A retrospective of the work of sculptor J. Seward Johnson is currrently on view at Grounds for Sculpture (GFS), the sculpture park and arboretum founded by the philanthropic artist on the site of the old New Jersey Fairgrounds in Hamilton.
Known throughout the world for life-like bronze figures inspired by the everyday, Mr. Johnson is something of an institution in Princeton. Several of his pieces: the student with his books on Palmer Square, the gentleman reading a newspaper by Battle Monument, and the man taking a nap on one of Drumthwacket’s garden benches are familiar to all.
Similar works by Mr. Johnson can be see throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia; examples of the artist’s “Celebrating the Familiar” series depicting a trip to the grocery story, say, or arriving at a hospital, or a child enjoying an ice cream cone.
“My starting point was a wish to get people back out-of-doors in the early 70s when a crime wave had people avoiding public spaces,” said Johnson when interviewed for Princeton Magazine in 2012. “I wanted to put sculptures into parks to act like decoys and entice people back to parks.”
To date, “Seward Johnson: The Retrospective” is the largest exhibition mounted at the sculpture park, which is quite an achievement after its showcasing of the massive works of Steve Tobin in 2012. Not only are there 287 works by Mr. Johnson on display, some of his biggest pieces have been dismantled from elsewhere and brought here for the show.
The outsize exhibition is fitting for Mr. Johnson’s outsize personality. Some 150 pieces are installed indoors and outdoors at the 42-acre site and if you haven’t been there recently, make tracks; the show will only last through September 21.
Elements of surprise are characteristic of GFS. The park brings art and nature together. The winning combination drew some 160,000 visitors last year. “Each time you visit, you experience the park differently, the sequence is never the same and there’s a freshness that comes with that,” said Mr. Johnson in a recent interview.
As expected, the retrospective includes some of the 83-year-old artist’s most unforgettable works. His 26-foot-tall 34,000-pound steel-and-aluminum, Forever Marilyn, traveled all the way from Palm Springs back to New Jersey where it was constructed.
This iconic representation captures a moment from the 1955 Billy Wilder comedy The Seven Year Itch, in which Monroe luxuriates in an updraft from a subway air vent, her white skirt billowing around her legs. The sculpture was such a hit in Palm Springs that the town hopes to buy it from its owner, The Sculpture Foundation, and put it back on permanent display once the GFS show ends.
Mr. Johnson’s most famous work, Unconditional Surrender, is a must-see. It’s his 3-D version of the famous kiss between a sailor and a nurse in New York’s Times Square on V-J Day at the end of World War II and it is one of his most charismatic trompe l’oeil painted bronzes.
As anyone who has met the artist will tell you, Mr. Johnson loves to tell a story and relishes a battle. Unconditional Surrender, involved him in a battle of sorts when the owners of the copyright to LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt’s image, refused him permission to use it. With typical bravado, Mr. Johnson based his work on another photograph of the same kissing couple taken on the same day at the same time by another photographer, one whose work happened to be in public domain.
When the sculpture was finished it took pride of place in Times Square where a kissing fest was held and written up by The New York Times. Not only did Mr. Johnson write to TIME to tell them about it, he asked them to contribute $50K to the project!
Also on a grand scale at 25 feet in height, the kissing couple has traveled the world from Times Square to San Diego, from Sarasota to Rome.
Besides these massive pieces and the artist’s Beyond the Frame life-size three-dimensional homages to Claude Monet’s Garden at Sainte-Addresse and Edouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, smaller pieces from the artist’s five-decade career are on display in three indoor galleries.
“At GFS we try to break down barriers,” says Johnson, who believes in separating sculpture from the landscape so that one “discovers” what is to be found. The avuncular octogenarian enjoys having fun with visitors. The sculpture park has numerous hidden spaces tucked away for quiet reflection: behind doors, through corridors of trees, around corners, over hills, or behind walls.
Were You Invited?, his three-dimensional life-size version of Renoir’s, The Boating Party, playfully allows visitors to get up close and personal with the work.
Such explorations cultivate what Mr. Johnson describes as “the visceral moment,” when viewers engage with art to transcend their own place in space and time. He deliberately provokes engagement between artwork, artist, setting, and viewer. “The real moment of art is in the eye of the beholder,” he said, “that’s a moment of consecration; if the artwork has changed a life, then it has done its job.”
GFS has grown since Mr. Johnson led the team that transformed the once derelict site of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds. What began as an offshoot of the artist’s foundry, The Johnson Atelier, and the need for a place to show the work that artists were doing there to prospective clients, is now a showcase for prominent and emerging artists. It became a non-profit organization in 1992.
Mindful of his legacy, the artist asked Derek Gilman for advice on avoiding some of the mistakes made by Albert Barnes. “There is a need for some flexible thinking here,” he said. “I don’t want what happened to Barnes to happen here. Barnes fell out with everyone. I like a good fight too, but there’s a difference, Barnes had no sense of humor!”
A sense of humor Johnson has. And fun is a huge part of the GFS philosophy. “Let MOMA tell people what good art is, we will find out what people enjoy,” said the artist.
For more information on “Seward Johnson: The Retrospective,” including extended summer hours and admission, visit: www.groundsforsculpture.org.