‘What do you think about Seward Johnson and his art?” an area reporter fired at me several years ago. I was invited to comment because of my involvement in state and area arts projects.
When I said I respected him, I got a disappointed, “Why?”
I said that Johnson had made interesting and disciplined artistic choices in his early work; however, he decided to create a more popular — and sometimes over the top — approach that attracted a good number of viewers who enjoy it. By doing so the artist is creating new audiences for new art.
I also pointed out that he used his financial resources — from his Johnson & Johnson family connections — to advance other artists and create a showcase for contemporary sculpture, including work by artists working in extremely different styles.
Art, I said, was important to the man, and his life’s work reflected it.
Because my comments did not support a preconceived and snarky conclusion, they never made it to print.
I remembered that conversation when I recently read the comments of a Los Angeles art critic on the shipping of the sculpture “Forever Marilyn” — the 26-foot high, mainly aluminum, replica of Marilyn Monroe recreating the famous dress-billowing-over-a-subway-vent moment in her 1955 film “The Seven Year Itch.”
The figure had just set out on its cross country trip from Palm Springs, California, to Hamilton, New Jersey, for the Seward Johnson retrospective that is now on view at Grounds For Sculpture and continues to Sunday, September 21.
“Good news because good riddance,” the California critic writes of the departure of what he calls “the grotesque colossus.”
Granted the statue looks like something from the “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman,” another sort of film icon, but the work is pretty honest about what it is: a giant, colorful piece of popular public art — based on a sexy and, yes, objectifying image that is a cultural reference — that was designed to attract attention. And it is seems obvious that it was doing a good job of it in Palm Springs, where it had been on loan (the Facebook page “Forever Marilyn” provides testimony).
The critic continues that Johnson is no Andy Warhol (comparing the sculpture to Warhol’s silkscreened replica images of Monroe) and spices up the discourse with a mention of innovative New Jersey artist Robert Smithson (the earth artist who was subject of a recent exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum and a current one at the Montclair Museum).
While I appreciate the critic’s references, I am unsure why he — and others — cannot accept the obvious: Johnson made the choice to be playful in a manner similar to architects who decided to liberate themselves from the severe elegance of the international style — think Robert Venturi’s book “Learning From Las Vegas” and his celebration of buildings shaped like ducks.
Even innovative artist Marcel Duchamp managed to keep himself free from his own pioneering and sometimes chilly conceptual art theories by creating a final piece that was representational (“Etant Donnes” in the Philadelphia Museum of Art). By doing so Duchamp seemed to demonstrate his dictum: “I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.”
Following that thought, one does not have to like an artist (or even the art). It is the critical questioning that is more important than making dictates on what an artist should do or even think.
Johnson and his art will be the fodder of a lot of artistic discussion this summer with nearly 300 works representing the various phases of creation over the past 50 years — from his hand-crafted metal works to the huge pieces milled through computer technology and team-assembled.
His earlier and/or less recognizable works include the 1968 “Stainless Girl,” a stylized female figure in metal, and the 1982 “King Lear,” another stylized sculpture where the material is exposed and designed to convey emotion. Another example of his early stylized work can be found in the 1979 Christ figure in front of Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton.
However, most visitors will look for Johnson’s most immediately recognizable or signature style found in his “Celebrating the Familiar Series.” That is the replication of everyday figures that he began in the late 1970s and have become popular around the world. The works — featuring people reading on benches or opening an umbrella — are also found in many communities throughout the central New Jersey region — in part because the artist lives here and promotes them, and in part because people like them.
The approach grew out of the pop art movement’s finding inspiration in the every day. Others sculptors using that major American artist and New Jersey resident George Segal (with his ghostly white plaster or bronze figures) and Duane Hanson (mixed-media and fiberglass figures provide startling realistic presences).
While Hanson’s figures often seem ironic commentaries on the American working and middle classes, Johnson’s are matter of fact — even mundane — depictions in plain or painted bronzes created from models. “I want my people to be unheroic, and in so being, become universal. But I want their act that I am celebrating, the existential gesture, to be heroic in the lowest key. This is to suggest that we all have the moments of self-fulfillment. Perhaps we should take time to focus on them,” Johnson noted in a published interview.
While there is an occasional social commentary, it is more akin to the illustrations of Norman Rockwell — who also comes up for a critical beating (even though the Saturday Evening Post cover artist never claimed to be a “fine artist). One handy example is Johnson’s perplexed viewer looking at a contemporary sculpture near the entrance to the train station on Sloan Avenue in Hamilton.
When Seward Johnson gave a presentation last year for the Princeton Photography Club, he said that he began creating these everyday human figures in response to a phenomenon that he had noticed: people seemed to be not using public spaces and parks as they had in the past. His artistic answer was to create the sense of a community presence by populating areas with human-like figures that in turn attracted actual people to the spaces. He didn’t say it, but it is like using decoys to attract ducks.
Johnson has said that his approach “doesn’t try to be grand. It purposely doesn’t frame itself or stare down at you from a pedestal. Realism never proclaims itself as art. Realism practically tries to say, ‘This is not art.’ What I am trying to do is draw attention to the simple pleasures, to show how much fun life is.”
Another element that the artist likes to employ is use of the viewer’s surprise when he or she encounters the realistic sculptures. “Hyperrealism heightens this effect, because it often provokes a double take as its first response. People will rush by one of my works in a public place and be fooled into thinking, ‘That’s a real person.’ Then they try to come up with reasons or excuses for why they were mistaken. They make up stories or little fictions to explain their initial surprise. They start talking to themselves; they look around to see if anyone caught them being startled. Or they pinch the sculpture on the nose to pretend they knew all along it was made of bronze.”
In the book “Celebrating the Familiar,” Johnson addresses some early criticisms of his work and mentions a discussion with sculptor Segal who, Johnson says, “said his problem with my work was that it was ‘just there’ — the realism was there and there was nothing else to express the emotion that existed. We were sitting at a table and having a very animated discussion He asked, ‘If a sculpture were made of the two of us sitting at this table talking, what artistic elements would express how we are feeling?’”
Johnson notes that his response was “it’s clear that with gesture and expression, it would have been possible to convey in bronze what were feeling that day. But the interaction always extends beyond what is simply there to what is created in the viewer’s imagination” and that “where the aesthetics, or form, may not require as much interpretation in realistic work, the content does. As long as the communication is complete, then the piece is a success.”
Johnson goes on to say that he believes that abstract art left behind “the man on the street,” who in turn became bullied by the intellectual community for not responding viscerally to a work of art. “Art is a visual communication received. It is like sex or food. We respond from within without necessarily knowing why. It’s important that we do respond. It’s nice, but not always necessary, to know why we respond.”
He also reflects on art criticism and his place in it. “I image it might be true that some critics would like my work better if it were more abstract. But since I believe art is chosen viscerally and not intellectually, my response would be that it’s a mistake to look toward any so-called art expert for guidance in choosing what appeals to you.”
That statement was made years before the blistering reviews that he received for a 2003 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery — reviews that frowned on the exhibition’s mass appeal and the artist’s economic background.
That exhibition, titled “Beyond the Frame,” featured Johnson’s series of works that create sculptural presences of mainly French impressionist and post-impressionist paintings — all familiar works aimed to delight the audience.
The approach obviously gives the artist the opportunity to play with the colors and styles of an era that he obviously adores, wants to share, and allows him to become part of. At Grounds For Sculpture the work “Are You Invited?” shows Johnson — along with artists Bill Barret, Red Grooms, and Andrzei Pitynski — confronting a party-crashing 19th-century art critic who seems to have wandered away from the adjacent 3-D sculpture interpretation of Renoir’s painting “Lunching at the Boating Party.”
While several Corcoran show critics did pick up Johnson’s spirit of fun, a good number of articles seemed to exhibit a handful about high and low art — like Taliban clergymen worrying that people were straying from dogma and creating huge Buddhas somewhere.
Another series on view in the retrospective will be his “Icons Revisited” works that have been generating interest and criticism. The sculptures are based on famous American images that include the sailor-nurse kiss in the photograph “Unconditional Surrender,” the farming couple with pitchfork in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” and, of course, “Forever Marilyn.” The Marilyn discussion started with the negative comments in a Los Angeles newspaper but perked up newsrooms and public interest as the disassembled figure — with the bust of Marilyn herself standing tall — traveled 3,000 miles on the back of a flatbed truck and was greeted by bemused press, well wishers, artists, and people who were free to welcome the “grotesque” figure when it arrived in Hamilton.
Of course Marilyn’s joy ride was a publicity stunt. But so what? Sometimes there is a thin line between art exhibiting and show business: something that visual artist Warhol certainly knew (becoming an art work himself), as did surrealist and artist Salvador Dali (staged events and appearances in chocolate and Alka Seltzer commercials), and currently celebrated artists Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons (with their large, sensational, and high price-tagged works).
Artists often need to generate buzz in a hyper-busy world. Sometimes it is a daring call for audiences to contemplate aesthetics or one’s place in the world. And sometimes it is a call to a colorful and happy art party. No matter, it is positive to understand the invitation and dress one’s mind appropriately.
Seward Johnson: The Retrospective, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Through Sunday, September 21, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. $8 to $12. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.