Dreams of Poetic Fantasy

The Monotypes of Harry Bertoia

Photograph courtesy of the Harry Bertoia Foundation

A decade before Harry Bertoia ever began creating three-dimensional sculpture, he was hard at work producing experimental prints at the Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, developing a passion that would continue for the rest of his life. 

Many of the techniques that Bertoia used were unique to him and the nature of the work encouraged an instantaneous expression of his creativity.

These spontaneous works, made within minutes, were created by trial and error, testing different tools and techniques to achieve desired effects. Rather than using a traditional mechanical pressing process, he would apply ink to a glass or smooth Masonite plate with a sheet of paper laid directly on top. Then, tools such as brayers, dog-hair brushes, styluses and different parts of his hands were employed to draw or “press” the images on the back of the sheet. Rice paper was almost always used due to its semi-translucent nature, allowing Bertoia to have limited visibility of what was happening but ultimately, there was always an unpredictable nature to the finished work, which never ceased to delight him. 

Many of the techniques that Bertoia used were unique to him and the nature of the work encouraged an instantaneous expression of his creativity. Each work was a singular composition with imagery ranging from linear works to fantastic forms to poetic tonal landscapes. He received almost no input from other artists, giving his body of work a rare purity and a deeper manifestation of himself as an individual. 

From his first year of printmaking in 1940, Bertoia quickly amassed a large collection of unique works. The compositions were strongly tied to the non-objective movement, which while it had become popular in Europe, was still in its nascent stages in the US. There were few proponents to be found in the 1940s and rather than any of the staff or students at Cranbrook, it was Hilla Rebay, then Director of the Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Art, who gave Bertoia the encouragement and promotion that he needed. In 1943, Bertoia sent approximately 100 monotypes to Rebay for review. After receiving the prints, she reached back out to him and in a surprise turn, offered to buy them all. Bertoia spent a sleepless night trying to determine a fee, finally deciding on $1000, and Rebay in turn began including them in the museum’s exhibitions. 

More than a thousand monotypes were created over the course of his 38 years of printmaking experimentation, likely making the collection the largest body of unique prints ever produced by a single artist. 

The Guggenheim shows succeeded in putting Bertoia’s name out into the world. He began exhibiting his works at Neierndorf Gallery in New York on a regular basis and was provided a stipend to ensure a steady supply of prints until Karl Neierndorf’s death in 1947. By the 1950s, Bertoia’s career as a sculptor was taking off and commissions were coming in but despite his increasingly busy schedule, he continued to work on his monotypes as a favorite form of relaxation in the evenings. His prints had often been a source of inspiration for later sculptures, but now he began to also employ the medium while in the studio during the day as a way to work out questions and ideas in regards to his designs. As such, there ended up being more monotypes produced during the decade than at any other time in his career. 

He continued to work in this way throughout the 1960s and as much as his health would permit, up until his death in 1978. Prints were made not only for personal fulfillment but also as a method of record-keeping for completed works and authentication of commissions to be given to the clients as all works were unsigned. By the end of his life, the body of work he had produced on paper provided a sweeping record of his thoughts and ideas throughout his career. It was a sort of journal that was deeply personal and sentimental to him as the monotypes informed much of his other work and responded to the rhythms of his life. Reluctant to ever part with his beloved prints, most remained at his home studio in a system of custom-built cabinetry. More than three thousand monotypes were created over the course of his 38 years of printmaking experimentation, likely making the collection the largest body of unique prints ever produced by a single artist. 

The present Monotype features multiple Sonambient forms, much like Bertoia's Sonambient studio installation.

Harry Bertoia

Harry Bertoia was a true Renaissance man well-versed in the language of art and design. Born in San Lorenzo, Italy in 1915, Bertoia relocated to the United States at the age of fifteen and enrolled at Cass Technical High School in Detroit to study hand-made jewelry. In 1937, Bertoia was awarded a scholarship to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan where he was drawn to the mostly empty metal shop and, after two years in the program, was invited to head the department.

At Cranbrook, Bertoia was introduced to a number of designers whose names would become synonymous with mid-century modern design. Here he met Eero Saarinen, with whom he would collaborate on numerous architectural projects, and Charles and Ray Eames with whom, for a short period during the war, he would work for at the Molded Plywood Division of Evans Products in California. In 1950, Bertoia moved east to Pennsylvania to open his own studio and to work with Florence Knoll designing chairs. Bertoia designed five chairs out of wire that would become icons of the period, all of them popular and all still in production today.

The success of his chair designs for Knoll afforded Bertoia the means to pursue his artistic career and by the mid-1950s he was dedicated exclusively to his art. Using traditional materials in non-traditional ways, Bertoia created organic sculptural works uniting sound, form and motion. From sculptures sold to private buyers to large-scale installations in the public realm, Bertoia developed an artistic language that is at once recognizable but also uniquely his own.

Today Bertoia’s works can be found in various private and numerous public collections, including: The Art Institute of Chicago, Denver Art Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., Museum of Modern Art, New York, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

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