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Big Grounds, Big Sculpture
This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 5, 1999. All rights reserved.
Chances are you have heard of the Grounds of Sculpture.
Thanks in part to the generosity of its prime sponsor, J. Seward Johnson,
this 22-acre sculpture park in Hamilton Township is far more visible
— literally and figuratively — than many art venues.
Open to the public with no admission charge since 1993, it includes
more than 125 pieces of sculpture on its beautiful grounds, and, taking
advantage of two buildings on site, offers indoor as well as outdoor
sculpture. It hosts three exhibition seasons a year: spring (opening
Friday, May 14, with a private preview Saturday, May 8), summer, and
fall/winter. In its brief but impressive history, Grounds for Sculpture
has become a major sculpture site and information center.
But despite all the attractions and amenities, more spectators might
attend minor league baseball in a week at Trenton’s Waterfront Stadium
than visit the Grounds for Sculpture in a year. Now, however, thanks
in part to its proximity to the new Hamilton Transit Complex —
aka the new train station — the sculpture center is gaining momentum
as a destination. In 1997 it counted about 12,000 visitors. Last year
that rose to 22,000. And this year, if early patterns hold, the number
could exceed 40,000.
Interestingly, the rise in visitors coincides with Grounds for Sculpture
spreading its tentacles in the direction of that new train station.
In what could become an ongoing project, Grounds for Sculpture has
installed six contemporary sculptures near roadways and buildings
in the station area; by summer, 10 or so should be in place, and an
informative brochure will be available.
Discussing all this activity and achievement with an earned and easy
authority, Brooke Barrie, Grounds for Sculpture’s director/curator,
moves comfortably among interrelated sculpture subjects: the spring
exhibit; the behind-the-scenes steps of installing and maintaining
the outdoor sculpture in and around Grounds for Sculpture; the volunteers,
including docents, or guides, at the facility; and her first book,
"Contemporary Outdoor Sculpture," published earlier this year.
Born in Schenectady and raised near Syracuse, New York, where her
father worked for General Electric, Barrie was exposed to art at an
early age — her mother did pastels and water colors. Barrie went
to the state college at Potsdam (Class of 1976) to study art, and
"when I took my first course in sculpture, I knew that’s what
She trained as a sculptor, earning her M.F.A. from Tulane University.
"I did pieces that were human scale and smaller," she recalls.
"You need money, tools, and equipment to do the big things."
In her final year at Tulane a college art association conference was
being held in New Orleans and among the firms interviewing was the
Johnson Atelier. She was hired by Johnson and moved from there to
the Grounds for Sculpture. While she now spends more time as an administrator
than a creator of art, Barrie admits that every so often she takes
a deep breath and looks around her: "It’s like paradise."
If Grounds for Sculpture has been there for years now, does that mean
the number of sculptures has just kept growing? Is the place getting
crowded? What chance would a first-time visitor have of seeing and
assimilating what’s there, or is it hopeless to start now? Fear not,
says Barrie. Although the number of pieces on view outdoors at Grounds
for Sculpture numbers more than 125, they’re not all the same works
that were there to begin with, or even a few years ago. For each of
the three exhibition periods, new pieces are added, and others cycle
— either to different positions in the park or, if they were loaners
to begin with, back to the owner or artist.
In fact, the question about capacity has merit: Space
for monumental pieces — such as Isaac Witkin’s 18-foot tall "Garden
State" — is growing scarce, but there’s plenty of room left
for smaller works. And in the Museum and Domestic Arts buildings,
the park’s two inside sculpture venues, works on view change during
every exhibition season, sometimes including more than one artist.
For example, the upcoming spring show, "Premonitions in Retrospect,"
will feature 40 bronze, aluminum, and stainless steel works by Elizabeth
Strong-Cuevas, both inside and on the grounds, together with "New
Additions" by 15 other sculptors. And, starting with Philip Grausman’s
portrait head of a young woman, "Leucantha," some of the works
being positioned around the township come from the grounds at Grounds
— or should we say the Grounds’ grounds? Their removal might precipitate
installation of other pieces at the same sites. And dramatic landscape
changes, such as quick-growing trees, can also necessitate re-positioning
pieces of sculpture.
Both the three-dimensional art at Grounds for Sculpture, and its (also
3-D) clientele cover a wide range. On a bright and breezy spring day,
with pink trees on the brink of blooming and grass suddenly a dazzling
green, you can park at Grounds for Sculpture facing John Ruppert’s
"Pumpkins" — five giant, silver-colored squashes lying
on a grassy sward near the park’s tidy parking lot. On one side of
the Domestic Arts building is a pleasant courtyard, with sculptures
spotted around it — and on this perfect day to be outdoors, uniformed
little grade-school girls wind up a class trip, but don’t wind down:
They buzz around the courtyard with waterbug-like bursts of movement:
zipping among the art works and metal tables in their final nod to
the art they’ve experienced. A couple of them dance right up to J.
Seward Johnson Jr.’s three-figure cast bronze, "Eye of the Beholder."
If they almost-but-not-quite stand on the waiter’s feet, will he shoo
them away? Another speeding little girl loops by Katrina Tatarovich’s
Grounds for Sculpture is located on the former site of the State
Fairgrounds, and visitors used to need a map to get there, but no
more. Both the sculpture garden and the new Hamilton train station are
easily reached via Exit 65B (Sloan Avenue) off I-295. Road signs lead
first to the train station, and with that in view, to Grounds for
Sculpture. First-time visitors to either site are advised to come at
off-peak times, with lighter and slower traffic. Then, art, and not
survival, can be uppermost.
The facility’s 50 volunteers include 15 docents who conduct tours
and provide structured activities for visiting art classes. Pleasant
weather usually spurs visits by individuals, couples, families. Inviting
as the grounds and the works themselves are, they are even more so
from spring to autumn, when the pond-side Gazebo Cafe is open. Food
is available year-round in the Domestic Arts building cafe, which
also houses the museum shop and two of the four full-time staffers.
Thanks to Grounds for Sculpture’s community outreach,
those in the audience for outdoor sculpture now include rail commuters
and anyone else with reason to be in the environs of the new railroad
station — not to mention people who pass through Hamilton township
for any number of business purposes.
On Klockner Road, drivers suddenly realize they’re approaching a giant
woman’s head near the side of the road; the new kid on this block,
"Leucantha" gazes imperturbably into the distance. First entering
the attractive transit complex, motorists confront an array of linear
and vertical lines and poles before noticing an uncommon sight: William
King’s "Unitas," two colossal, flat-looking metal figures
shaking hands — a not-so-subliminal tone-setter for rush hour
Two of the newly positioned outdoor sculptures are figurative —
quite large in scale, they make reference to the real human shapes
they are drawn from and meant to suggest. Others, like Ray Katz’s
steel composite of geometric forms, "Around the Gateway,"
near the Federal Express building at the entrance to the transit complex,
are still massive, though abstract. If, like countless New Jersey
Transit riders, you stare across the tracks while waiting for your
train, you will now see Alexander Lieberman’s "Daedalus,"
a painted red-orange abstract sculpture, in front of the American
Standard building. Further along that sight line is Larry Bell’s "Summerian
Figures 14 and 23." John Henry’s linear steel work, "Grand
Rouge," holds down East State Street Extension.
By mid-April, six works were in place in the community, with four
more projected for installation, says Barrie. And of course, getting
them into their new digs is not a simple matter of trucking them out
there and dropping them off. An early step is "siting" a piece
of outdoor sculpture, or deciding where it might go. At the sculpture
park itself, this decision is influenced by other art works near a
possible locale, the kinds of trees and bushes nearby, how the piece
might look in different seasons and with different light, and scale
considerations — a small piece can look even smaller with nothing
sizable around it, for instance.
On private property near public roads, additional steps include obtaining
owners’ permission and preparing the site. At either place, "installation"
is the right word, for sculpture must be firmly anchored to assure
its own safety and that of passers-by.
The size of the piece determines whether it will be placed by employees
of the Johnson Atelier, a sister institution whose resources are shared,
or by other contractors with equipment to handle the biggest sculptures.
In true skyscraper fashion, outdoor sculpture must also be subterranean;
to assure wind-resistance and overall stability, its support starts
far below ground, often via its attachment to an I-beam or a poured
concrete base. Barrie may collaborate with the artist whose work is
being installed, the one most likely to know how it could best be
Like those who enjoy it, outdoor sculpture requires upkeep — preferably
TLC. Starting with the customary admonition against touching this
art — oil in our skin can harm the surface of the sculpture, for
instance — Grounds for Sculpture practices preventive maintenance.
Bronzes are waxed at least once a year, Barrie says; painted surfaces
make their own demands, and wooden pieces are the most vulnerable
of all outdoors. (Requiring constant upkeep, wooden boats are the
best proof of this reality — think fiberglass sculpture!) For
each exhibition period, sculptures are checked for possible care needs.
Earlier this year, Barrie’s varied efforts in the sculpture world
were capped by publication of her first book, "Contemporary Outdoor
Sculpture," a large-format, all-color, mostly-picture volume that
features the work of 37 "prominent living artists," as well
as "less established sculptors doing important work." Each
is represented by at least one full-page photograph of a key work,
together with a few paragraphs of text. Dramatic looking, and certainly
easy to read, the book serves as a useful introduction to the current
Ranging from the fabric-based art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, through
ceramic works by Toshiko Takaezu and polished bronzes of Arnoldo Pomodoro,
to Beverly Pepper’s monumental cast iron forms, the book touches on
modern sculpture’s wide range of styles, mediums, and settings. Merely
leafing through it invites further page turning — and why not,
when one random opening shows Tetsuo Harada’s "Earth Weaving,"
a series of granite reliefs and sculptures positioned on and next
to a dam in Japan; the next opening offers Mary Frank’s intriguing
clay figures; and the last random entry, to Alexander Liberman’s bold,
red-painted steel works, is, simply, exciting.
Interestingly, "siting" the photographs of these monumental
pieces on the printed page seems to a challenge similar to the siting
of the actual works. Sculpture titles are not closely linked to the
illustrations, but printed together on the text page for a given artist.
This makes for occasional matching difficulty and can require flipping
back and forth. The plenitude of white space, itself welcome, seems
achieved at the expense of type size and inclusion of more information.
Barrie’s surviving text, which she says began as much longer essays,
makes the reader want to know even more, such as artist statements
and more specifics about the work.
Already thinking of subjects for further books, Barrie is glad to
have learned much more about all these artists, having communicated
with each of them in person, by phone, mail, or fax. Not only is her
book available in the museum shop, but some of her subjects’ sculpture
is or will be on view at Grounds for Sculpture — Robert Murray’s
painted aluminum "Hillary," for instance; Johnson’s life-size
tableaus; Isaac Witkin’s cast bronzes; and Strong-Cuevas’s abstracted
metal heads and faces, to be featured during the park’s spring exhibition
Which brings us back to Hamilton Township, the new Transit Complex,
and Grounds for Sculpture. It’s a great season to visit neighbors
— especially beautiful and stimulating ones. Go!
— Pat Summers
The park is open Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For information
and directions, phone 609-586-0616. Web site: www.groundsforsculpture.org.
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