After his death in 1978, Harry Bertoia was interred beneath one of his most impressive sonic works: a 2,000-pound, 10-foot-in-diameter silicon bronze gong. His tombstone reads: “He heard the voice of the wind. Bringing sound from form to life. We now echo his love.” The resting place of the Italian-born American artist is not far from a stone barn in Bally, Pennsylvania, that’s packed with his sounding sculptures; created during a period of experimentation with metal and unconventional music in the 1960s–70s, the pieces resonate with church bell–like notes and high-pitched patters. An exhibition now on view at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), Atmosphere for Enjoyment: Harry Bertoia’s Environment for Sound, celebrates this work, featuring historic examples alongside versions built by his son, Val Bertoia, that visitors can touch.
Arguably, Bertoia’s most famous legacy is in furniture. In 1952, he created the Diamond chair — an airy, mesh seat — for Knoll, and it’s still ubiquitous in fashionable outdoor spaces, such as the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art. However, MAD is asserting a wider appreciation of Bertoia’s career beyond this midcentury design icon. Atmosphere for Enjoyment is joined in the galleries by Bent, Cast & Forged: The Jewelry of Harry Bertoia, which comes from Michigan’s Cranbrook Art Museum; Bertoia was both a student and metalsmithing instructor at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. The show focuses on his jewelry, some of it made during wartime metal rationing in the 1940s, and helps demonstrate the diversity of his work as a skilled metalsmith.
Bertoia’s music got a boost last year when many of his unheard barn recordings were released in an 11-CD box set from Important Records. Yet to really appreciate what he did with his “Sonambient” sculptures — intended to be instruments that anyone can play — you have to get hands on, and that’s what the MAD exhibition does best. Stepping up on a small stage, you weave between the pieces, some tall and with the shuddering movement of pond reeds in the wind, one with two metal cylinders that clang together with a satisfying, bell-like toll. It’s easy to feel immersed in both the visuals of the vibrating metal and the unexpected, spacey sounds. Another part of the show has a recording of the pieces played more professionally by musicians Lizzi Bougatsos and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (you can listen while sitting in Diamond chairs), but the interactive elements really bring the “sound from form to life,” as Bertoia’s epitaph proclaims. Each last Friday of the month during the exhibition’s run, musicians will also take the stage in the gallery to experiment with the sounding sculptures (the next is on July 29).
The Pennsylvania barn is still in existence, holding 91 of Bertoia’s original pieces and now maintained by Val. Although he created these tonal installations elsewhere — such as a 1974 piece in Chicago’s Aon Center plaza that survives today (the Harry Bertoia Foundation has an extensive list of his public works, both sound-based and purely sculptural) — the barn was Bertoia’s sonic masterpiece. In a way, the environment is more akin to the self-taught artist Emery Blagdon’s “healing machine,” a shed in Nebraska packed with suspended chandeliers of found objects, than anything by Bertoia’s midcentury design contemporaries. Still, his metal pieces evidence a shared appreciation for industrial materials, and there’s a real joy in experimentation that plays out in the varied shapes and sizes of his sculptures (from under a foot tall to a towering 16 feet), as well as the different alloys he used (including beryllium copper, bronze, and brass) to create different tones.
Below, you can watch Bougatsos and Lowe create recordings for the MAD exhibition in Bertoia’s barn, which fills with the rattle, ring, and hum of the assembled metal sculptures:
Atmosphere for Enjoyment: Harry Bertoia’s Environment for Sound continues through September 25 at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Upper West Side, Manhattan).
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