to help re-establish the school’s metal working department. The appointment allowed the artist to experiment with using metal to create art and jewelry, explore drawing, and create a series of — for its time — daring non-objective monoprints (one-of-a-kind works using print techniques).
With youthful bravado, he sent 100 of the prints to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum for evaluation. The museum — known for its interest in new and non-figurative art — responded by purchasing the collection and exhibiting some in 1943. That exhibition paved the way for others, including one with the prestigious Nierendorf Gallery in New York City. It regularly showed Bertoia’s prints and craft works and provided him with a stipend.
Of Bertoia’s approach to creating the monoprints, Fabbri says, “He wanted nothing to interfere with the expression of his thoughts at the moment of their realization. Improvising his own technique, Bertoia inked the plate in one or more colors of printer’s ink, laid dry or wet paper on it, and rapidly drew on the reverse side of the paper with a stylus or other blunt object. Then he would apply pressure with his hands, fingers, or small brayer and remove the paper while the ink was still wet.” She adds that his choice of paper varied from tissue to pulp to rice, with the latter being preferred “because it became almost transparent when wet and he could see his drawings on the reverse side.”
Fabbri notes that in the 1950s Bertoia’s work changed, and he began to develop “erotic forms and upright shapes that hint at three dimensional spaces.” It was as if he were readying himself to go beyond the flat form.
In addition to Bertoia’s burgeoning art career in the 1940s, there were other major milestones. In 1943 he married Brigitta Valentiner, daughter of the director of the Detroit Institute of Art (and the man who — with the financial backing of Edsel Ford — commissioned Diego Rivera to create the “Detroit Industry” mural for the Ford Company). That same year he left Cranbrook and worked for Charles and Ray Eames, the influential Venice, California, designers (and Cranbrook associates) who had received a war-time government contract that supplied the navy with furniture and gave the company access to scarce materials and opportunities to experiment. He also took welding classes at Santa Monica City College and became an American citizen in 1946.
Most importantly for his design career, Bertoia developed the “Eames” chair, a now familiar piece that epitomizes a modern style through the use of a curved or biomorphic plywood seat and back to fit the body. It put him on the design world map.
At the end of the decade, Bertoia was invited to join Knoll Associates — Hans and (fellow Cranbrook student) Florence Knoll’s cutting-edge New York City design company. The Knolls had recently established their furniture-making base in eastern Pennsylvania to take advantage of the region’s tradition of craftsmanship, so the Bertoias moved to the town of Barton, in Berks County, with their two children, son Val and daughter Lesta.
Just as Bertoia entered the early 1940s with a New York debut that announced his presence as an important two-dimensional artist, he marked the early 1950s with his first exhibition of sculptures at Knoll’s Manhattan showroom. That exhibition included experiments of fusing familiar materials, such as nails, into organic figures.
Yet another involvement with Knoll paved the way for artistic freedom. He produced a number of successful and lucrative furniture designs, including the Bertoia Diamond Chair, one that uses bent metal rods to create a mesh-like plain. The chair is still celebrated for being both functional and artistic. It is a point consistent with Bertoia’s statement, “If you look at these chairs, they are mainly made of air, like sculpture. Space passes right through them.”
The link between Bertoia’s designs and sculptures also relates to his drawings, many of which, as Fabbri notes, “are focused primarily on organic forms related to his sculpture. Often they were working studies to be translated into assorted metals.”
His work for Knoll gave him prestige, design ownership (unlike his design work for Eames), and financial success. The latter allowed him to purchase a former Knoll building as his own studio in Bally, Pennsylvania, have another child (daughter Celia), and continue his art. That work included using metal to create sculptures that advance their medium’s potential.
Bertoia’s growing reputation for innovation soon brought collaborations with prominent architects that resulted in his completion of more than 50 sculpture commissions, including work for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology chapel (a cascading dangling sculpture), Yale University (a gold multi-layered sculpture screen), and the 1964 New York World Fair’s Kodak Pavilion’s metallic dandelions. The work earned him design awards from the American Institute of Architects, the American Academy of Letters, and others.
One famed architect who involved Bertoia on multiple projects was Minoru Yamasaki, for whom Bertoia created “The World,” prominently placed in Yamasaki’s 1965 Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs building at Princeton University.
The Princeton sculpture handily serves as a point to show the artist’s development. The approximately four foot bronze hued sphere — composed of hundreds of centrally fused yet flexible reed-like rods — suggests a topiary and reflects Bertoia’s interest in nature, his use of organic forms in the monoprints, and his paradoxical shaping of natural and fragile objects (such as dandelions) in metal. Since it can make a sound when plucked or brushed, it also previews one of the artist’s most personal and final phases, the sound sculptures (of which several will be in the Michener exhibition).
“He was always an experimenter of metals,” says his son, artist Val Bertoia, in the Bertoia Studio, an unassuming two-story stone-faced building on Main Street in Bally, an hour’s drive from New Hope.
Harry Bertoia’s only son, Val grew up in this small rural town, studied engineering at Indiana Institute of Technology, served at Fort Dix, and returned home in the early 1970s to assist his father in building the sound sculptures. Today he continues the studio, working with designers and architects on various projects, providing or contracting art work for interiors and exteriors, and creating new sound pieces.
The studio is filled with objects that create a mosaic of the family’s past and recent work: an actual Edsel automobile (a reminder of the family’s connection to Edsel Ford), an early Bertoia figurative print (produced in a style reminiscent of Rivera’s mural and depicting patterns of working farmers and vintners), several Bertoia Diamond chairs, and a wooden chair that Harry Bertoia favored when welding, designed by his friend, New Hope designer George Nakashima.
There are also eras of sound sculptures. Some are by the father, some by the son, and some are by both, including a reproduction of an early work by Harry that Val is creating as a limited edition for the 2015 centennial of Harry Bertoia’s birth.
In this blur of past and present Val says that his father’s decision to create sound works came from chance, inclination, and a personal need. “He was bending a beryllium copper rod that broke and made a sound. From that point he would develop rods to swing like cattail plants, but not with a pitch in mind. It was a surprise.”
The younger artist says that his father grew up in Roman Catholic Italy, where villages had “bell sounds connecting humans to the unseen.” He adds that his father “had a spiritual nature. He didn’t have a religion, but he had a connection to nature. He always had an idea of going beyond the earth to inspire others.” Harry Bertoia himself had said something similar: “We live in a time dominated by these invisible forces. It is, in a sense, these elements of the atomic and electronic age that I am trying to give sculptural shape and form.”
A testament to that idea waits a few miles away off the main road at the small farm where Harry Bertoia had lived with his family, and which Val now maintains. To the left of the walkway leading from the gravel road is a 300-year-old stone and wood barn.
Leaving the expansive outdoors and entering the barn through a small door seems constricting, but the feeling reverses once inside. Perhaps it is because of the simplicity of the interior: whitewashed walls, seasoned wood, high ceilings where diffused afternoon sunlight glows (thanks to high openings) and where light and shadows drop freely. Whatever the reason, the space feels open, peaceful, mysterious, and church like.
Populating the central expanse of the room are 100 sound sculptures: a congregation of shimmering metal rods of various heights and density. They rise upward from the wide wood floor planks and force the mind’s eyes to make connections. They seem like cattails, tall grass, waterfalls, lines of rain, trees, and, at the same time, buildings, cities, and shaped metal. Suspended gongs are suns, moons, and planets, yet, are pure geometric shapes.
A dozen Bertoia Diamond chairs and four or five benches serve as audience seating, used by the several hundred annual visitors who come for tours (scheduled between Harry’s birthday, March 10, and the date of his death in 1978, November 6).
After sitting quietly on a bench for a few moments, Val Bertoia rises, steps into the forest of shapes, and brushes or plucks the rods of the sculptures. Clouds of sounds burst and roll in all directions. Although it is just the sound of metal, it somehow contains thunder, wind, the humming of insects, rain, the sounds of alter bells, waves, and imaginary celestial machines. Vibrations stir the air and body.
“The whole barn acts like a sound box. The human being is the activator,” says Val. “Harry,” he adds, using the familiar first name when talking about his father, “would come in here alone and play and even mediate on the sounds.” Then after a pause Val says, “Harry was studying sounds to heal himself.”
Harry Bertoia began to lose his voice in the early 1970s. One reason was the years of breathing hazardous welding fumes. Another, Val says, was the disappointment of a personal conflict with some long-time employees. The mixture caused him to lose the ability to speak but propelled him to create works that spoke for him. The artist died of cancer in 1978, the same year that he created the work that stands in front of the New Jersey State Museum.
Entranced by the sculptures that transcend their medium by moving and singing, Harry Bertoia produced concerts in the barn and made more than 360 magnetic tape recordings of the sculptures. While these performances can be heard at the Michener Museum exhibition, they are also available on the Bertoia Studio website (bertoiaharry.com/sonambient.html), on CDs available at the Michener Museum, and on Amazon.com. Performances by Val Bertoia can be viewed on YouTube.
“He recorded, but did not compose,” says Val. “He played experimentally, a creative art, but designed his own notes. He drew lines to indicate sounds.” Then Val says (with both voice and hands), “One line would start here and move out here and then move here. That’s the only indication of these kinds of sounds.”
Moving to one of the sculptures, Val points to its floor base and says, “This part is attached to the earth. The rest is free, a spirit life. The whole thing was to free the human spirit.” He then adds, “In 1950s he made furniture to make the body comfortable. In the 1970s he made the spirit more comfortable, the physical to the spiritual.”
On the wall opposite the barn entrance is one of Harry Bertoia’s monoprints, larger than those seen in the Bertoia studio. It bears a visual pattern that resembles a reverberation and, in this place with the air still vibrating, seems an apt icon.
The print also has a haunting statement: Harry Bertoia had been constantly searching in his prints, designs, and sculptures to capture that airy thing that connects and fills all. It is something that connects to his statement, “My intent has always been the enrichment of life. I have a gut feeling that awareness of the miracle of life is the purpose of life.”
Those wishing to hear that message have several opportunities:
Harry Bertoia: Structure and Sound, James A. Michener Art Museum 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown. Through Sunday, October 13, open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. $15 to $7.50; under 6 free.
Celia Bertoia, daughter of the artist, presentation, Friday, October 4, 2 to 3 p.m. www.michenerartmuseum.org or 215-340-9800.
Tours of Bertoia Studio, available between March 10 and November 6. Groups up to 12, $100. Private tour for two, $100, $100 each additional person. firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-845-7096.
Sound Screen, a public window display, organized by Bertoia Studio artists Val Bertoia and Melissa Strawser, opening Friday, September 20, running through October 12, Studio-B, Main Street, Boyertown, Pennsylvania, email@example.com.
The World,on view in Robertson Hall, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Washington Road, Princeton, regular business hours.
Two Rod Tonal, courtyard, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton.