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The ubiquitous American sculptor you've probably never heard of

October 18, 2012|By Christopher Reynolds | Los Angeles Times staff writer
  • J. Seward Johnson's sculpture "Forever Marilyn," on display in Palm Springs, October, 2012
J. Seward Johnson's sculpture "Forever Marilyn," on… (Christopher Reynolds /…)

American travelers, is J. Seward Johnson stalking you? Because he certainly seems to be stalking me.

J. Seward Johnson, 82, is a sculptor. In fact, he might be the most ubiquitous American sculptor you’ve never heard of.

If you’ve spent any time at all in big and medium-sized American cities in the last decade or two, you’ve probably bumped into his work -- usually human figures, life-sized and larger -- and you've probably smiled without noting his name. Since 2005, Johnson has been taking familiar two-dimensional images – often a famous photo or an Impressionist painting – and casting them as larger-than-life, three-dimensional sculptures, their contours smooth and boldly colored.  Jumbo kitsch, some people say.

Remember the famous black-and-white photo of the sailor kissing the young woman in Times Square at the end of World War II? Two years ago, I bumped into a Johnson version of that scene, titled “Unconditional Surrender,” on the waterfront near an old Navy aircraft carrier in San Diego.

Remember the Renoir painting of the couple dancing, bearded man and woman in red bonnet? It’s titled “Dance in the Country.” When I arrived last year at the Key West Museum of Art & History in Florida, there stood Seward’s version, titled “Time for Fun,” on the front steps.

And of course you remember Marilyn Monroe in the updraft. Last week in Palm Springs, I came face-to-knee with Johnson’s “Forever Marilyn,” a 26-foot-tall Marilyn Monroe,  white dress frozen in mid-billow as traffic zipped by on Palm Canyon Drive. (The next night, to round out the pop-culture weirdness, an Elvis impersonator sang in the same plaza.)

More than 300 of Johnson’s works are on display worldwide, by estimate of Paula Stoeke, director and curator of the Scupture Foundation, which owns most of the artist’s work. London has a Johnson, as do Paris, Rome, Istanbul, Kiev and Hong Kong. Stoeke said. In North America, “he’s in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., Seattle, St. Louis…” The list goes on.

In other words, if you’ve been anywhere, you’ve probably seen a Johnson sculpture. And if you're an art critic, you may have winced.

In San Diego, Robert L. Pincus wrote in 2007 that the figures in Johnson’s World War II homage “look like something from a cheap souvenir factory, blown up beyond any reason….His big bronze male sailor and female nurse are about as expressive as inflatable figures atop a parade float.” Author Robert Hughes (who died earlier this year) was even more scathing when the New York Times called to get his assessment of Johnson in 2002.

''Johnson's work is chocolate-box rubbish,'' Hughes told the Times. ''It has no imaginative component that I can see and apparently appeals to dull corporate minds like his own -- the sort of people who run American motels and malls.''

How, in the face of such reviews, does a sculptor get so ubiquitous? It certainly helps that Johnson (officially John Seward Johnson Jr.) is an heir to the Johnson + Johnson medical-products fortune. Once he got started sculpting about 40 years ago, he used his wealth to set up a well-equipped, nonprofit atelier for sculptors. Later, he set up Grounds for Sculpture, a not-for-profit art park in Hamliton, N.J., that displays about 270 artworks, more than a dozen of them by Johnson, at a former state fairgrounds.

Still later, he set up The Sculpture Foundation, the Santa Monica-based nonprofit that owns and lends hundreds of works by Johnson and other artists, often placing them in high-profile venues worldwide (which typically pay for transport and insurance, but not the piece itself).

The Johnson sculpture I saw in San Diego arrived as a temporary exhibit, but won over so many local admirers that the Port Commission there has voted to bring back a permanent version if supporters can raise enough money. The Monroe sculpture, which came to Palm Springs from Chicago last summer, will travel to Tokyo in mid-2013.

Before 2005, Johnson was best known for “The Awakening,” an aluminum giant emerging from the earth that’s now on display at National Harbor in Maryland; and for scores of life-sized public artworks celebrating everyday moments, from couples on park benches to a businessman hailing a cab. (A Johnson sculpture of a businessman checking his briefcase, placed near the twin towers in lower Manhattan, narrowly survived the 9/11 attacks.)

More recently, in the course of translating paintings and photos to three dimensions in his “Beyond the Frame” and “Icons Revisited” series, Johnson has had his way with Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” Henri Matisse’s “Dance” and several other well-known paintings.

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