Bertoia: The Metalworker Reconsiders an Overlooked Modernist

By Beryl Gilothwest

Bertoia: The Metalworker, Beverly H. Twitchell, Phaidon

The curving form of a Bertoia Diamond Chair could be a 3D model for ocean waves, its grid of crisscrossed wires swelling to create a sublime visual and ergonomic experience. You have perhaps sat in one of these chairs, in a Knoll showroom, an urbane apartment, or at MoMA. It is the best-known creation of Harry Bertoia (1915–1978), a twentieth-century artist whose oeuvre extends far beyond this seminal contribution to modern furniture design. Phaidon’s beautifully illustrated new publication Bertoia: The Metalworker shines a light on this oft-overlooked artist.

Author Beverly H. Twitchell knew Bertoia in the last years of his life and peppers straightforward visual analyses and well-researched narrative with her own memories and reflections of the artist. She is judicious with this personal connection, providing slivers of insight into Bertoia’s personality that deepen rather than distract from her examination of his body of work. Organized chronologically, the book begins with Bertoia’s unlikely rise as an artist after immigrating to Detroit from northern Italy as a teenager to live with his blue-collar brother.

An art teacher at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School was quick to see Bertoia’s potential, facilitating his first experiments in jewelry and printmaking and later urging him to apply to the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art. After his application interview with director Eliel Saarinen, he was accepted on the spot. By age 23, Bertoia was running Cranbrook’s metals shop. Twitchell’s chapter on this era is effective in underscoring the transformative nature of Bertoia’s time at Cranbrook—the genesis of his style can be traced to this breeding ground for American modernism—but it underemphasizes the extraordinary swiftness of his ascendance. Hilla Rebay, co-founder of the now-Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, began purchasing prints by Bertoia for the collection starting in 1943 when the artist wasn’t yet even 30. Excerpts from their correspondence are revelatory, marked by Rebay’s manipulative encouragement—dictatorial instructions often masqueraded as advice—and his ensuing tactful and mature strength of will.

Herbert Matter. Photomontage of studies for Bertoia chairs, c. 1951–52. Picture credit: Photo: Herbert Matter, Courtesy of Knoll, Inc. (page 109) . Chapter 4: Knoll and Chairs, 1950–52.

Bertoia’s career came into full bloom after his first chairs debuted at Knoll’s Manhattan showroom in 1952. A former classmate at Cranbrook, Florence Knoll was responsible for the transformation of her husband Hans’s furniture business (and the industry as a whole), commissioning forward-thinking artists and designers—such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen (son of Eliel)—to create modern furnishings that were visually striking, deeply considered, and could be made widely available. The Knolls hired Bertoia under generously open-ended terms not long after his short tenure at the Eames office in Los Angeles concluded. Twitchell paints Charles Eames as a dictatorial leader who appropriated a structural concept developed by Bertoia and Eero Saarinen for his now-iconic, eponymous chair, a turn of events that remained a sour point for the artist. When writing about Bertoia’s wildly successful partnership with Knoll, Twitchell is at her best. Her painstaking research teases out the intricacies of Bertoia’s process not just in creating concepts and building prototypes but in masterminding how to effectively mass-produce them. Referring to an early sketch for a chair, Twitchell writes, “Seeing through the linear study to its opposite side provides a preview of the mesh that might result from overlapping such successions of wires.” Her inclusion of Herbert Matter’s stunning photographs of Bertoia’s chairs—a composition that visualizes the progression of his development of form stands out in particular—doubles down on her words in bringing Bertoia’s thought process to life.

Surprisingly, Twitchell doesn’t dedicate a section of her book to the major public commissions that came in the wake of Bertoia’s success with Knoll and continued through the rest of his life, including collaborations with such architects as the younger Saarinen, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM), and I.M. Pei. Monumental abstract sculptures are commonplace today, but they were still quite rare when Bertoia got his first commission from Saarinen in 1953 for a screen in the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. A similar work from the following year dominates Bunshaft’s 510 Fifth Avenue building in Manhattan. The massive, roughly-hewn screen of tilting elements catches the light in myriad ways, its grid-like composition hiding complex organic forms within that reveal themselves upon closer inspection. In Reredos (1954-55) for Saarinen’s Kresge Chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—arguably Bertoia’s best-known commission—a transcendent cascade of metal elements descends from an oculus in the ceiling to flank the marble altar below. Dulles International Airport is home to View of Earth from Space (1963), a tremendous bronze mural made using Bertoia’s unorthodox spill-cast technique. He created the topographic terrain of its nine panels by pouring molten bronze on to a patch of sand behind his shop, the form of its surface impossible to anticipate. In related works, Bertoia found that tossing rocks into the mix during the spill-cast process would cause explosions, deepening the serendipitous nature of his surfaces. In all, he completed over fifty public commissions worldwide that enrich rather than complement Modernist architecture. Though Twitchell spends time on many of these projects, her decision not to consider this groundbreaking and diverse body of work as a whole is a missed opportunity.

Harry and Oreste Bertoia playing sculptures in the barn, c. 1968–70. Picture credit: Photo © Bill Smith. (page 257). Chapter 7: Rods, Sheets, and Sounds, 1959-78

Bertoia’s magnum opuses are the beguiling, multi-sensory, and unique “sounding” pieces that he began in the early 1960s. While Bertoia was hardly the first modern sculptor to use sound as an element in his work, he made it his primary focus in these pieces, building form out of reverberation. Many of these works feature bouquets of taut metal wires that extend upwards and throb when set in motion, their collisions emitting subtle yet richly powerful tones. The final chapter of The Metalworker takes this body of work as its focus and Twitchell is thorough in her analysis. Bertoia once likened them to “wheat fields swaying in the breeze,” a reference that Twitchell explains as the artist “abstracting the essence of a particular experience and transforming it into a valuable principle” rather than simply embodying a natural phenomenon. The barn behind Bertoia’s Pennsylvania home, which he used as his studio, was filled with these works, installed purposefully such that activating one would begin a chain reaction with its neighbors, turning the space into an artwork in its own right. Bertoia released his first album of these sound performances in 1970. This fusion of sculpture, music, and performance art was boldly ambitious, but Twitchell argues otherwise, citing unrelated experimental work in sculpture from the 1970s as similarly innovative, and emphasizing the spirituality of the “sounding” pieces as the key to their importance. Lumping this complex body of art, which feels like the culmination of Bertoia’s lifetime of ideas, in with concurrent “light, laser, and computer art” is short-sighted. The only connection to be found is a shared desire to buck the confines of traditional sculpture.

Ultimately, The Metalworker doesn’t appropriately place Bertoia within the history of modernism. Twitchell’s straightforward survey of his life and work is thorough, but she rarely moves beyond facts and traditional visual analysis to probe the depths of the artist’s ideologies, contextualize his art among contemporaries, and explore the sphere of his influence. One can’t help but wonder what fresh conclusions a writer with a more critical approach might have come to. Nonetheless, perhaps readers will begin to see beyond those perfectly formed chairs at MoMA and into the fully realized world of Bertoia.

Bertoia: The Metalworker by Beverly H. Twitchell is available April 17 from Phaidon. 280 pp. $95.00.

Beryl Gilothwest studied Art History at Vassar College and works at the Calder Foundation. He has written for Art in America, among other publications.

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