A speech given at the opening of Seward Johnson Retrospective
When I consider the defiantly “populist” — yet strategically calculated art — of Seward Johnson, I think of this statement of Walt Whitman from “Song of Myself:” on the surface it is 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. The suggestion is that the poet, perhaps each of us, is not merely singular and isolated, but “large” — “containing multitudes.”
It is easy to over-simplify Seward Johnson’s aesthetic. The artist’s most widely known recent sculptures are bold, playfully brash appropriations of classic works of Impressionist art — Renoir’s “The Boating Party,” Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass,” the Monet-inspired “Eye of the Beholder” — and monumental inflations of quasi-archetypal American images — Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” farm couple funnily transmogrified into zombie-like giants looming above the deadpan caption “God Bless America,” the famous Times Square kiss between the sailor and the white-clad nurse transmogrified into an enormous entwined couple whose feet alone dwarf viewers, titled “Unconditional Surrender;” there are heroic, outsized figures that suggest a kinship, through struggle, suffering, and the transcendence of the acceptance of defeat, in such works as “King Lear” and “The Awakening” — which is to say, the “awakening” of a bearded colossus nearly buried in the earth. And there is the colossal — unnaturally pale — Marilyn Monroe of “Forever Marilyn” — who manages to be both alive and posthumous, a vibrant young woman and a mass-produced American icon who died much too young.
Such theatrical works are relatively recent developments for Seward Johnson, whose uncannily realistic, assiduously recreated bronze figures of, in Johnson’s words, “ordinary people doing ordinary things” of the 1980s brought sculpture down to eye-level. These figures, that turn up virtually everywhere, represent the “ordinary” — the Whitmanesque American Everyman — postman, nurse, businessman, man hailing a taxi, man seated on a park bench reading a newspaper, among a multitude of others — inviting the spectator to break the artificial barrier between viewer and artwork, to engage with the figure, pose in pictures with it, feel an unexpected kinship.
As Seward has said, “I use my art to convince you of something that isn’t real. You become vulnerable to the piece and intimate with it.” The aura of such art isn’t magisterial or forbidding — it is not a self-consciously mandarin or elite abstract art — but rather an art of community, public self-identification, and indeed intimacy.
Seward Johnson’s work invites you to share it with others — the ideal art for our social-media-driven era in which cell phone pictures can be replicated thousands of times with no more difficulty than the magical clicking of keys. Art is no longer unique and possessed by the privileged few, but available to all — to the community that craves figurative art as a way of seeing itself mirrored and given meaning.
Seward’s most famous, as it is his most poignant single bronze figure of an ordinary American is, of course, the lone survivor of Liberty Park Plaza in the Financial District at the time of the terrorist attack of 9/11, originally created in 1982, with the title “Double Check.” Amid the rubble of the catastrophe, partially damaged but still upright, still absorbed in his work, Seward Johnson’s businessman is clearly not an astronomically overpaid corporate executive but an individual sitting alone on a park bench before an important meeting, hoping his meeting will turn out well, and “double checking” his presentation.
This now iconic sculpture of Seward Johnson was reproduced on the cover of the Ontario Review in May 2008, with 16 color plates of other work, and a brilliant afterword by Joy Williams — a feature of the magazine that has a particular meaning to me, as it was the last issue of the magazine my husband Raymond Smith edited just before his death in February, 2008. Somehow, this lone but noble, and indomitable figure, peering intently at his work, surrounded by swaths of debris, much of it torn and mutilated paper in the aftermath of the attack, can suggest as much the work of a dedicated editor as the work of a businessman; here is not heroism but survival, and the dignity of survival; no one will commemorate this ordinary man except — ironically, and appropriately — the sculptor who has said “I want to make my work disappear into the landscape and take a viewer by surprise.” And awaken in the viewer’s heart this impulse of kinship, which is a way of communal solidarity and respect.
To return to Walt Whitman, in conclusion:
I am of old and young of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine.
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same as the largest the same.
Of every hue and cast I am, of every rank and religion.
I resist any thing better than my own diversity.
I wear my hat as I please indoors or out.”
(“Song of Myself”)