Seward Johnson Takes Manhattan With Show of Work in Garment District
If you’ve strolled down Broadway through New York City’s Garment District in recent months you will have observed some intriguing public art on display in the city streets. Donna Dodson and Andy Moerlein’s colossal bird sculptures constructed out of maple saplings stopped pedestrians in their tracks between 36th and 41st streets.
The latest artwork to be unveiled there promises to do the same. Eighteen life-size sculptures by J. Seward Johnson will be on show on Broadway between 38th Street and 39th Street.
Mr. Johnson will open the exhibition, today, June 24, between 11 a.m. and noon, at a reception at which he is expected to reflect on a lifetime of creative achievement. The New Jersey artist has been paying homage to American society through realistic bronze sculptures for almost half a century.
The artwork on display has been selected from the retrospective of Mr. Johnson’s work at Grounds For Sculpture (GFS), the sculpture park and arboretum he founded on the site of the old New Jersey Fairgrounds in Hamilton.
Mr. Johnson led the team that transformed the once derelict site into a showcase for prominent and emerging artists. The park evolved as an offshoot of Mr. Johnson’s foundry, The Johnson Atelier.
The renowned sculptor and philanthropist has dedicated his career to public art. His life-like bronze and monumental figures are familiar sights throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. His best known works are lifelike sculptures in his “Celebrating the Familiar” series, which draws attention to the details of ordinary life: a nap on a park bench, a trip to the grocery story, the pleasure a child takes in an ice cream cone.
GFS opened its doors to the public in 1992 with works by Mr. Johnson and contributions from notable artists such as Clement Meadmore, Anthony Caro, Beverly Pepper, George Segal, and Isaac Witkin. “Seward Johnson: The Retrospective” opened there in May of last year. Although it was scheduled to close last September, the show drew so many visitors that it was extended to July 1 of this year.
“There has been a remarkable response from both the media and the continuing flood of visitors to the park, local and international,” said Paula Stoeke, the exhibition’s guest curator. “This gathering of sculptures will never be seen all together again and I encourage everyone to plan a visit.”
The GFS exhibition sculptures chosen to spend their summer in the city include several of the artist’s signature “man on the street” bronzes. Princeton residents are familiar with such works. One of the artist’s first public pieces, The Newspaper Reader, was made for the municipality and sits outside Monument Hall. Another, Out to Lunch, is in Palmer Square. Both were created in the 1970s, when Mr. Johnson hoped to encourage people to “get back out-of-doors” at a time when a crime wave had them avoiding public spaces. “I wanted to put sculptures into parks to act like decoys and entice people back to parks,” he explained in a 2012 Princeton Magazine interview.
In addition, tourists and New Yorkers alike will be able to enjoy one of Mr. Johnson’s most charismatic trompe l’oeil painted bronzes, a three-dimensional version of a sailor kissing a nurse in New York’s Times Square on VJ-Day at the end of World War II. Perhaps his most famous work, Unconditional Surrender, has been displayed in Times Square, San Diego, Sarasota, and Rome.
Incidentally, owners of the copyright to the image, made famous by LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, refused Johnson permission to use it, so Johnson based his work on a slightly different photograph of the kissing couple taken by another photographer and in the public domain.
Among the iconic pieces on show in the Garment District is his Forever Marilyn, a three dimensional version of a photograph of the star with her white skirt billowing around her legs from the updraft of an air vent from the New York subway; a scene from the movie, The Seven Year Itch.
Also on view on Broadway will be some of Mr. Johnson’s well-known 3-dimensional life-scale tableaux of paintings by the French Impressionists. Visitors to GFS are fond of inserting themselves into his take on Renoir’s The Boating Party, titled Were You Invited, from his “Beyond the Frame” series. The park also boasts the artist’s rendition of Claude Monet’s Garden at Sainte-Addresse and Edouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe.
The general popularity of these works stands in marked contrast to the reception that met Mr. Johnson’s first major show at the Corcoran Gallery. “Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited,” was panned by critics, one of whom likened the feeling it gave him to that of riding a Ferris Wheel after eating a sardine milkshake.
The artist relishes the memory of that response and credits the critic for doing him an enormous favor. “People flocked to the show to see what all the fuss was about,” he once said.
At 85, Mr. Johnson has more than 450 life-size cast bronze works featured in city parks and museums worldwide including in London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Kiev, Sydney, and Osaka. Often hailed as “America’s most popular sculptor;” he was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2013.
The retrospective at Grounds for Sculpture includes works indoors and out. One of the most monumental pieces is The Awakening, a 70-foot long giant emerging from the earth whose 17-foot arm extends dramatically into the sky. For this and other works such as his interactive rendition of Mona Lisa called A Reason to Smile, and Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring á la Johnson titled The Nature of Obsession, you will have to visit Grounds for Sculpture before the show ends on July 1. For more information, visit www.groundsforsculpture.org.
“Seward Johnson in New York, Selections From the Retrospective” at Garment District plazas on Broadway, between 38th Street and 39th Street, will run until September 15.