• U.S.

Design: Garden-Variety Archetypes

6 minute read
J.D. Reed

A millionaire’s sculptures bring a human touch to cityscapes

Manhattan cabbies sometimes stop for the hailing figure on Park Avenue, but he never gets in. Patrons new to Kathy Gallagher’s, a chic Los Angeles eatery, request tables far from the cigar chomper who seems to be a fixture in the place. In Boca Raton, Fla., vacationers have called police because a youth has loitered too long staring at the sea.

The causes of these mistakes and double takes are not people but the uncannily realistic bronze figures of Sculptor J. Seward Johnson Jr. In parks and plazas from San Antonio to Seattle, some 120 of Johnson’s life-size sculptures, many sporting colored clothing, capture the everyday details of ordinary citizens down to their crumpled brown bags and untied shoelaces. They portray carpenters, businesswomen, students, engaged in such activities as talking on a park bench, leaving a tennis court or simply scratching their backs. “We are surrounded by monolithic towers and cold glass in our cities,” says Johnson. “My work celebrates mini-heroics; normal-size people reclaiming their humanness.”

Art critics are unimpressed. “Kitsch,” some of them proclaim. The works, says Los Angeles Sculptor Richard Oginz, “strike a Norman Rockwell note.” Indeed, Johnson is not about to knock Rodin off his pedestal, but his garden-variety American archetypes are a welcome—and welcoming—relief from “plunk art”: find a plaza, acquire something made of huge welded beams, then plunk it down.

Explains Johnson: “One of my fellas sitting on a bench says, ‘Come on in, celebrate the recess, the lunch break; take a moment and use this spot.’ ” Touching and interacting with the sculptures are not only encouraged, but are unstoppable. Children sit in their bronze laps; on chilly nights adults drape sweaters over their shoulders. In the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex, in Trenton, N. J., hundreds of passers-by have sat in the empty seat across the chess table from the bronze figure of a perplexed loser to have their picture taken. In southeast Washington, neighborhood youths have adopted the hot-rodding Skateboarder as one of their own. Says John Harrod, executive director of the Market 5 Gallery, a performing arts center that stands near by: “The kids box with it, talk to it and put cigarettes in its mouth.”

The figures, priced at about $30,000, have been purchased by or are on loan to financial institutions such as New York City’s Chemical Bank and Merrill Lynch, real estate developers like Dallas’ giant Trammell Crow, and colleges from Yale to William and Mary. Although each of the 70 or so figures Johnson has fashioned to date has been cast in editions of up to seven, the sculptures are usually personalized for clients. For Tyndale House, a Wheaton, Ill., publisher of religious books, the hamburger-munching young man of Out to Lunch studies the 23rd Psalm in the Bible he is reading; but near the entrance of a Kansas City McDonald’s he reads There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. Says Deborah Emont-Scott, a curator at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: “It is so appropriate for its location it is almost benign.”

So it would seem, yet Johnson’s works occasionally spark local controversies. In New Haven, Conn., last winter, Playmates (three adolescent boys wondrously regarding a centerfold) was removed from a park near a Roman Catholic school as a result of protests from religious leaders and feminists. Also in New Haven, N.A.A.C.P. Branch President Edward White Jr. three months ago declared Getting Down (a black teen-ager shouldering a large portable radio) to be an offensive stereotype. Nevertheless the sculpture, which was on loan, remained in place until it was due for return.

Johnson, 54, is used to accusations that he looks down his nose at people. He is a multimillionaire grandson of one of the founding brothers of the Johnson & Johnson health products firm. He lives in distinctly unbohemian comfort. With his wife and two children he will next year move behind the kidnaper-proof steel-lined walls of a new Princeton, N.J., mansion. As a young man he tried a stint as a Johnson & Johnson executive, but it did not work out. “I was fired,” he says.

“And my boss was my uncle.” He spent two decades painting in oils. In 1968 he turned to sculpture because of a recurring daydream: “I wanted to see a fellow on a bench reading a paper, but I didn’t know why.” The Newspaper Reader was his first bronze work, and it still sits in seven locations.

Today Johnson markets his sculptures with executive aplomb. Last year his work brought in $700,000; this year the amount may reach $1 million. His Wash ington-based Sculpture Placement organization will put on twelve shows this year at urban plazas, resort hotels, corporate headquarters and airports. They are not aimed only at collectors. “We do some advertising in ARTnews, but we also advertise in Architectural Digest, ” says Johnson. “That’s where the money and power for outdoor sculpture is.” In the art world Johnson has been as much a patron as a producer. He has provided substantial funding for the International Sculpture Center, a Washington arts foundation, and created a subsidiary, the Public Art Trust. But, he says, “mostly I’ve used my money to start my atelier and sculpture-casting foundry.” This facility, located near Trenton, is a $2.5 million state-of-the-process installation that employs 140 assistants and students. It is one of the world’s largest, and such sculptors as George Segal and Marisol have works cast there.

Johnson’s own work, also done at the atelier, needs painstaking care. After he models a 12-in.-tall clay figure, assistants duplicate it as a life-size nude. Real clothing is fitted on it by a full-time seam stress, who stitches the material to plaster castings so the folds will fall just right. Afterward it is sprayed with a stiffening resin to hold its shape. The casting method Johnson uses is so fine that it duplicates wrinkles on the leather of an old briefcase. He hired Japanese and Italian as well as American chemists to develop the polychrome patinas that color many of his figures.

Devotion to the ordinary is apparently becoming too predictable for the restless Johnson. His latest sculptures are moving in new and slightly naughty directions. The artist is contemplating one for placement behind shrubbery. It would depict a man furtively zipping up his trousers. For Johnson it represents a common public event: using bushes for bathrooms.

Says he: “After you’ve got a reputation, you can move out of the middle of the road a little bit.” But, as thousands of happy viewers may hope, not too far into the woods.

—By J.D. Reed

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