Bertoia’s Kresge Chapel Maquette: A Classic of Mid-Century Modern Art
By Jason Edward Kaufman
A newly discovered work by Harry Bertoia, one of the most prolific and underappreciated artist-designers of the mid 20th century, is poised to set a record when it comes up for auction at Skinner in Boston on February 7.
The rare piece is a welded-metal study for the Italian-born sculptor and furniture designer’s altar screen in Eero Saarinen’s Kresge Chapel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The chapel, dedicated in 1955, features a suspended veil of metal plates affixed to metal rods suspended from the roof oculus. The reflective plaques cascade through space, creating a glinting column of celestial sunlight that illuminates the white marble block that serves as the chapel’s altar.
The Italian-born Bertoia (1915-78) is best known for furniture designs such as his wire-mesh Diamond Chair (1952) for Knoll furniture, but his architectural commissions for airports, banks, libraries and other public sites are among his finest achievements. Saarinen, his teaching colleague at Cranbrook Academy near Detroit, commissioned the screen as an integral component of the chapel.
The building itself is a Mid-Century Modern masterpiece – a windowless brick cylinder, 50 feet in diameter and 30 feet high, with an undulating interior wall ringed at the base by low arches that admit reflected light from the surrounding moat. “The screen was meant to play off the one main light source and give a sense of the divine presence, but in an abstract way because it’s a non-denominational chapel,” explains Robin Starr, Director of American & European Works of Art at Skinner. The screen was one of Bertoia’s earliest site-specific architectural installations and among his most celebrated and striking works.
The maquette consists of a metal frame 24” tall including a hardwood base, 9 3/4” wide and 4 5/8 inches deep. It contains vertical metal rods with small rectangular steel or brass plates welded along their length. Some are painted with silvery or coppery washes to mimic the various metals in the actual installation. The model has very minor oxidation and some surface grime, but no repairs or breaks.
Hitherto unknown, the maquette comes from the collection of Robert Bradford Newman, a professor of architectural acoustics at MIT who collaborated on acoustical engineering for the chapel and the nearby auditorium. He died in 1983, and it is not known how he acquired the work, which is consigned by his family. “We are not aware of any drawings or other maquettes for the screen,” says Starr, who says researchers are searching MIT records to determine if others may have existed.
In Skinner’s American & European Works of Art sale on February 7 the work carries an estimate of $70,000 to $90,000. That’s about double what Bertoia maquettes have realized before, but Starr says that the scale and intricacy of the maquette and the historical importance of the commission justify the higher estimate. [Note: the piece sold for $86,100.]
Most Bertoias that come up for auction are examples of the furniture he designed for Knoll. Greater prices are realized for his metal plant-form sculptures and what he called “sounding pieces,” clusters of vertical rods set into swaying movement by wind or hand that create bell-like clangs when they strike one another. A six-foot sound piece from around 1970 sold at Sotheby’s NY on December 18 for $100,000, against an estimate of $80-120,000. And his metal bush, tree and dandelion sculptures have reached higher price points, including a five-foot piece from the 1960s that sold for $446,500 in 2010.
Only a handful of Bertoia’s architectural maquettes have been offered at auction. Last June a 6.5 x 2.5-inch metal maquette for his 1974 Standard Oil Commission sold at Wright for $12,500, and two larger ones, each around a foot high, made $37,500 and $40,000 in the same sale, the current record. The MIT piece is more elaborate, requiring considerably more handwork to fashion and affix the scores of rectangular plates. The historical significance, aesthetic appeal, large scale and excellent condition of the Kresge maquette, combined with the enthusiasm for mid-20th-century design, position the Kresge piece to set a new record for a Bertoia maquette. “Mid-century Modern is still very hot,” says Starr. “The whole market is moving to the postwar period in terms of art and sculpture. You hit the 20th century, especially the middle decades,” she says, “and they’re going gangbusters.”
Jason Edward Kaufman //
This article appeared in Artphaire (Online), Jan. 21, 2014.