Old sculpture, new wonders: 'Plant Forms' comes to Woodmere

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A conservator cleans Harry Bertoia's 1967 sculpture "Free Interpretation of Plant Forms" at the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, where the sculpture has recently been moved. When the Civic Center was razed in 2000, the fountain was put in storage. It last saw water in 2000.

You could argue that it is too soon to look at and think about Free Interpretation of Plant Forms, the monumental sculptural fountain that recently appeared, overnight, on the front lawn of the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill.

After all, the four-ton work is still behind a construction fence. The landscaping around it is unfinished. The water element of the fountain is not operating, and its design hasn't even been set because Woodmere's administrators expect to experiment to determine what looks and works best. Wait a little while, and you can see something that is "complete."

Nevertheless, when I heard that after more than 15 years in storage this Harry Bertoia sculpture was once again outdoors and visible, I had to run out and see it. Seeing the work at this transitional moment was very moving. It embodies the way art works on physical objects - and on our minds.

This is, of course, not a new work, but one made a half-century ago and installed in 1967 at the now-demolished Philadelphia Civic Center in West Philadelphia. Before it was removed in 2000, I walked past it dozens of times without slowing to pay real attention.

It was one of the largest works to emerge from the One Percent Program, which requires spending up to 1 percent of the construction cost of Philadelphia's municipal buildings on works of art. This program, and a similar one administered by the city's Redevelopment Authority that applied to private buildings, were created during the late 1950s. They grew from a real dissatisfaction with the bland, unadorned buildings - think Penn Center - being erected at the time.

Advocates of the program said art would "humanize" these faceless edifices and "animate" their inert forms. There were times when it happened. Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin was a product of the Redevelopment Authority program. But, often, the artwork simply monumentalized the apathy and noncommunication among bureaucrats, developers, architects, and artists. Nobody seemed to care about the works; they were simply there. They were, in a phrase of the time, "plop art."

The addition to the Civic Center for which Free Interpretation of Plant Forms was created was among the worst of the oversize and underthought buildings of the era. Still, if anyone could give it a soul, you would bet on Harry Bertoia (1915-78).

Bertoia came to the United States at 15, and during the 1930s, as a student at the Cranbrook School of Art near Detroit, he became part of the founding generation of American modern designers, along with Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, and George Nelson. During the 1940s, he helped design the classic Eames chair. He moved to Bally, in Berks County between Reading and Allentown, to work with Knoll, the furniture-makers. Today, he is best known for the series of wire chairs he designed for Knoll in 1952 that are still available.

He considered himself a metalworker, and he devoted most of his life to making sculpture, almost all of which use wire, rods, or pipes. Working with an acetylene torch, he would bend the pipes one by one and bind them together with bronze to create nature-inspired forms. The sculptures grew very slowly. Bertoia and two assistants worked nearly to a year on the Civic Center fountain.

By all accounts, he was a modest man who rarely signed his works and was reluctant to name them. In a letter to his wife, Bertoia described his goals: "To express the intangible, to imagine the imageless, to pierce the mystery in which all things have their beginnings. Self-negation in order to become one with all."

The Civic Center addition was probably just too big, and just too dull, for even a fountain 12 feet high and 14 feet wide to have any real impact. It did not help that it sat in a pool that separated viewers from the sculpture and was sprayed with many strong jets of water that probably kept viewers from focusing on its form. It seemed, to me at least, plop art for sure.

One issue the creators of the 1 percent programs never anticipated was that buildings and artworks have different life spans. As buildings have been demolished or remodeled, the artworks associated with them, even some prominent ones, have been orphaned or sold off. Fortunately, some people in city government were on the ball in this case. When the Civic Center was razed, the fountain was moved to a police facility in Hunting Park, and a shed was built to house it until a new place was found. The city still owns the fountain; Woodmere has it on a long-term loan.

Freed from the futile task of compensating for bad architecture, Bertoia's big green sculpture really blossoms. As you walk around it, and even into it, its shape and meaning shift. One moment, it seems to be a massive green wave, at another a baroque composition of flowing and blowing drapes. It is a mushroom, a flower, a grotto, a room, a womb, or Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. "I endeavor to shun the particular, such as a wave, but to capture the motion of all waves through time," Bertoia wrote of this piece.

 

"First Flow": Aug. 2, 2016: First water test for Harry Bertoia's 1967 sculpture Free Interpretation of Plant Forms at Woodmere Art Museum. Joe Carlyle of Turpin Landscaping has the honor of turning on the hose, and the results are wonderful. The other voice is that of William Valerio, director of the Woodmere Art Museum. Courtesy of William Valerio.

 

Woodmere intends to let people get close to the sculpture, touch it, stick their heads into the openings, as Bertoia originally imagined. The fountain will rise from the sculpture's center and fall gently down the sides. The tree-trunk pedestal on which it stands reminds me of Dylan Thomas' poem about mortality, "The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower."

As I stood in a gentle rain, looking at this great green grimy thing that appears, at once, to be both a mysterious force of nature and a handmade object, I was glad to have come too early while it stands between two periods of its existence. "The lips of time leech to the fountain head," Thomas wrote. "Love drips and gathers."

Woodmere Art Museum: 9201 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia. Information: 215-247-0476 or woodmereartmuseum.org

tom@thomashine.com

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