A Sibling Rivalry Divides Harry Bertoia’s Legacy

Celia Bertoia’s father — the famous sculptor and not-so-famous musician Harry Bertoia — had been dead 30 years when she asked a psychic how to handle his legacy.

The youngest of three children, she had long seemed to be her father’s favorite: a confidante who, as a child, would cut his hair outdoors on their forest-fronting property among the idyllic valleys of Eastern Pennsylvania. But after his death in 1978, she dodged the family business of welding together mountains of metal into behemoth public-art installations and “sounding sculptures” that made music. She became a real-estate agent in Colorado, then the owner of a Montana service that provided timing for road races.

When she entered her 50s, Celia decided it was time to help manage the thousands of pieces her father had left. Her mother, Brigitta Valentiner Bertoia, had died in 2007. The next year, Celia consulted the psychic, who, knowing none of the back story, described “beautiful papers with abstract designs” — which Celia took as a reference to her father’s monotypes — and his lung cancer.

“She said: ‘The world is ready for these now. You should get these out,’” Celia, now 68, recalled in a phone conversation from the Utah office park that houses the Harry Bertoia Foundation, the nonprofit she started in 2013. “She gave me the direction.”

Following the psychic’s guidance reignited the childhood rivalry between Celia and her older brother, Val, who had spent much of the previous three decades restoring, appraising and emulating his father’s sculptures in the workshop Harry established in 1952. Accusations of theft, forgery, avarice and betrayal erupted, prompting a bitter three-year lawsuit that led, in 2016, to the division of Bertoia’s most fabled work: a centuries-old stone barn stuffed with nearly 100 of his so-called Sonambients, intricate but austere sculptures he welded from rods of beryllium copper and played like a virtuoso.

Many families struggle with issues of inheritance. But during the last decade, the Bertoias have learned how complicated those issues can be when that inheritance is unique.

“When I first heard the sculptures, I went, ‘Wow, what is that?’ Their suppleness is so inviting,” said the composer Mark Grey, who captured their sounds with a mobile studio in 2002 to build simulacrums for the Kronos Quartet. “His sculptures leapfrog electronic music technology to create a different window into what we think sound is.”

In late 2021, Sotheby’s auctioned 20 of Bertoia’s Sonambients (a rough portmanteau of sound and ambient) for nearly $6 million, prices that were in some cases ten times their estimates. Then Jack White’s Third Man Records reissued the 11 rare LPs Bertoia had recorded in the barn — recursive chimes that linger like church bells, powerful drones that roar like doom metal, tapped gongs that sing like seraphic choirs. The first pressing sold out in days. Last year, the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas hosted the first domestic Bertoia retrospective in nearly half a century. There, musicians including Nels Cline and Craig Taborn played the Sonambients in a series of concerts.

Those events were all partnerships with the foundation, part of Celia’s efforts to send her father’s work out into the world. Val, though, hopes to bring the world to the work. As children, they fought, and as adults, they have competing visions of their father’s legacy.

“Celia and Val have the utmost respect for Harry,” Lesta Bertoia, the oldest sibling, who excused herself from the lawsuit, said in an interview. “But they have never had good communication. Now they can make up one another’s motives.”

THE MORNING AFTER the Sotheby’s auction, 100 miles southwest of Manhattan at the family home in rural Pennsylvania, Val Bertoia bounded around what he called the “Sonambient Barn” with a devilish grin. He swatted and swiped row after row of musical sculptures ­— half of them made by his father, half by his own hand. The place shook with tectonic power, long southerly windows buzzing like beehives. His longtime partner, the artist Melissa Strawser, beamed.

The Bertoia family arrived in tiny Bally, Pa., at the dawn of the 1950s. Harry was an accomplished jewelry and furniture designer who had worked with Charles and Ray Eames. He’d taken a job at the modern design bastion Knoll, where he developed the celebrated Diamond chair. Then the sound of a bending wire captured his attention and fired his imagination.

During his final 20 years, Bertoia developed an army of minimalist sculptures with long rods that waved like fields of grain, producing tidal washes of luminous overtones or pointillist symphonies. He added a second floor to the hay barn, where his desk remains; the rest of the barn functioned as a giant resonant chamber, filled with a rotating cast of 100 sculptures.

“Being in the presence of those sounds brought me into a different world,” Celia said. “He would move around the room like a cat. He knew those sculptures better than he knew his family.”

Val began working for his father at his sprawling, cluttered shop in the center of Bally in 1971. Their relationship was sometimes strained, but Val said he internalized his father’s methods. “Harry was my idol, my hero, my superman,” he said.

After his father’s death, Val tended to the business. He continued making sounding sculptures, incorporating whimsy, a quality he felt his father had shunned, and numbering every piece sequentially. (After 45 years, he is nearing 2,700.) Harry Bertoia acolytes accused Val of being a charlatan who plagiarized, charged for tours and inflated appraisals.

“I realized I could not replace Harry Bertoia,” Val, now 73, said. “I had my own personality and discoveries.”

This loose arrangement seemed to work until Celia launched her foundation. She’d been away from the sculptures for so long that she asked to shadow Val for two weeks, to get reacquainted with their dynamics and his own work. He agreed, then demanded $10,000; he admitted this was to scare her off. When Celia mentioned a few sculptures she’d requested years earlier, Val said they were gone. He’d split the proceeds only with Lesta, the sister who lived nearby. Celia hired a lawyer, battling Val over what belonged where until they settled in 2016.

Celia and Lesta received 73 of the remaining 92 Sonambients. Val kept the barn, their childhood home, the workshop, and the other 19 sounding sculptures. Val described the day he spent crating his father’s sculptures as “emotionally swirling, like a hurricane.” For Celia, it was “a knife in the belly.” Lesta watched from the sidelines, telling them they were again behaving like children.

A DECADE AGO, Bertoia’s musical legacy found an unexpected champion. John Brien is the owner of Important Records, a Massachusetts-based label that had documented the experimental recesses of international musical scenes for a dozen years, like harsh noise from Japan and New Zealand and graceful drones from England and Australia. He knew of Bertoia’s chairs and even kept a photo of the designer above his desk. He was embarrassed when he stumbled on a link to Bertoia’s music in 2012; how had he missed it?

“There was nothing I could compare it to,” Brien said. “I wanted to know as much as I could.”

Brien pitched the idea of a box set to the Bertoias, who consented despite the lawsuit. He began visiting the barn, where Harry’s Sony microphones still hung, to collect photos, slides and sketches. Released in 2016, the 11-disc “Sonambient” was the first compilation of Harry’s albums.

Brien has since emerged as one of Bertoia’s most steadfast advocates, restoring and converting nearly 200 hours of unheard tape of music made on the sculptures. He has unearthed novel techniques within those recordings, including a primitive form of overdubbing. Brien said he can now identify several sculptures by sound alone.

Amid the turmoil, Brien strove to be inclusive. He solicited essays from all three children. The art historian Beverly Twitchell, who organized Bertoia’s first two exhibitions while he was alive and wrote a definitive biography, contributed archival photos and guided Brien beyond the drama. And when the much-larger Third Man suggested partnering on a vinyl edition, defraying the massive cost of pressing such a large set, he agreed.

“I wanted to reach a new audience unfamiliar with this music,” said Brien. “This was the way.”

Brien’s work suggests an ideal path forward for the Bertoia family — partnerships, not divisions. But Celia and Val still seem hesitant to share resources, even while mounting exhaustive projects to document their father’s work.

“Celia’s goal is to gain money, where I have the goal of gaining people,” Val said. (According to financial records, Celia has not drawn a salary as the foundation’s executive director for several years.) “We have two different directions — the foundation and the ‘Soundation.’ The Soundation is about how people can feel healed.”

For five years, and with the help of Sotheby’s, the foundation worked to sell 60 of Celia and Lesta’s 73 Sonambients to a museum willing to build a new barn. Practicalities quashed the plan. Celia is now focused on a catalogue raisonné, a complete accounting of Harry’s work. That’s difficult to accomplish for an artist who never signed his creations, and harder still when a feud makes some of the pieces untouchable.

“The catalog will survive far beyond any of the siblings,” she said. “It will ensure Harry’s work will live on.”

Val has filled the half-empty barn with sounding sculptures of his own, opposite his father’s remaining Sonambients. Moving among them, he raved about the possibilities of what he called “the metaverse” — an augmented-reality program that will allow anyone to visit the barn virtually and play. Brien had once floated the idea, but Val and Strawser pursued it when the pandemic shuttered in-person tours.

Grey, the composer, has started developing the program. It is not a question of technology, he insisted, but funding. “To see the barn in all its glory — the microphones hanging off rafters, cobwebs all over them — was remarkable, but time moves on,” Grey said. “We have the opportunity to keep this art alive.”

When Twitchell, the Bertoia biographer, learned the barn’s contents would be scattered, she was sad. But practical considerations offset her disappointment. The aging barn has no security system or fire sprinklers, little parking or insurance. Even if the instruments are no longer in the same place, she said, they will at least survive.

“Harry would like the idea of multiple approaches to his work,” Twitchell said. “No one would say ‘this is the only way to think about this stuff.’”

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