Harry Bertoia Catalogue Raisonné

Courtesy Knoll, Inc.

Artist: Harry Bertoia (1915–1978)

Scope: All of the mediums used by the artist including graphics (monotypes, woodcuts, drawings, pen and ink, etc.), paintings, furniture, jewelry, metalware (flatware, hollowware, functional items), sculpture, and large scale commissions, spanning the years 1935–1978

Total objects: estimated 20,000+ works

Organized and Supported by: Harry Bertoia Foundation

Database: PanOpticon 

Planned Format and Launch Date: Digital, 2022–2024

Price and Availability: Free public access with registration

Key Staff: Dr. Marin R. Sullivan, Catalogue Raisonné Director


Interview with Celia Bertoia, Director and Founder, Harry Bertoia Foundation

Tell us about the history of the Harry Bertoia Foundation. Was a catalogue raisonné of your father’s work always part of the Foundation’s mandate?

The Harry Bertoia Foundation was founded in 2013 with a mission of “furthering the legacy of Harry Bertoia.” At the time, I had no idea how that “furthering” would take place! We began with exhibitions and lectures at universities and museums. Within a few years we began to understand that creating a catalogue raisonné was of prime importance. Because Bertoia never signed or titled his works, establishing an authoritative, official source of information was essential since unauthorized copies of his simpler works were popping up everywhere. 

Were there projects that the artist’s family, estate, or the Foundation needed to complete before embarking on a catalogue raisonné? 

Upon Bertoia’s death in 1977, his estate passed to his wife Brigitta (who died in 2007) and to his three children. Much later, it was discovered that many of the bequeathed sculptures were unaccounted for. Once these issues were resolved over a three-year period, those sculptures became the basis for an endowment fund for the Foundation, as well as providing it with a loan collection for exhibitions. The Foundation was then free to proceed with other projects, such as a catalogue raisonné.

Bertoia’s oeuvre – and the scope of work you’ve defined for his catalogue raisonné – is exceptionally broad. How do you see the research for the CR proceeding?

We propose to cover all of his works in all mediums, but one step at a time. We expect to research one work from each category in our first year, 2019, so that we encounter as many possible problems right away and resolve them sooner than later. Once our first basic entries are accomplished, we intend to tackle the best-documented works or those with clear provenance first. Bertoia’s large-scale commissions are fairly well researched and published, and thus should not require extensive investigation to complete. Plus, they hold high interest for the public, which, while not a priority, is a consideration, especially in obtaining funding for the catalogue raisonné. One of the advantages of online publication is that although separate categories of works must be clearly established, they can easily be cross-referenced. As our funding and team of qualified catalogue raisonné researchers grow, we hope to move more quickly and tackle several areas at once. Although we are already accepting submissions of works to be reviewed for possible inclusion in the catalogue raisonné, we will not have a final list of the catalogue raisonné entries for several years.

Will the catalogue raisonné include editioned works? If so, how do you envision documenting works created as multiples?

We are lucky that Bertoia did very few editions. A handful of his woodcuts were published as multiples in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1977, knowing that lung cancer would soon overtake him, he created one of his sounding sculptures (tonals) in an edition of 50. The tonals were numbered for identification. We have not fully assessed how to handle them. 

As far as we know, those are the only editions. As for his furniture, we will have entries for each of Bertoia’s designs and will note of the various prototypes that Bertoia literally had his hands on. 

What are the projected research and publication timelines for the project? 

We are attempting to be realistic and estimating conservatively, considering the vast body of work we are dealing with. By the end of our first year we hope to have fully catalogued at least ten various works that will lay the groundwork for the rest of the 20,000! We hope to finish enough entries to begin publishing our initial results online within three to five years, and to have a substantial portion of the total entries completed in 10 years. 

Did the artist or his galleries maintain inventories or photographic records of his work? What other kinds of documentation – correspondence, material and technical records, writings or statements by the artist – exist or remain to be gathered? 

We are fortunate to have what we refer to as the “shop files,” an ongoing record of what went in and out of Bertoia’s shop during the bulk of his career. He was his own secretary, so they are not always complete. But there are hundreds of artist sketches, sometimes with dimensions and materials, all now indexed (this took five years to finish). We also have hundreds of Polaroid photos of sculptures that are being sorted out by interns. We have an incomplete – but growing – collection of gallery and museum catalogs, books, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, auction catalogs and some handwritten letters by and to the artist. Online access to auction and sale records has also been invaluable. Plus, we are lucky to have two authors in our midst, myself and Beverly Twitchell, who have written and researched books on Bertoia. And there are still some living collectors who knew Harry and have provided irreplaceable information. Having the harrybertoia.org website attracts those who want to tell their Bertoia stories, and we do give attention to these, albeit with an informed, skeptical ear.

You’ve noted that your father “never signed his work.” What physical attributes of the works or types of archival documentation will the Foundation or its advisory experts rely on to determine whether a work will be included in the catalogue raisonné?

While there is broad diversity in Bertoia’s works, there is also a recognizable, biomorphic, organic style that runs across everything he did. Another factor is that Bertoia’s unique welds are distinguishable by those who are familiar with his work. Finish details, patination, cutting techniques, brazing techniques, welding style, kinds of materials, bases, and other minute characteristics of his works all come into play when identifying his autograph works. Happily, provenance is still traceable in many instances. We are currently in the process of developing clear and strict guidelines for the inclusion of works in the catalogue raisonné. This is, of course, the crux of any catalogue raisonné project!

The Bertoia Foundation is somewhat unusual in providing Certificates of Authenticity and written valuations for his works. What considerations led the Foundation to provide these services? 

Authenticity and appraisal are two separate processes and rarely go together. The public seems to confuse or interchange the two, but one is about verifying the artist and the other has to do with comparing the artist’s work to the current art market to determine financial value. Appraisals do not affect the catalogue raisonné in any way. Items that are authenticated will be entered into the catalogue raisonné but legal advisors inform us that inclusion in the catalogue raisonné does not necessarily ascertain authenticity. The Foundation offers Certificates of Authenticity for several reasons. 1) The number of replicas is on the rise, and we want to differentiate the real from the copies. 2) The Foundation has enough resources at its fingertips to (usually) find the original work in its records. 3) Authentications provided by other organizations have generated questions, so we now offer an authorized source in the Foundation. We will not provide this service forever but for now the advantages for our clientele outweigh the problems.

 Appraisals actually come out of our for-profit sister organization, Bertoia Art & Appraisal, and have nothing to do with the catalogue raisonné project. These might be for charitable donations, tax purposes, estate issues, insurance coverage or a variety of other needs. This is a fairly straightforward process and our appraiser is accredited by the American Society of Appraisers. We are experts in Bertoia, so this is another way to serve our clientele. 

You are the author of The Life and Work of Harry Bertoia: The Man, the Artist, the Visionary (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd, 2015). How did researching and writing this book inform your thinking about the catalogue raisonné? 

The two years of research and interviews for the book showed me that there was so much more work and so much more variety to Bertoia’s work that had not yet been covered in any books or articles, including mine. Since my project was more a memoir about the man than a treatise on his art, I came to see the catalogue raisonné as a way to resolve many questions related to his work. 

The Foundation recently named Marin R. Sullivan, PhD, to be Catalogue Raisonné Director. What qualities and types of expertise do you and she see as being essential to the creation of a Harry Bertoia catalogue raisonné? 

Dr. Sullivan has the scholarly attributes, the passion for Bertoia, and the writing skills all required by the position. And her specialty is modern sculpture. I first met her when she was researching Bertoia for an article she was writing. We crossed paths again when she became the co-curator for the upcoming Bertoia exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, scheduled for fall 2020. Any catalogue raisonné director must be detail-oriented, easy to talk to, committed to integrity, and willing to alter procedures if experts or facts dictate so.

What do you hope the catalogue raisonné will contribute to scholarly and popular understanding of your father’s accomplishments and legacy?

We saw the auction houses and galleries that sold Bertoias describing similar pieces in numerous ways and the use of the term Sonambient (the artist’s coined and registered trademark for his sounding sculptures) gone wild. We hope that by providing an authorized glossary with terms that are universally accepted by scholarly and public audiences Bertoia’s work will be acknowledged and take its rightful place, whatever that may be, in the history of fine art as well as in the history of “design.”

What other plans does the Foundation have?

One major initiative is to find a museum home for the Sonambient Barn Collection, the artist’s personal collection of sounding sculptures. Bertoia made clear his wish that the collection, in toto, would go to an American museum for the public to enjoy Sonambient concerts. Another of the Foundation’s goals is to fully scan and index all its archival files. A side project, which has recently come to fruition, was to open an office / gallery for the Foundation. Just late last year, we acquired a modest commercial space, which will open in March, in St. George, Utah, to house the archival files, provide a workspace for organizing our projects, and show off some of the Foundation’s collection.

For more information visit: https://harrybertoia.org or contact the Harry Bertoia Foundation at info@harrybertoia.org

Interview conducted by Susan Cooke, CRSA Director of Programming