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Saturday, December 13, 2014

Seward Johnson II

Forever Marilyn, 2011, Seward Johnson II
Not her best side.
In some ways, painters today have a much easier time of it then sculptors. Even when producing highly controversial art, their paintings are hung discreetly on a single wall of relatively out-of-the-way rooms in well-guarded art temples where only those who are in tune with their style and message are likely to encounter them. They are still public art inasmuch as they hang in public and are owned by institutions very often supported, at least partially, by public funds. Yet they are quite easy to ignore. Now picture of twenty-six-foot tall, seventeen ton statue of Marilyn Monroe in her iconic Seven Year Itch pose over the subway grill with her wispy white skirt swirling up, as she battles to maintain her modesty. Of course the photo is an iconic part of the mid-1950s American culture. However, sculptures are not the same as photos. In a photo, you can't turn the picture over and see what Marilyn looks like from behind. You can't walk under the photo and shoot your own photo looking up her billowing skirt. Even the largest painted murals gracing our urban landscapes today present a careful, discreetly controlled, two-dimensional point of view. Not so with Seward Johnson's towering Forever Marilyn (above).

Confrontational Vulnerability, Seward Johnson II

Olympia, 1865, Edouard Manet
Manet's Luncheon (top),
John's sculpture, (bottom)
Johnson's Marilyn is controversial. Why would such a sprightly, somewhat amusing, entertainment icon be controversial? I just told you, weren't you listening (reading)? The sculpture aroused such displeasure in Chicago it was moved to Palm Springs, California, then more recently to Johnson's Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey. Strangely, it's not that any "naughty" parts are visible. In fact, Americans have more or less grown accustomed to nude figures in their public sculpture for more than a century. It more likely has to do with Marilyn's realism, overwhelming size, and overtly sexual image that urban dwellers find her so hard to live with.

Seward Johnson Self-portrait sculpture.
Seward Johnson has money. As a grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, a co-founder of the health-care product firm of Johnson & Johnson, he can well afford a degree of creative independence other artist would die for. In the sculpture park he founded and funded in Mercer County, New Jersey (northeast of Philadelphia), Johnson has installed a sculptural grouping replicating Edouard Manet's Luncheon on the Grass (above, center) which features a totally nude woman lounging with two fullly clothed gentlemen picnicking in his park (above, right). Still more...naked, is Johnson's version of Manet's controversial Olympia from 1865 (above, center), also discretely installed in the Johnson's New Jersey Grounds for Sculpture. Compare it to Manet's Olympia (above, left). Suffice to say it looks better in Manet's two dimensions than Seward's three.
Crossing Paths, Seward Johnson, Key West, Florida
Unconditional Surrender,
2005, Seward Johnson II
Along the same line, and nearly as controversial, is Johnson's Unconditional Surrender (right), from 2005, based upon Alfred Eisenstaedt's famous photograph, V–J day in Times Square. Life Magazine, which owns the rights to Eisenstaed's photo, has claimed copyright infringement. Nonetheless, the sculpture was temporarily exhibited in New York's Times Square near where the photo was taken. Other versions of the towering sculpture have appeared in San Diego, California, Key West, Florida, Snug Harbor, New York, and Sarasota, Florida. These pieces, as well as Marilyn, and Manet's lovely ladies have all been labeled by art critics as kisch. Translated, that means that, while they hate such works, they are still forced to respect them as art. The general public, those not offended by their overt sexism at least, seem fascinated, even awed, by Johnson's monumental figures (especially the ones in short skirts).

The Awakening, 1980, Seward Johnson
An elderly couple in Carmel,
California, Seward Johnson.
Johnson's most famous work is his massive, five-part sculptural configuration titled The Awakening (above), dating from 1980. For years it graced the island of Hains Point near Washington, D.C. where the Anacostia River flows into the Potomac. However, since Johnson retained ownership of the seventy-foot-long installation, it too has been moved to his New Jersey Grounds for Sculpture. Despite his penchant for aping the work of famous painters from the past, Johnson is a consumate artist, at his best when creating pieces of his own design such as The Awakening, or his everyday genre works which pop up unexpectedly in public parks around the country. His life-size individual figures or groupings depict people at work, people who should be at work but aren't, people just strolling by, or figures so harried they should slow to a stroll. He loves children playing, adults playing, and children playing with adults. Very often he simply depicts people doing nothing. Some more or less favorable critics have referred to Johnson's work as the "three-dimensionalization of Norman Rockwell." Perhaps, but then again, Norman Rockwell was never accused of copyright infringement.

Crack the Whip, Seward Johnson

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