Harry Bertoia

August 22, 2011

While teaching and working at the Cranbrook Academy in the late 1930s, Italian-born artist Harry Bertoia began creating jewelry, which marked his first use of metal as an artist medium. Before this venture into such an unfamiliar form, Bertoia entered Cranbrook as a painting major, but found himself drawn to the metal shop. In the exploration of jewelry making, he was faced with a very different set of challenges, one including the high cost of precious metals during World War II that prohibited him from making larger pieces. His welded bronze and silver brooches highlight Bertoia’s fascination with simple, organic forms blended with repeated voids. According to John Willenbecher, “The jewelry forms he developed were highly sculptural in approach despite their small size.”

After working for Charles and Ray Eames in the Molded Plywood Division of the Evans Product Company, in 1950 he moved to Pennsylvania to work for Knoll Furntiture, where he designed his famous “Diamond Chair.” Knoll’s Bertoia Collection allowed him the means and flexibility to begin working on large-form sculptures. As he was working on a sculpture that consisted of several standing rods, he accidentally broke a rod, causing it to crash into another rod, resulting in a sound that resonated deeply with the artist. According to Bertoia himself, this sound “initiated a deliberate gesture in search of understanding what a group of wires would do.” Throughout the 1960s, Bertoia created over 100 sound sculptures consisting of rows of flexible copper rods that sway when touched or blown, producing various tones depending on the length and mass of the rods. He referred to this sonorous atmosphere as Sonambient, the resulting environment created by the gentle clangor of the rods. He explored this fascination for the remainder of his life, even creating public sound sculptures in addition to his various other public fountains and metal installations.

Also an accomplished printmaker, Bertoia’s work can be viewed in his Italian birthplace and dozens of American museums, including the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

Schiffer, Nancy N., and Val O. Bertoia. The World of Bertoia. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing, 2003. Print.

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