Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the July 10, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Seward Johnson’s Safe Passage to Sculpture

J. Seward Johnson Jr. is laughing all over town this

summer. And he’s got every right. Grounds for Sculpture, his 22-acre

art haven, just minutes off I-295 in Hamilton Township, is celebrating

its 10th anniversary and the irreverent heir to the Johnson & Johnson

pharmaceutical fortune is enjoying this season in the sun.

And if you haven’t seen Johnson’s face in full color, beaming out

from the cover of newspapers and periodicals, perhaps you’ve wondered

who is pictured, stark naked, in a photo of one of his works in the

women’s room at Rat’s, Johnson’s upscale restaurant adjacent to the

Grounds for Sculpture. At 72, the genial and energetic Johnson seems

to feel he’s earned the right to be as naughty as he likes. Never

one to tackle a project half-heartedly, he still prides himself on

his boyhood reputation as a kingpin of prep school crime. Yet he has

managed to leverage the family Band-Aid fortune and a personal passion

for art in its every aspect into a career that both satisfies his

ego and helps other artists flourish.

"What I’m doing with this," he says, gesturing to the art-packed

oasis that is Grounds for Sculpture, "is making a sales pitch.

I’m saying, `Mr. CEO, at your organization you can have a sense of

place, you can have art that tells them they’ve arrived. Art gathers

the social forces of the people who work there and gives focus to

what people do.’"

Ever the trickster, Johnson named his pet project, the four-star restaurant

Rat’s, after the good-natured Water Rat in Kenneth Grahame’s turn-of-the-century

children’s classic, "The Wind in the Willows." The boat-loving

Rat lives in a cozy hole in the river bank where he is known for his

hospitality and well-stocked picnic hampers.

Open for more than two years in a fanciful "village" setting,

Rat’s has gotten bigger and funnier this season. With its wildly ambitious

water garden inspired modeled on Monet’s 1899 painting "Water

Lilies and Japanese Bridge" (which hangs in the Princeton University

Art Museum), it has a new entranceway that simulates the red-lacquered

gypsy caravan that captured the fancy of the storybook Rat’s friend,

Toad of Toad Hall. The restless Mr. Toad was infatuated with the colorful,

horse-drawn caravan, until he tired of it and stole a motor car instead.

After spending just one summer hour with Johnson, I begin to see how

Johnson has considerably more in common with the rich and restless

Toad of Toad Hall than the sedate and sensible Water Rat.

Since last winter, even the park at Grounds for Sculpture, directed

since its inception by Brooke Barrie, has taken on a slightly more

manic cast. More and more sited artworks now arrive with their own

little adventure — steps to climb, woods to enter, or a mirrored

passage to traverse to arrive at the art work. And there’s no denying

that the public is more than willing to go along for the ride. On

a Saturday in early June, more than 1,300 people joined Grounds for

Sculpture’s 10th birthday celebration.

The 10th anniversary exhibition (see story page 26), packs 200 sculptures

into the park acreage. They include recent works by Magdalena Abakanowicz,

Robert Lobe, Red Grooms, Beverly Pepper, Marisol, Dana Stewart, Isaac

Witkin, and a host of others, joining works in the collection by George

Segal, Luis Jimenez, and a dozen by Johnson himself.

The park’s building and landscape design began in 1989 on the abandoned

site of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds. Architect Brian Carey of

AC/BC Associates of New York provided architectural and landscape

design, remodeling and refurbishing three dilapidated fair buildings

into modern, airy exhibition halls. The fair’s "Domestic Arts

Building" and "Motor Exhibit Buildings" retain their original

names which are spelled out in custom-made terra-cotta tiles, a craft

specialty of the Trenton region. In an inspired design move, Carey

took three 37-foot-high contoured steel arches from the framework

of one of the vintage buildings and set them apart as a freestanding,

vine-covered arbor.

An intimate and quite remarkable Water Garden provides a setting for

more than a dozen lucky sculptures that are viewed to the sound of

falling water, and accompanied by waves of water mist on the skin.

Nearby is the Johnson Atelier Technical Institute of Sculpture —

commonly known as the Atelier — founded in Princeton in 1974,

comprising a foundry, a stone division, and apprenticeship program.

The rapidly maturing sculpture park holds some 2,000 specimen trees,

along with burgeoning plantings of roses, ornamental grasses, flowering

shrubs and vines. Even people who feel lukewarm toward sculpture are

drawn to Grounds for its fantastic landscape and plantings.

On the afternoon I arrive at Grounds for Sculpture, Johnson seems

as surprised as anyone by the park’s tremendous 10-year growth.

"We bought the land in the late ’80s," he says, launching

into the tale of park’s beginnings. "It was during the time actually

that my father died and we had a tremendous fight over his will."

That fight, of course, is about the only thing most people know about

the Johnson clan. When J. Seward Johnson Sr. died in 1983, Johnson

and his five brothers and sisters challenged the will that left the

bulk of his estate, variously estimated at $350 to $500 million —

including his grand Jasna Polana estate in Princeton Township —

to the patriarch’s former housekeeper and Polish emigre, Barbara "Basia"

Piasecka Johnson. The "tremendous fight" culminated in 1986

in a 17-week marathon trial, generating a glare of sensational publicity

on television, in newspapers, and Barbara Goldsmith’s 1987 best-seller

"Johnson v. Johnson." The battle was still raging at the century’s

end, with some 44 children, grandchildren, great-children, and ex-husbands

fighting in court.

"Because of that," Johnson continues, "I was unable to

buy as much land as I had wanted. That was ’86 — we had bought

the land somewhere between ’84, ’85, ’86. And then we added a couple

of pieces, and we added."

The vigorous, white-haired Johnson is friendly and frank. Although

his first early marriage remains a sore point to him, his second marriage

to Joyce Horton has been a winner. They are parents of two adult children.

Their son John Seward Johnson III, who goes by the unremarkable name

of John Johnson, is a filmmaker and founding director of Eyebeam Atelier,

a digital arts organization currently building a major facility on

West 21st Street in New York. Daughter Clelia is an actress who works

under the name India Blake.

Johnson lives in Princeton but has business ventures in several states

and extra homes in as many. In contrast to his artistic pursuits,

his Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution is dedicated to improving

life through the sciences. Founded in 1971 by his father, Harbor Branch

employs 250 scientists in research and education in the marine sciences.

Two years ago, Seward and Joyce Johnson purchased Spring Hill Farm

in Hopewell, a 30-acre property formerly known as the old Quinn Farm.

Almost simultaneously with the opening of Rat’s restaurant, Johnson

decided to use part of his farm for growing organic fruit, vegetables,

and flowers to supply Rat’s epicurean menu.

Johnson says Grounds for Sculpture really got under

way when he made a trade with Philip Berman, the late chairman of

the board of trustees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Berman, with

his wife Muriel Berman, was a renowned and enthusiastic collector,

known for his close association with England’s Henry Moore. "He

wanted to get some of my work and we did a swap. I got some of his

pieces and that was when the park really began to get someplace."

The first major work created for the park was Isaac Witkin’s grand

"Garden State," a big, lustrous granite work that still holds

pride of place. Witkin was the first artist to have a one-person show

at Grounds, in spring, 1996.

"We purposely sculpted the land so it would have hills and valleys,

so we would be able to have people experience sculpture — you

wouldn’t see it all at once, it would be a sequential experience.

The theme of the park is really discovery, and sequence," says

Johnson.

Despite his status as an internationally-known sculptor with million-dollar

sales, Johnson did not get involved with art until well into his 30s.

He never went to art school and he never thought of himself as an

artist.

Neither did many others until September 11 when his realist sculpture

of a businessman with a briefcase survived the terrorist attacks on

the World Trade Center. Images of the work and its subsequent role

as an impromptu memorial were beamed around the globe. Johnson became

a force to be reckoned with.

Today his super-real, life-size cast bronze figures of ordinary people

engaged in ordinary tasks occupy outdoor sites as close to home as

Palmer Square, in Princeton, where a man tarries near the news kiosk

reading a book and eating a sandwich. Many other such figures can

be found in Manhattan and Los Angeles, all the way to Paris, Frankfurt,

Sydney, and Osaka. And Johnson’s growing collection of more splashy,

three-dimensional painted bronzes based on the masterworks of the

French Impressionist painters — many of which are on view in Hamilton

— will have a show of their own at the high-brow Corcoran Gallery

in Washington, D.C., next summer.

Johnson is perfectly willing to own up to having borrowed the idea

for his phenomenally successful series of Impressionist-inspired sculptures.

Around the same time he started Grounds for Sculpture he happened

to see a magazine story about a Japanese park that had installed an

outdoor replica of Georges Seurat’s "Sunday Afternoon on the Island

of La Grande Jatte."

"They had taken Seurat’s painting and had cut out of plywood the

figures, in 2-D, and painted them and put them up outdoors just like

the painting. I thought that was a great idea," he says. (The

same 1886 painting, the pride of the Art Institute of Chicago, also

inspired the Broadway musical, "Sundays in the Park with George,"

where the scene was reconstructed by costumed actors.)

Still the most successful of Johnson’s ever-growing series of re-interpretations

of Impressionist masterworks is his "Dejeuner Deja Vu" of

1994, the picnic scene with two jaunty gentlemen and an unapologetic

nude, based on Edouard Manet’s notorious "Dejeuner sur l’Herbe"

of 1863. The original painting, once considered lewd and clumsy, caused

a scandal when the artist attempted to show it in Paris. Lurking in

a wooded copse beside a still pond, Johnson’s deftly executed realization

of an over-the-top idea makes a big impression on just about everyone

who stumbles upon it. You’ll also find it pictured in that photo in

the ladies’ room at Rat’s, with the further addition of an unidentified

male nude.

"Luckily it was the first piece of mine that went into the park

so I was able to completely hide it, surround it by woods," Johnson

says today, his voice full of glee. "Mostly you walk past it —

most people do — and that allows you to perceive it only from

Manet’s perspective."

Although J. Seward Johnson Sr. died with a reported

$100 million art collection, Johnson says that art was not part of

his upbringing, nor did good art hang in his family home. And perhaps

the key to the personality of this irrepressible man who is single-handedly

making an unlikely Trenton suburb into a national art destination,

dates back to a boyhood when he felt he couldn’t do anything right.

"I was a terrible, terrible student, and I never finished college,"

says Johnson grandly. His classroom affliction, which didn’t have

a name back then, was dyslexia, and his school ("a wonderful school

— I hated it at the time") was the Forman School, a boarding

school for the difficult sons of the rich and famous, in Litchfield,

Connecticut.

"I hated that school and I made it my business to tear it down,"

he continues with relish. "Seven faculty members quit because

of me — I was a monster when I was young." Warming to his

story, he adds: "I would organize crime there — anybody who

had anything illegal, I would work it. I would have all the younger

students posted so that the older students could all smoke. Or if

anybody had a girlfriend, we’d cover for them so they could have a

quiet moment someplace. If somebody had a gun, they brought it to

me to hide. Once somebody swiped the chloroform from the lab —

they brought that to me too! There was always something going on.

It was so strict and I got to go home very little."

Johnson began his short-lived college career at University of Maine.

"No college would let me in, anywhere. But they needed warm bodies

up there in Maine and they would only let me into a thing called Poultry

Husbandry!" Once he got there, he did no work at all.

"In Maine, I just didn’t bother to do any school work. It was

so much fun being free, I just let it go." He dropped out and

enlisted in the Navy where he served for four years before joining

the family business at age 25. But this effort, too, ended badly.

"I was working at Ethicon at Johnson & Johnson and I had some

things happen and I ended up having a fight with my uncle and I was

given the door. And so I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t

know anything about art or painting, I had never thought of myself

as an artist — it was the last thing in the world I would have

thought of myself as. But I had met my wife Joyce, and we got married

and we took a house up in Cape Cod in the winter. We didn’t have much

money then. I remember we lived on $12,000 that year," he claims.

"It was kind of rough — and so we’d go out and we’d paint.

"That was what we did for fun. She had never painted and neither

had I, and so we painted for fun." He laughs heartily.

"It was wonderful. It was a way of making you look a little harder

at what was out there. We’d go out in these bogs and paint cattails

and whatnot. We spent our time there all winter, just the two of us

— there were a few ducks around — and then we moved into Cambridge."

In Cambridge Johnson took adult education classes in life drawing,

got himself a studio, and did some paintings. Some of them still hang

in his Hamilton studio.

"We had a farm and I used the barn as a studio. I became much

more involved in painting. I was trying to be very scientific about

it, but at the same time I thought it was a terribly lightweight type

of life. I really couldn’t take myself seriously doing it." This

latter remark is one of Johnson’s most significant. For even though

he took up the artist’s life, he made sure his extraordinary resources

could create opportunities for myriad other artists and collectors.

When his painting wasn’t going anywhere, Joyce Johnson suggested sculpture.

"You’re good with mechanics," she said, "why don’t you

try sculpting."

"So I went to an adult education class again," he says. "I

went there one night and they were working with Styrofoam, just doing

stupid things, putting it on wires and things. But the idea of the

Styrofoam made me realize I could shape that without knowing how to

weld, without knowing how to do a lot of other things. And I got so

excited that I quit the class immediately and went and got a studio.

"I started my first piece, a nude in a fetal position, in Styrofoam,

then I covered it with plaster, polished the plaster down, covered

it with modeling paste and got a very high polish, so it looked like

marble. I finished the piece and I went to apply to the Boston School

of Fine Arts, taking that piece and a portfolio of all my work. They

turned me down. I remember, they thought my portfolio was too slick.

"Well I took the piece down to a foundry in Brooklyn and they

cast it in stainless steel and they entered it into a competition

called Design in Steel, sponsored by US Steel Corp. There were 7,000

entries and I won," says Johnson, with a burst of laughter. "It

was my very first piece! At first I thought, oh gee, this is great,

maybe sculpture isn’t so bad after all — I never won anything

after that."

Laughing some more, we head off to look at Johnson’s

studio. On the way, he stops to show me the just-mentioned, life-changing

work, "Reclining Nude," a nice curled figure of a recumbent,

slender girl, reminiscent of a sleeping cat. She’s no longer stainless

steel now, but rendered in white marble.

Johnson’s sculpture studio is in his "Old World" village adjacent

to Grounds for Sculpture, a succession of connected buildings with

half-timbered, tawny pink stucco walls set off by African Blue trim,

rustic stonework, and slate roofs. Completed in 1999, the buildings

house Johnson’s Atlantic Foundation (providing grant support for marine

science research), offices of the International Sculpture Center,

of which Johnson has been a trustee and major supporter, rooms for

visiting artists, and other administrative spaces.

On the sidewalk, beside the entrance to Rat’s, we meet Johnson’s "La

Promenade," a 19th-century Parisian couple under a black umbrella

based on Gustave Caillebotte’s "Street in Paris, a Rainy Day,"

1877, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The studio is home to Johnson’s earliest paintings and shelves with

12-inch high clay maquettes of individual works. Shoe-horned into

the studio space and displayed in front of the red velvet drapes of

a brothel, is Johnson’s metallic version of Manet’s "Olympia,"

depicting a bold, emancipated 19th-century nude waited on by a black

servant bearing flowers and an angry black cat.

Surveying the shelves of maquettes, Johnson says the ability to model

in three dimensions, without the benefit of a studio education or

live models, came to him naturally — so naturally that at first

he did not grasp the magnitude of his gift. Others in the art world

credit Johnson as a visionary and an ideas man, but recognize that

the execution of his sculptures falls mainly to the artisans of the

Johnson Atelier.

Even more astonishing among Johnson’s recent "follies" —

a fitting term that originally described the useless buildings created

to decorate the gardens of Europe’s landed gentry — is another

studio highlight. This is a brilliant rendering of "Vincent’s

bedroom at Arles," a life-size and seemingly flawless interpretation

of Van Gogh’s small 1889 painting — full of sunny hope and green

dread — titled "La chambre de Van Gogh a Arles," which

hangs in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Van Gogh’s sun-drenched image,

painted after his first major breakdown, looked ahead to the arrival

of Gaugin from Paris when Van Gogh was still dreaming of setting up

a bona fide artist’s colony in Arles.

Johnson’s version is a real-life 8-by-12-foot room, complete with

a reasonably sized bed in which he says he sometimes sleeps. Even

as I stand squarely in the doorway — the method of applying black

contour lines to real furnishings tricks my eye into thinking I am

looking at a big Van Gogh knockoff in two-dimensions.

Just as Johnson enjoys luring a reluctant public into taking an interest

in sculpture, so he has found ways of seducing the serious art lover,

too. The fact is, the more the viewer knows about the painting he

takes as his subject, the more engaging his kitsch tableaux can become.

"I am playing with the icons of the art world and in doing so,

I’m giving the people who have been brought up in the art world what

I give the man on the street," he says. "I’m hitting their

subconscious because they have these icons imprinted in them."

Climbing a circular stairway up to Johnson’s second-floor

sculpture studio, the first thing we see is an enormous, four-by-six-foot

reproduction of a color photograph of Ground Zero at its most shocking.

At the center of the photo is the businessman of "Double Check,"

covered in gray-blue ash and shattered debris, still upright, seated

on a bench.

Pictured in color in the New York Times, on Monday, September 17,

Johnson’s unprepossessing figure sat, his jaw fixed, his gaze concentrated.

A note, handwritten in pen on a sheet of notebook paper and taped

to the lid of his briefcase read, "In memory of those who gave

their lives to try and save so many," and a cluster of signatures

surrounded it. A brave bouquet of pink gladioli was draped across

the bronze man’s arm.

The 1982 "Double Check," commissioned by Merrill Lynch, was

placed on a bench at 1 Liberty Plaza. The open briefcase on the man’s

lap contains a stapler, calculator, tape recorder, pencils — and

sometimes a sandwich, provided by a passerby.

"It’s rather weird that such an easy, forgettable work should

become so poignant," Tom Eccles, director of New York’s nonprofit

Public Art Fund, told the press after September 11.

Even today, Johnson remembers the quote well. And he doesn’t find

it all that "weird."

"There were 20 benches like this, and this is the only one that

survived," says Johnson, his tone becoming solemn now. "They

tried to save him, the rescue people thought he was in shock. So he

was sort of considered a survivor. He became a stand-by memorial."

"People put crucifixes, teddy bears, an FBI hat, rescue squad

patches, candles, flowers — he was totally covered with dead bouquets

of flowers." Johnson gathered up some of these memorial items

and had them cast intending to weld them onto "Double Check,"

if not the "survivor" then another casting of the piece he

has in Hamilton. "I’ve left my piece at Ground Zero," he adds.

"I don’t dare take him out because the politics are so unsure

there, that he might not ever get back."

"It was soon after that happened that the man [from the Public

Art Fund] said `Isn’t it weird that such a forgettable piece could

end up to be so poignant.’ So I have to say, that I design all of

my people, my sculpture, to be very disappearing — to be `forgettable.’"

Now Johnson’s showmanship subsides as he begins to discuss the ideas

about sculpture that are most important to him. He is currently working

on a big book about the art of sculpture that will place it in the

context of human history starting with the pyramids.

When asked to talk about just what sculpture is, he offers a caveat:

"What my sculpture is, is not what sculpture is.

I fit into one part. Mine is public art, rather than art in public

places. Mine is intended to interact with the public.

"I want you to pass my sculptures as though they were just people

sitting there. I want you to pass them at least once that way —

if not twice. And the more you do the more successful I’ve been.

"When you finally discover that you’ve been giving deference to

a piece of bronze, as though it was a human being, you can’t help

but at least smile at yourself — if not laugh! You end up with

an emotional relationship to that piece because it has `had’ you,"

he says, no longer the trickster, but a man seriously addressing the

lowbrow label so often attached to these figures. "And that’s

very important, because in that moment of discovery, in that transmutation

from flesh to bronze in your consciousness, that is where the art

lies."

"People have affection for these and they name them all the time,"

he continues. "Outside Detroit I had a piece that was a workman

sitting on a bench who was beloved in town. When he was stolen, the

newspapers treated it as a kidnapping." The drama ended happily

two months later when the bronze was mysteriously returned.

The now famous "Double Check" illustrates the emotion that

Johnson’s so-called prosaic bronze figures can engender. In New York’s

financial district, this regularly businessman became a neighborhood

favorite, affectionately festooned with a knitted muffler in winter

or perhaps a brown-bag lunch in spring.

Says Johnson: "For people who felt cut off by the abstract art

world, who naturally adhere to the human figure — because it’s

them — art is not their enemy any more, it’s their friend."


Previous Story Next Story


Corrections or additions?


This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments