Copper in the Arts

November 2008

Sculptor J. Seward Johnson, Jr.: Life, Cast in Bronze

By Robyn Jasko

Seward Working J. Seward Johnson, Jr. at work

Photograph courtesy of Barbara Schindler

Since 1968, artist J. Seward Johnson, Jr., has been blurring the line between art and reality with his surreal bronze sculptures that stunningly capture the everyday. Created with candid accuracy and meticulous detail, Johnson's sculptures are so much like the real thing, passersby often do a double take. Upon closer inspection, viewers discover that the works are entirely made of bronze, encapsulating every texture, detail, and emotion with a photographic eye.

Heir to the Johnson & Johnson empire, Johnson carved a niche path in life, creating his own legacy along the way. He is actively involved in both his art and an array of other interests, and his many accomplishments include being founder of both Grounds for Sculpture and the Johnson Atelier Foundry and Technical Institute, the past President of the International Sculpture Center of Washington, DC, President of an oceanographic research institution in Florida, and founder of an off-Broadway theater in New York, to name a few. He remains a vital force in the contemporary sculpture world, and has assisted many young sculptors in their careers.

Now one of America's most renowned sculptors, Johnson originally began his traverse into the art world as a painter. He soon turned his talents to sculpture in 1968, choosing bronze as his new medium.

"Bronze flows in a ceramic mold very easily making details crisp," says Johnson. "It is strong and endures nature's harshness over long periods of time."

Each life-size bronze takes up to two years to complete, beginning with Johnson's inspiration for capturing the beauty of the mundane. Johnson says he first observes his subjects by "walking through life, retaining the way people relate to each other, gestures they make, telltale habits, expressions." He then either gets models to recreate these poses, or scouts Central Park in New York City or other places to photograph subjects going about their day.

"There are especially rich pickings on a warm spring day or an Indian summer day when nature insists we take part," he remarks.

Sculpture Close up of A Little to the Right, by J. Seward Johnson, Jr.

Photograph by Paul David

After he chooses his subject, he embarks on the meticulous process of recreating their every detail. He begins by using a small clay model to help visualize what the larger work will become.

"Most of the time I set my concept down in a maquette," describes Johnson. "When it's small, the mistakes are small and easily corrected. I generally let these concepts or ideas cook for a couple of months in my studio, coming back upon them to get a first impression, second bounce as it were. When the piece is emotionally cooked, I hand it to my helpers to enlarge to life-size in a rough state, then I finish the work using a model (a person) for reference, having them strike the attitude and gesture I want to portray."

To take it a step further, Johnson applies tangible fabrics onto the large-scale clay model to capture the piece's delicate textures, such as skin or clothes.

"I dress my nude sculptures in real clothes and mold the clothes onto their bodies to give realistic detail," adds Johnson.

Johnson then molds the piece using the ancient lost wax method. After the piece is cast, he uses finely-detailed electric tools, like a dentist's drill, to add the impeccable clothing textures and features that are his trademark.

"Then the figure is welded together and very carefully chased," says Johnson. "At the end, the work is painted and this is where skill must be developed to achieve the realism I require of my work."

Johnson's method of painting his sculptures adds another dimension of realism, while also protecting them from the elements. His trademark process includes the use of aircraft paints for endurance against wind, rain and ultra-violet sunlight, and a signature clear-coat process for multi-year preservation.

Each piece is then cast in a limited edition locally, and sent abroad for multiple castings.

"I used to cast all of my work at my own foundry, "The Johnson Atelier," but I had to close that down due to costs," says Johnson. "Now I bid my work out to about five nearby foundries to do the first and possibly the second casting."

Girl at STop Sign Holding Out, by J. Seward Johnson, Jr., Bennington, VT

Photograph by Paul David

Today, Johnson's figures are featured in private collections and museums, and public displays around the world, including Rockefeller Center, Pacific Place, Hong Kong, Les Halles in Paris, Via Condotti in Rome, Istanbul, Turkey, the Ukraine, Sydney, Australia, Monte Carlo, Brazil, Osaka, Japan, to name a few. Johnson's foundation also loans out the sculptures to bring a renaissance of sorts to America's towns and cities. Most recently, 15 sculptures were strewn throughout Bennington, Vermont, as a partnership to bring more foot traffic to the downtown and increase awareness of public art.

As part of his mission to make art more accessible to the public, Johnson founded Grounds for Sculpture, a 42-acre sculpture park in 1984. Concieved as a place where audiences could experience sculpture in a familiar, accessible, and informal setting, art lovers visit this sculpture sanctuary to pay homage to Johnson's work, and to view their rotating exhibitions of sculptors.

"Grounds for Sculpture was an idea or concept that grew organically," says Johnson. "I first just wanted a place to exhibit the work the Johnson Atelier cast for other sculptors. Then when I bought more land and the old New Jersey Fairgrounds buildings, I decided to make the park develop into a more serious effort…The purpose of the design is that it chopped the visitor's experience into a series of sequential happenings by developing many, many areas that flowed into one another. It demanded of the visitor to choose his or her own path or let it choose them…guided by their own intuition. This design allowed us also to separate the sculpture and to frame it so that the visitor would happen on it rounding a corner or over the rise of a hill…giving the visitor new surprises around each corner and chances to make new discoveries on each visit."

In 2003, he blurred the lines of reality even further with Beyond the Frame , a groundbreaking new exhibition where Johnson transformed 15 famous 19th-century masterpieces into three-dimensional tableauxs. Visitors can walk in and around these famous depictions, extending Johnson's surreal universe and literally bringing these works to life.

"When I started building Grounds for Sculpture, I did some thinking about mankind and nature and when the first time that man actually celebrated going into nature," says Johnson on his inspiration for Beyond the Frame. "The Impressionist movement captured this spirit, so I wanted to use that spirit in my park too, as the Greeks did use sculpture to point the way on what we the public should do in a park."

Woman with Groceries Waiting to Cross, detail, J. Seward Johnson Jr.'s Bennington, VT exhibition

Photograph by Paul David

Johnson's latest work continues to pay homage to his painter's eye, inviting more viewers to explore the diachotmy of the frame and the outside world.

"I am still working on paintings with a few detours along the way," says Johnson. "My latest is the painting by Odilon Redon, " Silence ," a very strong expressionist painting, which I have done in relief eight feet by eight feet. Then I am combining this with a relief rendition of Munch's The Scream. I am positioning these two very strong expressionist statements of opposing responses at opposite ends of a space called The Chamber of Internal Dialogue. In the middle of that chamber is a psychiatrist's couch where each visitor can decide which response he or she will take to their particular problem."

Johnson continues to emphasize the importance of sculpture and public art, helping people think outside the frame by offering a glimpse in the whimsical, irreverent themes that weave into our everyday lives.

"To me public art is the most true measure of culture," remarks Johnson. "It is the art that penetrates the living fabric of a culture's life. I also like to think that my work, being a realistic rendition of humanity itself, gives a broad response reference. I also incorporate many interactive elements in my work, which engage members of the public in an intimate way. But I also feel abstract art placed in public has a very strong cultural effect because one doesn't have to "understand" an abstract work for it to give you subconscious rewards."


A video walk-through of several J. Seward Johnson sculptures on display in Bennington, Vermont: J. Seward Johnson, Jr., The Sculpture Foundation, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, CA, (310) 264-2400

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