Seward Johnson retrospective captures iconic moments in culture and art

In the 1955 romantic comedy The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe famously struck a pose of complete abandonment, standing over a subway grate as wind whooshes up her white skirt. Rather than be embarrassed, she goes with it, her expression one of sheer joy.

The sculptor J. Seward Johnson Jr. captured this image in stainless steel and aluminum, larger than life. “Forever Marilyn” stands at 25 feet. After traveling cross country from its home in Palm Springs, Calif., the monumental metaphor for Hollywood status in American culture is spending the summer in Hamilton, N.J., at Grounds For Sculpture, the 42-acre park Johnson founded 20 years ago. Here, visitors pose alongside one of Marilyn’s ankles, then post the picture on Facebook, hinting at whether or not the blond bombshell wears undergarments. (Spoiler alert – she does. This is a family friendly park.)

Seward Johnson: The Retrospective, on view through Sept. 21, calls itself “the largest and most significant exhibition in the park’s history,” featuring more than 287 works.

Johnson, 83, has said, “”I want my work to disappear into the landscape and then take a viewer by surprise. After he gets over the shock of being fooled, it becomes an emotional discovery. Then he owns the sculpture. People often revisit their favorites. They become like friends.”

The exhibition spans five decades of Johnson’s exploration into what he refers to as “the visceral moment when viewers engage with a piece of artwork and transcend their own place in space and time to experience a heightened connection to their common humanity.”

The sculpture falls into three series:

Celebrating the Familiar — these works draw attention to the smallest details of ordinary life: a nap on a park bench, a trip to the grocery story, the pleasure a child takes in an ice cream cone;

Beyond the Frame is an homage to Impressionist painters, transforming well-known paintings such as Claude Monet’s “Garden at Sainte-Addresse” and Edouard Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” into life-sized three-dimensional sculpture;

Icons Revisited includes works inspired by familiar and time-tested images, such as “Unconditional Surrender” that captures the famous Times Square V-Day moment when a sailor kissed a nurse.

Greeting visitors at the front gate is a welcoming committee – you feel like the whole gang is there. They hold up signs saying “Hurrah, Welcome,” “We thought you’d never get here” and “I Can’t Wait to See You.” One plays a bugle to herald your arrival. Even a focus group could not come up with a better idea on how to make visitors feel good about their experience at GFS.

Once inside, there are replicas of people who look just like us – carrying a straw tote, bending to a child from a bench, a Master Gardener on hands and knees planting bulbs. One even wears a visitor wristband just like we do after paying admission.

Johnson knows well what we look like – he’s often at the sculpture park he founded, as friendly as the welcoming committee he created. He’ll chat up guests sitting at an adjacent table at Rats, the restaurant on the grounds, exuding his irrepressible joie de vivre.

The Johnson Retrospective continues in the East Gallery with a huge mural blown up from a small painting Johnson made of a Mexican village. It serves as a backdrop to his three-dimensional Mariachi Band. (A larger-than-life version of this sculpture is at the Hamilton Train Station.) There’s a man mopping the floor with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and another seated comfortably in a wing chair.

A replica of his “Double Check” — the sculpture of a man in a business suit double-checking papers in his briefcase, made famous when it survived the World Trade Center bombings and became a makeshift memorial – has found a home here, situated on a street and covered with dust and debris. The original is still in Zucotti Park, and another replica, this one of the memorial with various rescue workers’ badges and postings, is in an adjacent gallery. Yet another gallery displays Johnson’s collection of antique trays he painted with domestic scenes from his life.

On a recent Friday evening, with pleasant springtime temperatures, the crowd has dwindled. The characters of “The Eye of the Beholder,” in the courtyard adjacent to the Peacock Café, now have the place to themselves. The live population seems outnumbered by Johnson’s cast of characters: a policeman about to issue a ticket, a couple in trench coats gazing at their reflection in a circular mirrored sculpture, a window washer practically winking as he gazes inside the Museum building. They look so real, I wonder if perhaps they are actors hired to portray Johnson’s sculpture. Two young women are taking selfies with a peacock. Are they real, or are they sculpture? They run when the great plumed bird shrieks his mating call.

Seward Johnson: The Retrospective is on view at Grounds For Sculpture through Sept. 21.  

_______________________________________

The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.