March 1, 2015


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Lot 202: Harry Bertoia

Lot 202: Harry Bertoia


Steel music wire, brass, and bronze
38.5" x 78" x 20"
Together with original invoice, exhibition mailer and press release from 1961, exhibition brochure from 1978, and vintage photograph of the sculpture taken by John D. Schiff
Provenance: Staempfli Gallery, New York, New York;
Private Collection, Connecticut (acquired directly from the above, March 30, 1961)
Exhibited: "Harry Bertoia: Recent Sculpture," Staempfli Gallery, New York, March 14-April 1, 1961
Estimate: $250,000 - $350,000
Price Realized: $550,000
Inventory Id: 18101

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Sculptor, graphic artist, painter, metalsmith, and furniture and jewelry designer Harry Bertoia (1915–1978) was one of the great multidisciplinary talents of 20th century art and design, and a central figure in American modernism. As an artist, Bertoia's style and technique were his, and his alone. Bertoia's metal sculptures are by turns expressive and austere, powerful and subtle, intimate in scale and monumental. But all embody a tension between the delicacy, intricacy, and precision of Bertoia’s forms and the raw aesthetic and substantive strength of his materials: steel, brass, bronze, and beryllium copper. The sculptures offered in this sale exemplify Bertoia’s genius for abstracted representations of nature, a core theme in his work. These sculptures—one as dense as a thicket of brambles; another suggesting a copse of trees—are the products of an artistic career in full flower.

Bertoia's was a career that was in many ways charmed: for a man of quiet, unassuming character, he had an uncanny knack for being at the heart of the action in the worlds of art and design. Born in northeastern Italy, Bertoia immigrated to the United States at age 15, joining an older brother in Detroit. Even with his halting English, Bertoia's gifts were noted early on at Cass Technical High School. Recognition led to awards that culminated, in 1937, in a teaching scholarship to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art in suburban Bloomfield Hills, MI. At Cranbrook—one of the great crucibles of modernism in America—Bertoia formed friendships with architect Eero Saarinen, designers Charles and Ray Eames and Florence Knoll, and others that would shape the course of his life. In 1943, he left the school to work in California with the Eameses, helping them develop their now-famed plywood furniture. Late in that decade, Florence and husband Hans Knoll persuaded him to move east and join their furniture company, Knoll Inc. Bertoia's wire-lattice "Diamond" chair, released in 1952, and its variants became, and remain, perennial best-sellers. Royalties allowed Bertoia to devote himself full-time to sculpture.

Bertoia began sculpting in earnest in 1947. He had learned metalworking in high school, and taught a class in the discipline at Cranbrook. When wartime restrictions limited the availability of metals, Bertoia focused on jewelry design. While in California, he mastered precision welding, allowing him to explore metal artwork in larger scale. As he began to garner commissions for architectural sculptures in the early 1950s—the first came via Saarinen—Bertoia refined his aesthetic vocabulary. In a sense, as much as metal, air became Bertoia's primary material. His "sounding sculptures" —gongs and "Sonambient" groupings of rods that strike together and chime when touched by hand or by the wind—literally resonate. Bertoia's naturalistic works—sculptures that suggest bushes, flower petals, leaves, dandelions, sprays of grasses—derive their power from the arrangement of space between structural elements.

The three works presented here manifest the latter Bertoia genre at its best. Commissioned by Florence Knoll for her design for the lobby of the First National Bank of Miami, Sculpture Screen is a 1959 work, one of ten 11-foot tall screens of melt-coated brass over steel panels. A 1960 review in Domus, the renowned Italian architecture and design magazine founded by Gio Ponti, described them as "abstracted trees with leaves of golden money." The screens obtain their aes-thetic force not only from their size but also from their placement together: they form an environment; a kind of indoor forest. Lot 202, a sculpture composed of steel music wire, brass, and bronze, was purchased by its owner directly from the piece;s exhibition in 1961 at New York’s Staempfli Gallery—a progressive venue that showed Brâncuși and Tinguely, and was the home gallery to Bertoia, Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown, Paul Delvaux, and George Rickey. The piece is a tour de force: an initial impression of hectic, even manic, energy gives way to a realization of the meticulous, precise, and painstaking spatial composition of the piece. This is not chaos—it is a representation of the ordered complexity of all things.

Nelson, June Kompass. Harry Bertoia: Sculptor. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1970. Print. Schiffer, Nancy N., and Val O. Bertoia. The World of Bertoia. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publications, 2003. Print. "Harry Bertoia, Biography." Smithsonian American Art Museum. Smithsonian Institute, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. "Interni di una banca a Miami." Domus Dec. 1960: n. pag. Print. Florence Knoll Bassett Papers. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.