Noted area sculptor and Grounds For Sculpture founder John Seward Johnson, Jr. died of cancer on March 10 at his winter home in Key West, Florida. He was 89.
“Seward Johnson leaves a remarkable legacy,” said Gary Garrido Schneider, executive director of the Hamilton Township based Grounds For Sculpture in a prepared statement.
“Through his sculptures, that generously invite the public to engage and interact, he has touched the hearts of millions across the world,” Schneider continued. “The Seward Johnson Atelier has nurtured a generation of artists who have made a creative living and lasting friendships through this community of sculptors he made possible. Grounds For Sculpture has grown over the last three decades to become one of the most beloved art institutions in our region and an essential beacon for sculptors worldwide.”
The grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, founder of the New Brunswick-based Johnson & Johnson, a multinational producer of healthcare products, Seward Johnson used his family connections and wealth to create hyper-realistic sculptures, a world class atelier, the sculpture grounds, and, at times, controversy.
A longtime Hopewell and former Princeton resident, Johnson was born in New Brunswick on April 16, 1930. His father was John Seward Johnson, a J&J director who, along with his brother, Robert, helped turn the company into a pharmaceutical giant. His mother was Ruth Dill, daughter of a Bermuda attorney general and parliament member Colonel Thomas Melville Dill. She was also the sister-in-law to actor Kirk Douglas.
Although his family had a New Jersey estate in Highland Park, Johnson and his three sisters also lived for extended times in England, France, and Bermuda.
Diagnosed with acute dyslexia, Johnson attended the Forman School in Litchfield, Connecticut. After a poor grades caused him to drop out of the University of Maine, he joined the United States Navy and saw action during the Korean War.
That was followed by an unsuccessful attempt to join the family company and a failed marriage to Barbara Klein that resulted in publicly aired allegations of infidelity, investigations, and paternity DNA tests. He was also involved in the bitter legal fights after his 76-year-old father divorced his second wife, married his 34-year-old former maid, and bequeathed a fortune to her. The suits became national news and the subject of several books, including “Johnson vs. Johnson” and “Crazy Rich.”
In a 2014 U.S. 1 interview, Johnson said his life changed when he met his future second wife, novelist Cecelia Joyce Horton, on a flight to Nantucket and began a relationship that included taking walks and painting.
Johnson credited Cecelia as leading him to sculpture after observing his dissatisfaction with his painting. “Cecilia said, ‘You seem to be artistically talented and you lived on a farm when you were young and seem to be very mechanical. Have you ever thought about putting both together?’ And she reaches into her pocket and takes out an ad for a sculpture class, and I went to sign up for it.”
When his first sculpture, “Stainless Girl,” won a national competition in 1969, the then Massachusetts-based Johnson said, “I got a vocation.”
Johnson returned to the Princeton area, where his sculpture needs inadvertently led to the founding of the Johnson Atelier and then Grounds For Sculpture.
“I hired guys off the street and hired this fellow who used to have a foundry,” said Johnson in the above interview. “He was teaching how to get thing things done. He said, ‘Seward, what we have here is a school.’ I realized that I could deduct (expenses) if it were a school and went to a lawyer and incorporated. My wife said, ‘You never told me you were going to do something like this.’ I said, ‘I didn’t know.’”
Johnson called the atelier “one of the most fantastic things that I have done.”
By the late 1970s the center became a magnet for young American and international artists looking for work as well as a center that provided services for internationally acclaimed artists such as George Segal, Georgia O’Keefe, and Isaac Witkin.
After outgrowing two Princeton-area locations, Johnson worked out an arrangement with his family’s foundation to purchase the former Garden State Fair Grounds in Hamilton in 1981 and the atelier was established in the mid-1980s.
Grounds For Sculpture was born after foundry artists began to display their sculptures near the atelier and inspired the idea of a permanent exhibition site.
The 42-acre property now houses Grounds For Sculpture, Johnson Atelier, and the International Sculpture Center.
In 2014 Johnson mounted a popular major retrospective of his work to bolster public and private support as the governance of the grounds was transferred from Johnson and the family foundations to a nonprofit board of directors.
That exhibition visually demonstrated that while Johnson mastered the creation of affecting abstract works he deliberately chose to produce his hyper-realistic series depicting everyday people and sculpture interpretations of famous paintings or famous photos.
While popular with general audiences, Johnson’s work was often derided by established art critics such as Princeton art professor and critic Sam Hunter, who called Johnson’s folksy style “the worst sort of Kitsch.”
Other critics and artists supported Johnson’s popular and even fun approach.
Former New Jersey State Council on the Arts’ public art and Grounds For Sculpture current chief curator Tom Moran said, “Johnson’s sculptures of the common individual engaged in familiar types of daily activity energize the public spaces they occupy in unique ways which throw the viewer off guard with their realism. At the same time, his monumental sculptures have been very successful at stimulating the desire to have public art play an important role in the context and identity of the cities in which they have been installed.”
And Joyce Carol Oates, the internationally known novelist, literary critic, and Princeton University professor found the artist’s “populist yet strategically calculated art” akin to the writings of American poet Walt Whitman and noted a “remarkable declaration of expansiveness, appropriate for our robust egalitarian American democracy, yet beneath the surface it is, perhaps, a statement of humility, mystical transparency.”
Arguing that “it is easy to over-simplify Seward Johnson’s aesthetic,” Oates also supported Johnson’s “bold, playfully brash appropriations” of famous American scenes, including the World War II Times Square sailor and nurse kiss and the film scene where Marilyn Monroe’s skirt rises with a sudden gust.
His work also had the ability to seize its own American moments as when his 1982 business man sculpture “Double Check” survived the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks and, according to the New York Times, “evolved into a memorial to all who perished” and “a fitting metaphor for the city.” A replica of the work in the aftermath of the attacks can be seen at Grounds For Sculpture.
Johnson himself said of his work, “I have a purpose in mind, and it is a social purpose. My work deals with society and what I think are the needs of society: the visceral response. To me the visceral response is where the value of art lies. Art is the highest form of communication known to man. When it is in a museum or wherever it is, it communicates the emotional message.”
In addition to bringing thousands of international artists to the region to have their sculptures made, Johnson’s atelier attracted hundreds of artists who settled in the area, continue to create art, and contribute to artistic strength of the region.
Johnson is survived by his wife, Cecelia; his son, John, and his wife, Susan; his daughter, India, and her husband, Eliot; and five grandchildren.
Schneider said a memorial celebration and other events to honor Johnson will be scheduled when Grounds For Sculpture and other cultural venues resume operation when health precautions related to the coronavirus have been lifted.
Grounds For Sculpture visitors will also have the opportunity to commemorate Johnson and his work in the Cecilia Joyce and Seward Johnson Gallery exhibition, “That’s Worth Celebrating: The Life and Work of the Johnson Family” on view through 2020.
For more information on memorial plans, visit www.groundsforsculpture.org.