Richard J. Bertman’s oeuvre encompasses fifty years of sculptures in welded steel, wire, fabric and carved wood as well as pen-and-ink drawings. His studio work is complemented by a distinguished career in architecture as founding principal of CBT Inc., a Boston firm of international stature co-founded by Bertman, Maurice Childs and Charles Tseckares in 1967. Bertman was educated at Harvard University (B.A. 1956), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (B.Arch. 1961), and the University of California at Berkeley (M.Arch. 1965).
As an artist, Richard Bertman is best known for his whimsical mechanical sculptures. He has also created several hundred exquisite pen-and-ink drawings of architectural icons he drew locally and on travels around the globe. Bertman began sculpting during his graduate studies at Berkeley. Early pieces were exhibited at the University of California’s Worth Ryder Museum in 1965, and as part of the “Search for Young Talent” juried surveys sponsored by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 1966/67, at the Fitchburg, Framingham, and Worcester Art Museums. The effort of starting and developing an architecture practice resulted in his working privately for many years but in 1988 he began exhibiting his work again. Solo shows were mounted by the MIT Museum (1990), Boston’s St. Botolph Club (1995), and by the Boston Center for the Arts (2010), among other venues.
Though the human form has been Bertman’s focus, his work ranges from figurative to abstract. Particularly the early, small-scale sculptures appear like three-dimensional spatial drawings. His early, abstract works show the influence of abstract expressionist sculptor David Smith and surrealist Alberto Giacometti, particularly the latter’s concern with the figure in space, as in Metamorphosis (1965) (Ill. 1). The early cubist forms of modest scale are clustered assemblies of steel rods in parallel arrangement, suspending form in a spatial framework.
In the 1980s, Bertman removed the exterior frameworks. The resulting, figurative wire sculptures of heads portray the artist’s immediate family and personal friends. Facial features evolve from minimalist wire constructions, using bent strands of wire to create form. The portrait series in bent wire or welded steel rod include likenesses of well-known Bostonians, such as patrons of the arts, Sandy and David Bakalar (1994) (Ill. 2), Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell (1997), developer and known art collector Bruce Beal (1998), as well as former Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis and his wife Kitty (2009).
Also in the 1980s, Bertman began creating his first kinetic sculptures, with movement driven either by hand or by an electric motor. The mechanical works were preceded by first experiments with moving parts during the mid-1960s. Humor often is an element of the artist’s mature kinetic sculptures, evidencing his wit, and inviting us to ponder the bright side of life while speaking to the humanity in us all. Rainmaker (1985) is a bicycle-like contraption with a series of mechanical and twisting components that pokes fun at our superstitions. A humorous self-portrait called Worried Man (Ill. 3) follows in 1989. This piece is both a self-portrait – a wire sculpture – and introduces a kinetic and a sound component. Worried Man’s face, limited to eyes, nose and mouth, is mounted on a white box that contains an electric motor and a tape recorder. At the push of a button, the facial features move, performing the “Worried Man Blues” recorded by the artist himself. Another wall-mounted wire sculpture, Marriage (1990) (Ill. 4), features a couple's babbling conversation, similar to Worried Man. Both works are humorous commentaries on everyday life.
An increase in scale marks the mature works of the 1990s and later. Bertman took up wood carving for his eight-foot tall Family Portrait (1991) (Ill. 5), a whimsical abstraction of his family inspired by Native American totem poles he encountered traveling in the Pacific Northwest. Continually introducing a broader range of materials and more technical feats, the mechanical sculpture, First Attempts at a Bionic Man (1994, revised 2009) (Ill. 6), consists of a life-size figure suspended in a steel frame. Motion is activated by the push of a button that brings the silver-painted wood sculpture to life, as the exposed wires and pulleys are activated through an electrical motor. This “contraption”, as the artist affectionately refers to his mechanical sculptures, visualizes movement on two parallel tracks, first, utilizing the limbs and head, and second, in the series of levers clearly visible behind the figure. The mechanics are deliberately exposed, unlike those of his earlier Worried Man. First Attempts at a Bionic Man is both funny and a sardonic reference to constraints, technology and progress. Other major kinetic sculptures are Searching for Leonardo (2002) (Ill. 7), Fish (2004), Hootchy Kootchy (2005), Contraption (2007) and Symphony #1 (2011).
Bertman references concepts like movement, space and flight in the form of humans, animals and machines. Searching for Leonardo (Ill. 7) was inspired by Leonardo DaVinci’s renderings of flying machines, which Bertman animates through an electric motor activated by a foot switch, offering the user control in an interactive gesture. In addition, by exposing mechanical parts to the viewer, motion becomes transparent and accessible. This way, the creator also becomes educator, broadening our understanding of technology and science with a touch of comedy and magic. This interest continues to inspire Bertman’s latest studio project of a mechanical drum set in his continued path of artistic inquiry.