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Harry Bertoia (American 1915-1978) Sea Anenome

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Dunham Townend
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Published: 14 November 2016

Sculpting Motion & Sound | The Work of Harry Bertoia

Harry Bertoia (1915-1978) was a pioneering master of modern arts and design. With an uncommon impulse for creativity, he produced work across the artistic spectrum with a diverse oeuvre that includes sculpture, furniture, design, jewelry, prints and drawings. Freeman’s will proudly offer two important Bertoia sculptures in our December 6 auction of Modern & Contemporary Art. Freeman’s has a long tradition of selling works by Pennsylvania artists, particularly Bertoia’s. Though Italian-born, he lived in the state for nearly thirty years and has been claimed by Pennsylvanians as a native-son.

Harry Bertoia was a pioneering and prolific master of Modern Arts and Design. His diverse oeuvre includes sculpture, furniture, design, jewelry, prints and drawings. Bertoia first came to Pennsylvania at the behest of Hans and Florence Knoll, proprietors of the celebrated furniture and design company, Knoll, Inc. The Knolls had taken notice of his work while he was a student at the renowned Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and invited him to leave his home in California to join their noted eponymous firm. Bertoia found tremendous success with Knoll, and rose to prominence with the design and production of his now famous “Diamond Chair,” which is considered an icon of mid-century Modernism.  With his reputation firmly established and his roots solidly planted in his Bally, Pennsylvania studio, Bertoia turned his interest and attention toward creating the dynamic and elegant sculptures that are so highly sought-after in today’s marketplace.

Sea Anemone and Sonambient represent two enduring and important themes in Bertoia’s sculptural works. Sea Anemone is an excellent example of the artist’s investigation of the bush form. He was heavily influenced by nature and organic patterns and created many “bush-like” pieces throughout his career. It is a particularly successful example of these works—its dense concentration of branches lends a certain solidity, while, conversely, the delicacy of the individual stems conveys a gentle elegance. Asymmetrical, the form surges and swells around its axis, activating and engaging the empty space about it with a dynamic energy.  

Energy is also a meaningful component of another of Bertoia’s seminal artistic explorations—his sounding or “sonambient” sculptures. These works are comprised of multiple metal rods that, when swayed, collide with one another to emanate ringing notes.  Speaking of these sonambient pieces, he once mused, “I build sculptures that can move in the wind or that can be touched and played like an instrument.” Bertoia considered these tones his music and, when “played” together, his sculptures were his symphony.

Both Sea Anemone and Sonambient come from the private collection of Jim and Nan Morrissey of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. They are keen connoisseurs of mid-century Modernism and have built an impressive collection of art and design, including these Bertoias, which have been cherished jewels for many decades.

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