Grounds for Sculpture Gears up for Johnson Retrospective

Grounds for Sculpture is celebrating works by its founder and celebrated sculptor J. Seward Johnson, Jr.

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

Marilyn is in from Palm Springs and a whole town’s worth of characters have emerged from hiding, as Grounds for Sculpture gears up for a retrospective of work by founder, and celebrated sculptor, J. Seward Johnson, Jr.

“The Retrospective is being held now because Mr. Johnson has produced nearly 50 years of work and the time is right,” says Grounds for Sculpture’s Chief Curator and Artistic Director, Tom Moran.

The recent New Jersey Hall of Fame inductee founded the non-profit Grounds for Sculpture on old state fairgrounds in the early 1990s. After majoring in poultry husbandry, serving in the Korean War and a brief stint working for the family business, Johnson & Johnson, Seward turned his attention to art. “I think you can express, emotionally, much stronger things in sculpture,” says Johnson.

The Retrospective includes over 285 works: 100 of Johnson’s never-before-seen collection of paintings on trays called Midnight Snack Art, his Icons Revisited series, large-scale Monumentals and dozens of life-sized figures placed throughout the park he calls Celebrating the Familiar.

“What interests me about it is the American life, the American dream,” says Johnson. “It’s just sort of expected that I’ll have a right to do what I’m doing here, and so it should be celebrated.”

These sculptures — from storage, shows and collectors — are being spruced up and set in place, but not all the setup is as speedy. Note: the 26-foot-tall Forever Marilyn.

“There’s a lot of prep work,” explains Johnson Atelier Director Charles Haude. “Getting it all on trucks, making sure everything is going to fit. The actual erecting of it. It took us a full day. And then we’ll work another three or four days caulking the seams where it was bolted together and then repainting them, so it’ll all look like one continuous piece.”

While Seward Johnson: The Retrospective is only up this May through September, the artist hopes any trip to Grounds for Sculpture will spark a life-long love for the art form.

“If they know nothing about art, they’re getting something from nature already. And then they just might happen on something that they can respond to. And if they can respond to it, we got ‘em,” says Johnson.

“There’s abstract, there’s figurative, there’s different materials,” shares Haude. “There are some artists that have wood pieces out there, concrete pieces, stone pieces, so there’s a real variety.”

“I hope that it becomes a vehicle to, as Picasso says, ‘To wash the dust of everyday life from everyone’s soul,’” says Johnson.

This exhibition may be a look back, but Johnson’s only looking ahead. He’s got new commissions in the works and has begun a new life-sized sculpture of another Garden State Hall of Famer: former Princeton resident Albert Einstein.