Bertoia's failures and why they appeal to me

On Saturday, a colleague and I toured the top floor of the Reading Public Museum with our art students. The chronological structure of our presentations matches the layout of the permanent collection. This allows students to observe the evolution of aesthetic vision as it relates to the cultural context in which it was created. Often, the museum’s temporary exhibitions fit well into our historical overview.The current exhibition of the work of Harry Bertoia serves to illuminate a pivotal moment in the aesthetic transformation of nature into culture. Bertoia’s oeuvre is sufficiently accessible to be useful as a comprehensible introduction to the relationship between realism and abstraction. This is a difficult concept for many viewers to understand and appreciate. And it is one way in which In Nature’s Embrace: The World of Harry Bertoia is a significant public event.The show contains examples of work that present a rather complete picture of Bertoia’s aesthetic vision – as well as the several steps he took to realize its fullness. The whole of his work presents a modern artist struggling to create an abstract sculpture that embodies natural pattern as it may be captured by a man using industrial materials. It was clearly a struggle, as there are many missteps along the way – pieces where the work is burdened by clumsiness and incompleteness of vision. Much of the interesting but uninspiring two-dimensional work presents fantasy forests filled with robotic creatures built up according to the artist’s biomechanical conceptualizations. Additionally, the problem of what to do about the pedestal is one not always elegantly solved by Bertoia. For example, his signature bush-and-tree-like sculptures are raised up off the floor by out-of-scale little stems that serve to hold them up but diminish the evocative qualities of the quite perfect forms they bear. Rather than representing fully realized evocations of natural pattern, the sculptures can appear as giant three-dimensional lollipops.Occasionally, the artist’s abstraction embodies the imitative fallacy. At other times – as in the panel sculptures – it too closely resembles Bauhaus-inspired 1950s-era art-school modernism. For me however, flaws like these tend to give the work an endearing quality. Rather than a towering, fictionalized figure created by careerist art historians, I see an average man working to achieve something far more significant than a place in the canon. And after all, that is how it should be. Instead of embodying the pretense of having achieved absolute identification with his subject (as does Jackson Pollock in his oft-quoted conceit, “I don’t paint nature, I am nature”), Bertoia simply does his best. And like the rest of us, he often fails to actualize his goals.Bertoia’s sounding sculptures represent the artist straining to create pure immaterial aural experience. But their material existence belies their true nature and we mistake them for visual objects. In the do-not-touch museum setting they are required to inhabit we observe them as we would observe instruments in an empty orchestra pit. They are rendered mute by the art context and so we are deaf to their esential significance.Ultimately, as in the work of many sculptors, Beroia’s art can not transcend its materials. But in the context of the artist’s work I see this as a tragic irony. His art reminds us that we too must recognize the fact that our very materiality limits our ability to acheive the heights of experience we so deeply desire.Harry Bertoia was just a man whose desire to commune with nature to the degree that he might become one with it, fails as it must. Since at least Biblical times it has been apparent that the essentially tragic position of man in the universe is first and foremost our physical and psychological detachment from nature. Bertoia’s art, with all its flaws and endearing clumsiness is to me simply the life’s work of a humble man who worked with his hands to acheive a spiritual vision – and not some abstruse construction pretending to be something it is not. This is precisely why I am attracted to his work and why I recommend it to my students.

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