Grounds For Sculpture is celebrating its 25th anniversary by continuing to exhibit contemporary sculptors. Yet it is also celebrating its past with the exhibition “That’s Worth Celebrating: The Life and Work of the Johnson Family,” fittingly in the Cecilia Joyce and Seward Johnson Gallery. It remains on view now through Dec. 31, 2018.
Curated by Seward Johnson Atelier collection manager Lynn DeClemente Losavio, the exhibition consists of several thematic units featuring photos, films, and texts connected by living-room like seating areas—welcoming large chairs and sofas on warm hued carpets—and finished art and plastiline models by founder Seward Johnson, Jr. Those models include a life-sized version of the popular giant Marilyn Monroe sculpture—a highlight for many strolling through.
While the exhibition claims to focus on the family connected to the sculpture garden, it strays—in a good way—into a mini retrospective of the artist and his connection to the sculpture park. But the family is accounted for.
Skirting over the fact that the Johnson family made its fortune in the pharmaceutical industry, the exhibition starts with a focus on Seward Johnson, Sr. He is first seen in a 1933 family image featuring the young artist. Next to it is a giant bust of Johnson Sr. created by his son, who writes, “The head was nearly as tall as I was, and I added more clay with mallets and my hands. As I was swinging the mallet to add more clay, my father walked in and said with a half-smile that he hoped there were no personal feelings in my actions. I laughed out loud because of the passion I was putting in the piece.”
Devoid of the passions that gained the family headlines years ago, the exhibition quickly focuses on some Seward Sr.’s founding of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and the Atlantic Foundation—the entity that purchased the land on which Grounds For Sculpture was founded. An accompanying wall-projected film provides scenes of rare and underwater life and research to help improve the growth of clams and other bivalves, explore environmental solutions through aquatic vegetation, and explore pharmaceutical properties of marine organisms.
On the other side of the space is the unit that deals with Seward Jr., chronicling both privilege—living in Europe and meeting Georgia O’Keefe in New Mexico—and a humbling and life-changing encounter connected to his military duties.
As he recounted in a 2014 interview with U.S.1 newspaper, “It was now during the Korean War. I was flunking so much (at the University of Maine) that I either had to enlist or be drafted. So I joined the Navy and served four years in Korea. I was 21 when I first went over. We were sent in to draw fire at an enemy harbor. And they said, ‘Don’t worry.’ But I was looking through binoculars and could see people—the enemy—walking on the streets. I was in communications, got called by the captain, and left the gun mount. And my gun mount was hit and everyone was killed. I was 21 and carrying body bags to the mess hall. I remember the engineering office saying to me, ‘Why didn’t you get killed too?’”
In both the interview and the exhibition, Johnson links this experience to his future and a search for self-meaning.
The exhibition focuses on another chapter of the artist’s early life, his 2,200-mile canoe trip that he and two other sailors took from western Alberta to the upper edge of the Northwest Territories on the Arctic. It was, he admits, a test of self—an extreme version of “Man Against Nature.”
It was also perhaps an attempt to please his father, for as Johnson notes, “I seemed to have attained some higher status in my father’s eyes. He was seeing me then as an adventurer who had been tested over and over, and who had come through a challenge as some kind of hero. He hadn’t reacted this way when I returned from the Navy, but my Arctic tip had ignited a spark in him.”
Now a nearby unit introduces Cecilia, nee Horton, and her family, connected, we’re told, to part of an ancient English family of free farmers who settled in 17th century Long Island. The exhibition then focuses on the couple’s meeting—after Johnson’s first and troubled marriage—and Cecilia’s influence on the future artist.
As he says in the same interview, “I met my wife flying to Nantucket. We were first together in Chatham, Massachusetts, and we went out painting on walks. We painted and painted some more. When we moved to Cambridge, I audited all sorts of classes at Harvard because I didn’t have to take exams. And I was painting nudes in the late 1960s. But I wasn’t happy with it. Cecilia said, ‘You seem to be artistically talented and you lived on a farm when you were young and seem to be very mechanical. Have you ever thought about putting both together?’ And she reaches into her pocket and takes out an ad for a sculpture class, and I went to sign up for it.”
On the opposite wall is a display of Johnson’s series of tray paintings that have been on view since the massive Johnson Retrospective in 2014. Johnson says he started painting them years ago when he had trouble sleeping and thought it would be nice to serve himself something on an image that he liked. What he liked are glimpses of his internal and external world, including a painting of him and Cecilia holding hands and flying to Nantucket. There are also the faces of sheep on the farm and key works at Grounds For Sculpture—including those by important 20th century sculptors Isaac Witkin (his “Garden State”) and George Segal (“Breadline”).
Johnson’s interest in music—he has a drum set in his studio—is also on display nearby. It’s through his 2016 cast bronze “My Sixteen-Year-Old Jazz Dreams,” a life sized sextet featuring trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who can be heard singing through a recording. Also singing is Seward Johnson, who over the past several years has hosted a weekly “Sing Aloud with Seward” at the GFS-based Rat’s Restaurant.
The mini-retrospective aspect of the exhibition continues and spans some of the highlights of Johnson’s career. One connects his love of impressionist art and his work in creating giant, 3-D sculptural translations of paintings from that French movement. Here visitors get an opportunity to revisit the van Gogh bedroom that had been on display in the retrospective.
Keep moving and you’ll find “Stainless Girl,” the abstracted stainless steel female nude that launched his sculpting career when it won first prize in a national sculpture competition in 1969.
Then there is “Double Check,” the World Trade Center located life-cast of a businessman checking his briefcase. The sculpture survived the Twin Tower attack and became a makeshift shrine where others registered their pain and hopes—all incorporated into a new version of the sculpture.
Its importance to the exhibition and Johnson’s work was summed up by the New York Times in 2004: “For years Mr. Johnson’s works were dismissed by the art world as being too literal. But it is precisely this quality that makes ‘Double Check’ so powerful. The sculpture is a representational depiction of a mundane figure that has transcended its origins and achieved symbolic power.”
The remainder of the exhibition includes walls devoted to Johnson’s son John, his daughter India Blake (who is an artist and poet), and extended family, the individuals who created the Johnson Atelier — originally founded in 1974 in Princeton Junction — and who moved to the former New Jersey State Fair Grounds in Hamilton after the opening of GFS in 1992.
Here visitors meet the late Herk van Tongeren, the early executive director of the Johnson Atelier Foundry and a sculptor noted for his classically designed geometric works (he was also a model for one of the construction workers in George Segal’s “Contractors” in downtown Trenton). Homage is also paid to Ground For Sculpture’s first curator, the late Brooke Barry, and GFS’s designer and current project director, landscape architect Brian Carey.
Uneven and even a bit noisy with the film narration, music, and a monitor running a TV broadcast about “Double Check,” the exhibition does bring up the reality that it was a New Jersey-born man who was part of a New Jersey-made business that was responsible for making a world-class New Jersey art center that has employed, engaged, and exhibited a lot of artists, connected a lot of people to art, and made our region richer.
And that’s worth celebrating.
Grounds For Sculpture is located at 126 Sculptors Way in Hamilton. For more information, call (609) 586-0616 or go online to groundsforsculpture.org.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Aug. 30, 2017 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper.