A new exhibit opens March 14 at Cranbrook Art Museum, featuring the jewelry designed by Harry Bertoia, one of the Cranbrook Academy of Art’s most illustrious alumni and one of a cadre of artists educated at Cranbrook during the 1930s and ’40s who influenced American design in the mid-20th century.
A new exhibition running March 14 through Nov. 29 at Cranbrook Art Museum, “Bent, Cast, and Forged: The Jewelry of Harry Bertoia,” will display 30 of Bertoia’s jewelry works.
Bertoia was born in Italy in 1915, but graduated from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School in the early 1930s after his father emigrated to the United States. In 1937, he arrived at Cranbrook, where he remained until 1943 — first as a student and then as an instructor.
Before his death in 1978, Bertoia had won acclaim for his work as a furniture designer — the woven wire chair was one of his signature pieces — and for his large, unique bronze and copper sculptures displayed in public spaces across the United States and in corporate spaces such as the General Motors Technical Center in Warren.
Shelley Selim, the curator of the exhibit, says in a telephone interview that while Bertoia is perhaps best known for his sculptures and furniture, he actually worked in several different media during a career in which he produced thousands of individual pieces of art, including sculpture, painting, prints and jewelry, which he started fashioning while he still a student at Cass Tech.
Of the hundreds of jewelry pieces attributed to Bertoia, the majority were produced during his years at Cranbrook in the early 1940s, Selim noted. “Metal was scarce during the war, and he would go to flea markets to pick old pieces of silver that he could melt down and make into jewelry,” she says.
Leaving Cranbrook, he moved west to Southern California to work with Charles and Ray Eames, two of the most famous post-World War II-era designers, whose time at Cranbrook overlapped with Bertoia’s six-year tenure in Bloomfield Hills, according to the Bertoia Foundation website.
In Southern California, he refined his welding techniques by taking classes in Santa Monica and studied what later became the science of ergonomics — how to make machines easier to use — and worked with the Electronics Naval Lab in La Jolla. In 1950, he began working with another Cranbrook colleague, Florence Knoll, a co-founder of Knoll Associates, which played a key role popularizing modernist designs in the years after World War II.
For Knoll, Bertoia to set up his own studio outside of Philadelphia, where he worked a variety of sculptural commissions for both public and private clients. The Cranbrook exhibition, “Bent, Cast, and Forged: The Jewelry of Harry Bertoia,” offers a glimpse of the early creative vision that would crystallize as his career matured, Selim says.
“Harry Bertoia’s artistic legacy is tremendous, and with the upcoming centennial of his birth in March 2015, we thought it auspicious timing for an exhibition devoted to his jewelry — the first of its kind in a museum setting,” says Selim, who is Cranbrook Art Museum’s 2013-2015 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow. “It is thrilling to see his investigations of form and material in his early days as an artist and designer.”
Selim says Bertoia made jewelry as a way of working out his conceptual interests — particularly the vital forces of nature and its cycle of growth and decay.
“This examination of Bertoia’s jewelry is not only a case study of one facet of a versatile career, but also an exploration of process and creative discovery,” she says. “The pieces in the show embody a developing visual language and artistic world view that persevered and intensified throughout his entire career.”
The exhibition features 30 objects plus 13 monotype prints. In addition to the three works from Cranbrook’s own collection, the exhibition includes pieces on loan from Renee Murphy, Kim and Al Eiber, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Leah Gordon Antiques, Drucker Antiques and the estate of Lois Rosenthal.
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