Harry Bertoia Works


Harry Bertoia - 1941-42, pencil signed and dated 1942, also stamp signed and dated 1941 in the plate. Monotype in colors on rice paper. image: 11 3/4 x 8 in. (29.8 x 20.32 cm) sheet: 15 1/2 x 11 in. (39.4 x 27.9cm)

Preface By Tony Seraphin

I first met Harry in 1972, when I approached him about showing some of his sculpture in my gallery. I was taken aback by his gentleness and that wonderful smile that teachers have with

young students. Over the next few years my wife and I would go out to his studio in Bally to see new works, but best of all to the stone farm house in the woods he shared with Brigitta.


Those are memories I will always cherish, sitting in the living room viewing snow on the ground through the window and a fire blazing with ten people all talking about art, politics and other subjects that kept us there until 2:00am. I knew Harry was an important artist, but he was also a great humanitarian, he loved people, even young people like myself who didn't grasp the entire statements he made about art. He just enjoyed being with people who loved art.


I only had one show with Harry in 1973. I realized early that his tonals touched all the basic

senses, unlike static sculpture. Harry's austere works could transform a gallery into a music

hall and everyone was a composer. However, on the walls were his mysterious lyrical

colorful drawings, or mono-prints, and they told much more about Harry's inner thoughts

and feelings over forty years. Each was unique, gentle, and at times reminded the viewer of

being under the sea in a magical land of fantasy. Harry many times did these drawings late

at night in another studio behind his home. One can imagine the stillness of the night and

Harry releasing his thoughts through the flow of his hand across the paper. It is these four

decades of delicate drawings that I feel will become precious objects in world class

collections and it will be these drawings that take a person into the world of Harry Bertoia.


By Anne R. Fabbri:

Harry Bertoia's drawings are the diary of his creative life, expressing his inner vision of the

world around him at the moment he was experiencing it. As a record of his thoughts and

ideas and the source for all his art, we have only just begun to appreciate them.

His drawings, beginning in the 1940s, establish Bertoia as a pioneer in the new art of the

twentieth century, an artist on the forefront of the international surge towards complete

abstraction. He was one of the few American artists of that era to embrace non-objective

art. "I draw what I don't know in order to learn something about it," Bertoia explained.

Although the drawings have become treasured vestiges ot an artist's personal expression,

they were not initially made for anyone other than himself. Theretore, he neither signed nor

dated them but carefully stored them in secure cabinets. Executed with printer's ink

and various paints on paper laid on a glass or Masonite plate, he continued to create the

drawings for the rest of his life.

Born in 1915 in northern Italy, San Lorenzo, in the province of Udine, he came with his

father to Detroit in 1930 where his older brother, Oreste, was living and working. Alter

graduating in 1936 from Cass Technical High School, Detroit, he was awarded a scholarship

to the School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, followed by a scholarship to the

Cranbrook Academy of Art for painting and drawing. He was later invited to teach classes

there in metalworking and graphics. During that period, Bertoia began working on his

drawings at night atter classes.

Harry Beroia - Untitled (Monotype) c. 1945 wooden blocks pressed in printer's ink and stamped on rice paper 20 h × 26 w in (51 × 66 cm)

Although Cranbrook subsequently became known as a center for the avant-garde arts, with an emphasis on architecture, their major exhibition during that era was "Contemporary American Painting* in 1940, Artists such as Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove and John Marin were

not included among the fifty artists, all of whom were recognizable realists, Non-objective art was not within their purview; nor was it acceptable to most Americans,

Encountering criticism at the school when he showed his drawings to a few members of the inculty, attitudes probably changed after Bertoia shipped approximately one hundred of his drawings to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York for a more sympathetic critique. Hilla Rebay; the director, purchased all of them: a few for her personal collection, the remainder for the museum. Bertoia was exonerated.

He could embrace the totally abstract while striving to embody the essence of nature.

Nineteen of his drawings were shown at the Guggenheim Foundation in 1943 in an

exhibition that included works by Moholy-Nagy, Werner Drewes, Charles Smith and others.

Following this recognition, the Nierendorf Gallery in New York regularly showed his work,

including his metal jewelry, paying him a monthly stipend until it closed in 1947 after the

death of the owner. Speed of execution for his drawings was of paramount importance to

Bertoia. He wanted nothing to interfere with the expression of his thoughts at the moment

of their realization. Improvising his own technique, Bertoia inked the plate in one or more colors of printer's ink, laid dry or wet paper on it and rapidly drew on the reverse side of the paper with a stylus or other blunt object. Then he would apply pressure with his hands, fingers or small brayer and remove the paper while the ink was still wet. Although he mightmake more adjustments on the face of it, he wanted to capture the spontaneity of his thoughts and feelings at that moment, Sizes ranged from 4x 6 inches to 41 x 30 inches. The

papers varied from tissue paper to ordinary note papers and, ultimately, to rice paper,

preferred by Bertoia because it became almost transparent when wet and he could see his

drawings on the reverse side.


Closest in concept to the work of Paul Klee, Bertoia was not part of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the United States following World War I. He was fascinated by the European imierest in jyrical automatism and geometric non-objectivity, touched by Surrealism but completely rejected the Jackson Pollock ethos.

"Let the line be a line," Bertoia stated, "And the smudge a smudge. They don't pretend to be anything but what they are." During the 1940s and the first half of the 1950s his drawings

with fine lines and cascading spirals seem to dance across the page with all the insouciance ot youth, vigorous spirits in a receptive hemisphere. With time, subtle changes began to develop, erotie torms and upright shapes that hint at three dimensional spaces. A quieter, more meditative spirit sultuses many of the drawings. He added collage more frequently for emphasis, with deeper colors and greater definition.

Although primarily known today as a sculptor, Bertoia did not begin that phase of his career until the 1950s. Increasingly more of his time was spent on commissions for three-dimensional works, including his sound sculpture, and the number of drawings diminished. Many of the drawings in the 1960s could be related to his specific sculptures but he also continued to create others that reflected only his state of mind at the moment. These are prized for their unadulterated images expressing his original observation. Through them are traced the evolution of his ideas and forms.

"I want to show what is positive and joyful in the world," Bertoia said, "If I had to sum up my forty years as an artist, I'd say my intent has always been the enrichment of life. I have a gut feeling that awareness of the miracle of life is the purpose of life."

Harry Bertoia Mono Print 1945

Harry Bertoia (American, 1915-1978) Untitled 1941-42, pencil signed and dated 1942, also stamp signed and dated 1941 in the plate. Monotype in colors on rice paper. image: 11 3/4 x 8 in. (29.8 x 20.32 cm) sheet: 15 1/2 x 11 in. (39.4 x 27.9cm) Unframed.

Harry Bertoia - Color monotype with woodblock on thin rice paper, circa 1937-1943. 990x312 mm; 39x12 1/4 inches (sheet), full margins. Inscribed "375" in ink, lower right recto

Harry Bertoia - Untiled 1940 - 40" x 25"

Image credit: Anthony Seraphin