Harry Bertoia - Design London Wednesday, October 14, 2009 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway;  Kaare Berntsen Gallery, Oslo, Norway; Robert Miller Gallery, New York; Private Collection, Michigan; Wright, Important Design, 20 May 2008, Lot 642

  • Literature

    Nancy N. Schiffer and Val O. Bertoia, The World of Bertoia, Atglen, 2003, for similar examples throughout

  • Catalogue Essay

    “Take wire. Add poetry,” stated a 1950s Knoll advertisement for Harry Bertoia’s chairs, among that firm’s most popular offerings. Designer, sculptor, graphic artist, jewelry maker, Bertoia fit the definition of a polymath. Born into a family of music lovers (his father worked in the theatre, his brother composed), Bertoia from an early age devoted himself to art: he drew accomplished portraits at eleven; at fifteen he enrolled in drafting classes in San Lorenzo, his birthplace in northern Italy.  Years later, on an application to the renowned Cranbrook Academy, Bertoia wrote: “I can use any tool or machinery with dexterity.”  Although a painting major, he refused to confine himself to canvas.
    After the 1950s, Bertoia never returned to furniture production but concentrated instead on unique abstract constructions in steel, brass, bronze, copper, and nickel alloys. For the next quarter century he welded, cast and bundled a menagerie of forms including screens, panels, flowers, cones, spills, and bushes, among others. Abstracted from their legs, the seats of his chairs now read as early sculptural experiments. Although fundamental to his output, they represent a stopover in his “long quest to seek and sometimes find a form, a structure, a sound or a way.”
    That statement affirms Bertoia’s earnest desire for grand truths, for understanding, and for music.  Working one day in 1959, he snapped a standing rod in error. It struck another—the way forward was clear as a bell. “For a number of years I had realized that sculpture had existed in silence through time… I thought: ‘Why is sound left outside?’” In the 1960s, outward from the closed geometry of his chairs and dense panels, Bertoia opened his forms to air: bundled wires twisted out like fans or ‘wept’ as willows; thin lines of copper rods danced and rang. By the late 1960s, he had begun makinglarge tonal sculptures with weighted rods arranged in grids.
    Standing nearly five metres, the present “sounding” sculpture is among the largest of Bertoia’s rare private commissions. Executed in 1976 for the opening of Norway’s Grieghallen concert hall – a fitting location – the work comprises thirteen beryllium copper rods surmounted by caps. When struck, they produce a deep music like the sound of church bells. But this is not the Angelus calling us to prayer. The only belief it tolls for is delight. Bertoia stated that same year, “at this eternal moment, I have a gut feeling that awareness of the miracle of life is the purpose of life.”
    All citations: Nancy N. Schiffer & Val O. Bertoia, “The World of Bertoia,” Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, PA, 2003 


Monumental ‘Sonambient’ sculpture, for Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway

Beryllium copper, bronze.
466 x 91.4 x 91.4 cm. (183 1/2 x 36 x 36 in.)

£200,000 - 250,000 


15 Oct 2009