Lost and Found

Though his studio was in Pennsylvania, internationally known modernist-sculptor and designer Harry Bertoia, who died in 1978, had a number of Colorado connections. For many years he served as a fellow of the Aspen Institute, and there are important pieces of his work in the permanent collections of the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and the Kirkland Museum, as well as those of private individuals.

But what is perhaps forgotten today is that there once were a number of major Bertoias on public display in downtown Denver, thanks to famous architects such as I. M. Pei and Minoru Yamasaki, who often used his pieces for their important buildings. Two of Bertoia's "Money Tree" sculptures, abstractions with many hanging parts that evoke the spirit of trees, once graced the interior of the Hilton Hotel. (It's now the Adam's Mark Hotel, a rare surviving element of the mostly lost Zeckendorf Plaza by Pei at 1550 Court Place.) The monumental outdoor "Sounding Sculpture" once stood in the forecourt of the U.S. Bank tower, a sleek high-rise by Yamasaki at 950 17th Street. Unfortunately, all three sculptures were discarded by their owners and shipped out of town; "Sounding Sculpture" went all the way to Norway.

"Sounding Sculpture" is a masterpiece, and it looked perfect in front of the chaste formalist bank -- but it was hardly in perfect condition when removed in 1998. The sculpture, a grid of vertically mounted rods capped by cylinders, was designed to move gently in the breeze, thereby producing sounds that were similar in tone to clock chimes. It did move with the breeze as Bertoia wanted, but he did not foresee over-enthusiastic viewers pulling on the rods too forcefully, thus bending and damaging them. The piece was repaired once, in the 1980s, and the top was bound with a chain to prevent people from tugging on the rods -- but that also silenced "Sounding Sculpture."

U.S. Bank should have restored the piece and kept it where it was, but at the urging of architectural firm Fentress Bradburn, which was rehabbing the building at the time, "Sounding Sculpture" was donated to the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum removed the chain, and the piece was subsequently damaged again by those unintentional vandals who wrongheadedly decided to physically interact with it. Ultimately, BMoCA concluded that restoring or even preserving "Sounding Sculpture" was beyond its means and sold it to a Norwegian collector -- a move that remains controversial. But, as I've said all along, the villains of this story are not the well-meaning but misguided folks at BMoCA but rather the powers-that-were at Fentress Bradburn and U.S. Bank who chose to remove it from Denver in the first place.

My coverage of the story since '98 brought me to the attention of historian Mary Thorp, who's tracking down Bertoia sculptures in preparation for a catalogue raisonné of the artist's forty-year career. This is no easy task, because it is believed that Bertoia completed nearly 6,000 pieces, which were sold and scattered to the four winds. To make matters worse, almost none of them are signed, and Bertoia kept only sketchy records.

Thorp was in Denver documenting several private owners' Bertoias, as well as those at the Kirkland. She describes the project, which she began in 1998, as a "magical journey." She's performed quite a trick by uncovering more than 2,000 Bertoias. "One person leads me to the next," Thorp says. In her pursuit, she's logged more than 10,000 miles of travel.

The hardest pieces to find are those that were purchased privately. Many Bertoias wound up in Denver homes, because the now-closed Inkfish Gallery, which was run by Paul and Nancy Hughes, represented the artist and sold many of his sculptures locally. In fact, Paul once told me that Bertoia, a longtime friend of his, originally urged him to open the gallery and was the first artist to sign up with Inkfish.

Thorp has left Denver and is now on the road, though she's sure to be back. If anyone has a sculpture that was purchased from Inkfish or acquired in some other way -- or drawings or monotypes -- contact Thorp at her e-mail address: [email protected].

It's unnecessary to use the services of a historian-cum-detective such as Thorp to find work by Manuel Neri, another internationally famous sculptor. The strong and highly focused Manuel Neri is now at the Robischon Gallery through Christmas Eve, showing some of the legendary Bay Area modern master's recent work.

Like Bertoia, Neri also has ties to Denver. Immediately inside the front door of the Denver Art Museum is 1991's "Ohne Titel," a conventionalized female nude in painted bronze. And the current show at Robischon marks the third time the gallery has highlighted Neri, which means his work must sell. We can assume, therefore, that Neri pieces have quietly entered local private collections. (In the future, some historian probably will come looking for them.)

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia