Forthcoming auctions of Harry Bertoia sculptures in the USA
Important Design Wright, Chicago. December 15th, 2011
Important 20th Century Design Sotheby’s, New York. December 15th, 2011
20th Century Decorative Arts Bonhams, New York,December 14th, 2011
My idea for this post – having noticed that many originals were coming up for sale in a series of auctions, all in the US – was to do something on collectable modern chairs. By chance, however, researching, I happened across Harry Bertoia’s sculpture work. His Diamond Chair furniture series are beautiful and ubiquitous, sculptural objects – somewhat easier on the eye than on the seat of the pants – but I have to admit it came as news to me that Bertoia was a sculptor and, more than that, a musician of sorts. It turns out that, initially, the chair design provided the cash that allowed the designer to develop his sculpture work; the artist discovered a way of making music with the sculptural objects, which are now being bought and sold for many thousands of dollars.
Born in Italy in 1915, aged fifteen Harry Bertoia emigrated with his parents to Canada, then to Michigan, USA. He went to college in Detroit and later to the Cranbrook Academy of Art founded by Finnish immigrant, Eliel Saarinen – father of Eero Saarinen – and intended as an American equivalent to the Bauhaus, in Michigan. Charles Eames had been a contemporary of Eero at Cranbrook, as had Ray Eames (then Ray Kaiser). Afterwards, Bertoia worked briefly with the Eames duo in California on designs for bentwood furniture. At Cranbrook Academy, he had also made the acquaintance of Florence and Hans Knoll and after working as a furniture designer throughout the 1940s, setting up his own business in 1950, he began work on his first chair for the Knoll company: the Model 420 Diamond. The now familiar design of chromium-plated steel was an instant best-seller; the royalty payments were huge; it and it’s variants remain marketed and produced by Knoll. Freed from the restrictions of having to earn a living by design, Bertoia now devoted himself exclusively to the sculpture work he had begun in the late 40s.
Produced during the 60s and starting out as an exploration of natural forms, the highly complex and labour intensive Bush Sculpture series resemble eccentric bonsai trees and are executed in wire or brass-coated iron that over time took on a green patina.
Watching and listening to Harry Bertoia – who died in 1978 – playing his sound sculptures on this You-Tube video, he looks totally relaxed, in his element, enthralled, strolling, never rushing, from one piece to the next – a one-man Balinese gamelan orchestra – gently stroking the metal rods of a tall piece, setting them in motion, striking what might be a table-sized gong then clashing the steel lozenges of another standing piece so as to combine the various sounds produced to create a minimal, ambient sort of unstructured music. A series of vinyl albums, Sonambient, were recorded, produced and released by the artist himself, who also designed their minimal packaging. In the late 1990s, Bertoia’s son, Val, rootling around in the barns in Pennsylvania that were used as studio space, discovered a large collection of unopened, album sets, which he sold for large sums. Some of the music was re-issued by a Japanese company and can be found at Discogs.
Images, from top
Untitled, Gong, 1965
Hand-hammered copper with applied patina
Courtesy of Wright
Untitled, circa 1950
Courtesy of Sotheby’s
Welded Wire Sculpture, circa 1955
Estimate US$5,000 – 7,000
Property from the Dorothy
& Marshall M Reisman Foundation
Courtesy of Bonhams
Bertoia Group, Courtesy of Wright
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