Harry Bertoia, Stradivarius of Cacophony

THE DAILY PIC : Harry Bertoia's sound sculptures at the Museum of Arts and Design stand for a Dada utopianism.

My beautiful picture

MY DAILY PIC (#1620): The great sculptor Harry Bertoia is most famous, by far, for the woven-wire furniture he designed for Knoll in the early 1950s. This 1973 photo, however, captures what he was concentrating on in the last few decades of his life: sculptures called Sonambients that rustled and rang and gonged when you touched them, and that have recently started to be known and to sell once again.

Right now, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York is having a rare show of those late musical pieces, even scheduling times when visitors can “play” them. (Click here to see and hear Bertoia’s works in action.)

Listening to the hours of recordings that are also in the show, and constantly getting lost in their swarms of inchoate sounds, I was struck by a utopian element in Bertoia’s late project. It’s not the standard modernist idea of utopia, as found maybe in Bertoia’s Knoll chairs, whereby modern art and design will fix the world’s ills. This is a more profound and maybe darker model – almost a Dada utopianism, if that isn’t an oxymoron – whereby utterly knew ways of being, knowing, hearing and seeing can be brought into the world to replace old standbys such as grammar, tonality and representation. Fresh, liberating forms of chaos will be made to supplant old kinds of order.

The reason this is utopian is because it’s an utterly fond hope: Human minds seem to couple with the world in fairly predictable ways that can’t be overridden; you can come to enjoy and even love the sound of a mess of bronze rods banging together, but they will never do what a Bach fugue or an Arab melisma can.

But the truly great achievement of modern art and culture, as I’ve argued before, is not to succeed at much of anything. It is to dare to fail gloriously. And to count that as success. (Photo by and courtesy of Beverly H. Twitchell)

For a full survey of past Daily Pics visit blakegopnik.com/archive.

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