Harry Bertoia: Sculpting Mid-Century Modern Life

  • January 31, 2022 14:34

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Harry Bertoia, Harry Bertoia with examples of his work. Courtesy Bertoia Foundation
Harry Bertoia, Sculpture Group Symbolizing World's Communication in the Atomic Age, 1959. Brazed and welded brass; bronze, 142 ¼ x 231 ¼ x 81 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Gift of the Zenith Corporation. © Estate of Harry Bertoia / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Harry Bertoia, Ornamental Centipede, c. 1942. Hammered brass, 19 3/4 x 8 x 1/2 in. Cranbrook Art Museum, Gift of George Gough Booth and Ellen Scripps Booth through the Cranbrook Foundation (CAM 1943.12) © Estate of Harry Bertoia / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Cranbrook Art Museum
Harry Bertoia, Untitled (Sunburst), 1960. Polished bronze wire and rod, 76 x 32 x 32 in. Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Collection © Estate of Harry Bertoia / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Kevin Todora, courtesy Nasher Sculpture Center

The Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas is now presenting Harry Bertoia: Sculpting Mid-Century Modern Life, the first US museum retrospective of the artist’s career to examine the full scope of his broad, interdisciplinary practice, bringing together over 100 works from all facets of Bertoia’s extensive and diverse body of work. Harry Bertoia: Sculpting Mid-Century Modern Life is on view through April 23, 2022, and an illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

Italian-born, American artist Harry Bertoia (1915–1978) was one of the most prolific, innovative artists of the postwar period. Trained at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he met future colleagues and collaborators Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, and Eero Saarinen, he went on to make one-of-a kind jewelry, design iconic chairs, create thousands of unique sculptures including large-scale commissions for significant buildings, and advance the use of sound as sculptural material. His work speaks to the confluence of numerous fields of endeavor but is united throughout by a sculptural approach to making and an experimental embrace of metal.

Drawn from public and private collections, the exhibition features important examples of his furniture, jewelry, unique works on paper, and varied sculptural production, as well as several large-scale commissions and a significant group of sounding sculptures from the Sonambient Barn at Bertoia’s home.

“We have long anticipated this exhibition exploring the wide and fascinating talents of Harry Bertoia,” says Director Jeremy Strick. “This presentation of objects and sculpture promises to expand the common appreciation of Bertoia into realms that are enriching to those participating in various disciplines, from art to music to craft to design. Bertoia reminds us that the artist has the unique ability to infuse all aspects of daily life with beauty, imagination, and ingenuity.”

Writing in the pages of his influential magazine Art & Architecture in 1950, editor John Entenza declared, “We have come into a time in history in which there is no longer any real separateness in man’s activities and nothing remains to him that does not exist in close association with the whole of his life.” This sentiment of synthesis became a hallmark across vanguard sculpture, architecture, and design during the subsequent decade in which Bertoia established himself as one its leading practitioners. Such interdisciplinary cross-pollination distinguishes Bertoia’s work and has also largely contributed to his work being overlooked within the dominant narratives of Modernism at mid-century. Bertoia’s sculptural output, however, reflected a moment when the possibilities wrought by scientific discovery and technological innovation seemed endless and pervasive across all fields of intellectual and cultural inquiry; when artists, designers, and architects created a shared visual language in response to these advancements by exploring new, often industrial, materials and corporate collaborations at a time when they were not met with the same cynicism they so often are today.

Harry Bertoia, Untitled, 1953. Steel base with brass melt coating, 17 ¾ x 29 ½ in. Harry Bertoia Foundation © Estate of Harry Bertoia / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: courtesy Harry Bertoia Foundation
Harry Bertoia, Handmade Chair Protoype (Asymmetric Chaise Lounge), c. 1952. Bronze brazed steel rods on chrome plated steel base, 37 x 53 x 32 1/2 in. Collection of Wilbur and Joan Springer © Estate of Harry Bertoia / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: courtesy Wilbur and Joan Springer

This exhibition questions how and why we distinguish between a chair, a necklace, a screen, and a freestanding sculpture—and what Bertoia’s sculptural things, when seen together, say about the fluidity of visual language across culture, both at mid-century and now.

Harry Bertoia: Sculpting Mid-Century Modern Life is organized by the Nasher Sculpture Center’s Chief Curator Jed Morse and independent art historian Dr. Marin R. Sullivan, who also serves as Director of the Harry Bertoia Catalogue Raisonné. A lavishly illustrated catalogue with new scholarly essays by the curators and prominent Bertoia experts Dr. Glenn Adamson and Dr. Sydney Skelton Simon, including a catalogue of the public commissions, will be published in collaboration with Verlag Scheidegger & Spiess AG, Switzerland, to accompany the exhibition.

Harry Bertoia, Untitled, 1946. Monotype on laid paper, 28 x 39 3/4 in. Allentown Art Museum. Purchase: SOTA Print Fund, 1992 © Estate of Harry Bertoia / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Allentown Art Museum
Harry Bertoia, Untitled, c. 1960. Brazed steel wire and rod, 53 x 88 7/8 x 22 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Sheldon C. Sommers, 86.53 © Estate of Harry Bertoia / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

In conjunction with Harry Bertoia: Sculpting Mid-Century Modern Life will be a presentation of concerts in which world-renowned musicians activate Bertoia’s sounding sculptures over the course of six nights, from February 22-27, 2022. ‘SCULPTING SOUND: Twelve Musicians Encounter Bertoia’ is programmed by writer and music producer David Breskin and sponsored by the Shifting Foundation. 

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