Harry Bertoia Describes His Work in One Word: “Energizing”
We are grateful to Val Bertoia for his assistance in cataloguing this sculpture.
By Beth Hamilton
When Harry Bertoia immigrated to the United States from San Lorenzo, Italy in 1930, he witnessed and participated in an energetic movement in art fueled by the country’s rapid modernization. With his family, Bertoia first settled in Detroit, and attended the renowned Cass Technical High School and later the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. In 1937, Bertoia obtained a teaching scholarship at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, the progressive school founded by Detroit newspaper magnate George Gough Booth and Ellen Scripps Booth. The school’s curriculum was centered on the unification of fine and applied arts, a European model most clearly defined at the German Bauhaus. Cranbrook was a hotbed of American modernism, fostering the careers of the Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, and Florence Knoll.
Bertoia’s interest and expertise in metalwork unfolded at Cranbrook. He opened the school’s metal workshop, and first applied the medium through the fabrication of small tableware objects and jewelry. Bertoia eventually expanded and enlarged his repertoire as his career progressed and he learned more technical metalworking skills, such as welding.
Metal was Bertoia’s preferred medium throughout his career, yet he was constantly innovating and challenging the properties of the various metals with which he worked. He first created wire and platform sculptures, and then worked on larger panels and architectural screens that were seamlessly interwoven into interior settings. Bertoia worked in a unique abstract style that referenced his fascination with organicism. His deliberately ambiguous sculptures resembled trees, bushes, dense foliation, leaves, and flowers—forms he observed from his studio in rural Pennsylvania. Bertoia masterfully translated textural pattern, dimension, motion, and sound into his metal sculptures, creating sensorial works of art.
In a few examples, such as the present screen, it can be argued that Bertoia even evoked tenets of Abstract Expressionism in sculptural form. Bertoia’s attention to line, form, and negative space are ideas that were similarly explored in the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock (Figure 1) and the early works of Norman Lewis (Figure 2). Energizing, through its dynamic linear style, also recalls works by David Smith (Figure 3), John Chamberlain, Eva Hesse (Figure 4), and Louise Nevelson, to name but a few of the major post-war and contemporary sculptors who expressed radical new ways of thinking using metal and nontraditional media. Bertoia’s works follow the progression of these important artists who made an inedible mark on the history of American art.
Energizing was commissioned for the lobby of the Swann Oil Company in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania in the early 1970s. Bertoia rarely titled his works, but in correspondence between Leonard Swann, President of the company, and the artist, Bertoia explains how he named the present work (Figure 5).
Energizing is an extremely rare and beautiful example of a magnificent screen by Bertoia. It is only the fourth one to become available on the market (see Figures 6-8). The artist’s son, Val O. Bertoia, chose this piece as the one example to illustrate Harry’s screen forms in the major book about his work, The World of Bertoia (2003, p. 150).
This stunning architectural screen is composed of a dense concentration of delicate brass-coated steel rods, resembling a cluster of trees and spindly branches. As a masterful craftsman, Bertoia applied an innovative melted-brass coating to convey an earthy, organic texture to the straw-like branches. The result is a work both solid in its construction, and delicate and ethereal in the treatment of the metal. Bertoia saw the true essence of the work as a form of energy. One can see this vital life force through the rhythmic movement of lines in space.
Cover image: Harry Bertoia, American, 1915–1978. Energizing, 1975. Melted brass-coated steel. 59 x 72 x 12 inches