Everyday Magic

Harry Bertoia’s Sounding sculptures are the artistic and philosophical culmination of his decades-long creative practice. In these works, Bertoia moves beyond the purely concrete expression of his sculpture with the addition of kinetic motion and sound. The visual becomes felt and experienced as the undulations of the sound waves wash over the viewer. Bertoia distilled this experience in the Sonambient installation at his home and studio where he would perform and record the sounds of his sculptures.

Gong by Harry Bertoia, c. 1973. Photo by Wright

The Sounding sculptures are activated by hand. He was quite adept at manipulating the works to different effect and composing cascading rivers of sound. To Bertoia, the emanating sound waves were a manifestation of the cosmic and eternal, moving outwards from the sculpture through the viewer and beyond. This quality is concentrated in the Gong Forms. Crafted in Silicon bronze, they have a majestic quality with rich and deep resonance.

But the Gongs need to be activated in the correct way. A hand will not do as it struggles to create the clean strike that does not muffle. A mallet is the solution, with a surface firm but slightly yielding to not damage the work. The example shown here exposes Bertoia’s creative and inventive mind while also expressing the humbleness for which he was known.

Mallet by Harry Bertoia, c. 1973. Photo by Wright

The mallet is created from a well-worn baseball fitted to a common wooden handle, one that might have come from a judge’s gavel. The baseball is drilled and the handle affixed with a screw. Bertoia could have stopped after fashioning this oddly appealing juxtaposition. But he continued, adding a spiral in silver, hand-forged like his jewels, a decorative flourish contrasting the industrial practicality of the workaday screw. With that gesture, Bertoia’s mallet becomes a baton to lead a parade, an un-royal scepter decorated with a spiral jetty, an ancient symbol of the eternal, as it does its work to sending the sound waves along their infinite journey.

Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, 1970.