Symphonie in Rot, 2000. Steel, 75 x 80 x 40 ft. Photo: Brigit Streicher

John Henry: One Idea Leads To Another

A life is not a timeline. The supposed linear movement, building one moment adjacent to another, is a false construct. Adding another dimension gives a planar view of bright moments, scattered like diamonds on a field of velvet. Tip the plane and we begin to see in four dimensions, the passage of time making the bright moments shooting stars, the process that creates them leading rather than trailing behind. If we then fold that tilted plane, we are approaching the way a life or a life’s work appears from the inside—a tesseract. All the pieces join, we can jump from one idea to another, allow them to play out, and then use the result as a point of reference for something else to reveal itself. This is how discussions with my father, John Henry, went: one idea led to another, touched back on something that occurred many years before, and arrived at a new place altogether; and this, it turned out, is how he felt about his work. 

I grew up with the understanding that art and art-making came along with air, sustenance, and shelter. The making of art did not necessarily look like a pastoral moment, captured gently in a field of flowers, but started with machinery grinding to life in a space invented for something else entirely, the roar of a kiln melting bronze, the smell of flux, burning metal, and the honeyed scent of beeswax. To create something required getting into a crane that extended one’s reach and strength, getting dirty with rust, finely ground metal that coated the skin and reacted with sweat, understanding the pick point, which allowed one to draw with a steel beam that seemed to float across the sky and drop “effortlessly” into place—a steel spike driven into holes waiting for bolts, an intrinsic muscularity. 

Illinois Landscape #5, 1976. Steel, 36 x 134 x 26 ft. Photo: John Henry

Sculptor, arts supporter and activist, community builder—all were important parts of my father’s persona. A little bit larger than life, his laugh always filled a room, a story or joke at the ready. Tuxedo or jeans and cowboy boots, a sassy remark on a t-shirt covering a broad shouldered, can-do body, one that could tackle almost any challenge and wrestle it to the ground until it conceded. Up early and working, hot tea in hand, the interruptions of a full life already addressed, starting a day that looked, from the outside, like a construction project. A life of spirit and of secular pursuits, one expressed in an unspoken concept, the other in the creation of sculpture. Ideas arrived on scraps of wood, diner napkins, air sickness bags, with paint markers, carpenters pencils, ball point pens, cocktail straws, and heaps of “stuff” that became fodder for the creative impulse. Esoteric ideas and the accompanying detritus of an unconventional life can make for a difficult passage through the norms of society, but clearly there are those who do not place limits on our brief dance in this sphere. Like the Olympian pick-up sticks that the work has been compared to, the life was often strewn across the landscape—unavoidable chaos.

When our discussions began to focus on his work, we started with the paintings of the early 1960s. It was a short-lived, but intense phase, giving glimpses into the nascent three-dimensional works that would soon emerge. With the onset of a series of shaped canvases, he had already segued into sculpture, and his interest in paint on canvas waned. There were experiments in wood, then marble when he was taking classes at the University of Kentucky with Kenneth Campbell, carving organic forms and ultimately combining them with found stainless steel compound curves. 

A move from Kentucky to Chicago brought him to the Art Institute and the University of Chicago, to the influence of bold architecture and the camaraderie of other artists with whom he carved out a community of those with similar interests. As early as 1968, he was choosing a vocabulary that he would build his entire career around, one that allowed his work to expand, contract, and speak to itself.

Ice Blue, 2002. Steel, 51 x 43 x 17.5 ft. Photo: William Johnson

John Henry’s recognizable lexicon is a sustained single note twining through every possible interpretation of a moment in time. Within a symphony of implied movement, tons of steel balance on point, anchoring into the earth to appear as though lifting away from that stabile. In the very foundations of some works are enclosures that link our personal space to the sacred in the three-dimensional language of the secular. Cantilevered into space, the hidden investment in the way things appear rooted in the forces of the universe is couched in the vocabulary used to describe this genre of work—gravity, balance, trajectory, cantilever, apex, and fulcrum—a physical manifestation of this poetry. 

The work exists as a kind of explanation of itself; no further commentary is necessary. While literature may be translated into another language, visual art is already speaking all of the languages, explaining all of the concepts, existing as a manifestation of the artist’s thought and process. We can employ criticism and historical analysis, but they often complicate the connection between ideas, sculptor, and work. As my father said of Steve Urry, one of his mentors: “Somebody would ask him a question, pretty deep in nature regarding pieces he made, and he’d say, ‘You know, if I could talk about that I wouldn’t need to make it.’ There is a lot of truth to the curse and the job of the visual artist. Often you find yourself in a situation where you’re trying to articulate something that you’ve done very naturally in the visual world, because the words aren’t doing what they need to do.”

Je Souhaite, 2008. Steel, 80 x 30 x 30 ft. Photo: John Henry staff

It has been noted that the works come in series, but my father pointed out that it was not a stated grouping he was embarking on; instead, each piece suggests itself to another, not as an improvement, but an exploration of nuance. This was an ongoing process, and sometimes a certain aspect of a work would speak to him many years later and start him ruminating on a particular approach—physical or philosophical. As he said, “I think you have to stop and realize that I never really feel a series is starting or complete. It happened because of the physical problems of the current piece, that spurred the next piece, and I would explore that.”

In Chicago, he engaged in a dialogue with spaces defined by architecture and began a career-long interest in the parameters of his chosen materials. While his works have been identified as influenced by the Bauhaus and Constructivism, he had some reservations about being placed in a particular genre; stating that perhaps something else lies at the foundation of the work: “Either in my aesthetic or what I’m thinking about, I’ve always considered myself a Constructivist, a student of Constructivism, but I’m starting to think of myself more of a materialist. There’s always been the background awareness of what certain materials could or could not do, which has governed a lot of my work.”

The Chicago years yielded massive works—heavily weighted, exposed connectors creating a relationship to the cityscape, with the El and bridges crossing the river and exposed structures intersecting and defining the Loop. Years later, in South Florida, the sculpture focused on complexity and refining forms, while the later Chattanooga studio era seemed to concentrate on scale and possibly a certain serendipity. In the recent Tampa-area studio, there was an emphasis on personal connection and immediacy. In the machine shop, smaller-scale works emerged. Working with lengths of extruded aluminum or solid steel, he would strike the right note, some minuscule recalculation, and the section would be absolutely right, becoming a symphony rather than a piece made up of different melodies. Sometimes he whistled.

Big Max, 1995. Steel, 33 x 65 x 38 ft. Photo: John Henry staff

Over the course of our conversations, we lingered over certain works. The individual pieces that we chose to discuss, as my father was quick to point out, are not “better” or necessarily even fully resolved solutions of a problem, but they have, in different ways, taken on lives of their own. 

One of the early large-scale works, Cape (1970), was shown in the Equitable Plaza exhibition in downtown Chicago. This group show featured rising and established sculptors, bringing the work into the urban environment and to the people of the city. The piece became about the edges of the elements, about the definition of form and structure, balanced and freestanding, and the way that the elements rose from the ground, floating. Painting the work black defined the edge and form, accentuating the crisp, structural geometry. My father explained that he began “building pieces that were inspired by the channel markers I saw while sailing in the Caribbean. The markers themselves were pretty well-articulated structures. Some of them looked like they’d been spiked together with a hammer and a big nail, some like they were lashed together with rope, but they were kind of beautiful as they came out of the surf. I didn’t start copying them, but I certainly was influenced by their structure.”

Cape, 1970. Aluminum, 12 x 40 x 25 ft. Photo: Diane Graham-Henry

Illinois landscape #5 (1976) was built to define space, to sprawl across the prairie and stand as a connection between earth and sky. This massive piece of articulated steel took shape in the Ada street studio in Chicago and in a lot across the street, with the now-famous local watering hole, The Hideout, standing sentinel at the end of the block. My father built that “piece totally without the proper equipment, and it took up the whole lot across the street. We used a small forklift…sometimes it would take half the day just to get a section out of the truck bay and out to the setup site. It was an exercise in scale, and the reason for that was pretty simple—it was going into an enormous space, and I hadn’t tried to really deal with that kind of space. When you’re in the middle of a large acreage, you start to know this piece doesn’t have to have to do anything with the adjacent architecture. I was always pleased with that.”

Before the solid steel works emerged, one of the hallmarks of his works (except for the small-scale sculptures) was that they could be broken down and moved. Even site-specific commissions were built to come apart, be loaded on trucks, and moved to another appropriate space. Not so Symphonie in Rot (Symphony in Red) (2000), installed on the Kunst Mile in Hannover, Germany: “I didn’t physically build it, but they followed the model and my directions to the T. What they did not do is use my connectors—it’s all welded together and can’t be moved. It was a different kind of experience. The fact that it was engineered by someone else was an odd thing for me. I was not faced with any parameters that I ordinarily would have to take into consideration. They brought it to the site in parts, but not in the sense we’re used to. They built the piece in its entirety, then cut it apart so it would fit on an oversize load, and then they simply welded it back together.” 

Tatlin’s Sentinel (2001), like a number of other works from this period, is connected to the architecture of the urban theater. It is meant to be interacted with at street level and ultimately viewed from above; giant pedestals erupt from the ground, with the sculptural “platform,” in this case, rising 100 feet in the air. The idea has an uncertain origin: “How far back does that concept go? That’s a problem with any discussion of my work. Because concepts and dreaming about certain pieces can often go way back. But as you come forward, you find out where they slipped in. There’s no way to say, ’Well, that fits in right there.’ Because you don’t know, you’re just taking a step.” Regardless of where Tatlin’s Sentinel fits in, it became a giant step. Now a part of the Hall Collection in Dallas, it marks the culmination of many of my father’s ideas, or ideals: the resolution of building at monumental scale without losing the intimacy of the connected elements, the relevance of the work to its environment, seen from all angles along its rising presence. This is a prime example of an artist’s mastery of composition, scale, materials, engineering, and chosen vocabulary. 

Tatlin’s Sentinel, 2001. Steel, 101 x 45 x 40 ft. Photo: Michael Samples

Ice Blue (2002) has a very dropped-from-above kind of sensibility. It’s a bit chaotic, very complex, and a different piece from every viewpoint, standing out not as a part of a series, but as a confluence of ideas grappled with over many years: “It’s a very different piece, period. Maybe 20 years before, I made several small pieces, and they just wouldn’t come together as sculpture. The ideas were there. I tried to make models to produce a piece on a large scale, but they just kept flattening out and wouldn’t go any direction that I wanted to go. I don’t think that’s unusual. These kind of things fight the heck out of you, but that germ is still there. I still think about it, and I know that Ice Blue came out of that. That’s interesting because here’s a piece unlike of a lot of my work and so maybe that’s telling me, ‘Well, you are on the right track.’ It’s really interesting how you circle back.”

Like Symphony in Red, Shey Cathedral (2003), a large-scale, commissioned piece made of solid steel, cannot be taken apart; it is rooted to its site. Within the shelter of leaning monoliths and elements, a small sacred space is formed, inviting contemplation and an opening of spirit. The solid steel works, while very much about the directness of working with welded steel, were also about defining and enclosing space: “I built that piece with no restrictions; the clients gave me free rein and a great site that spoke to me about what had to happen. It led me into doing things that the steel itself wanted to do. That’s what all those solid steel pieces are about. They’re about the steel talking to the artist, crying out for a certain kind of attitude. Once again, after many years of letting the steel push me around, this time, I held it in my hands, and it spoke to me—we had a dialogue. In all of the solid pieces that have come since, I am dealing directly with the material and it is speaking to me. I’m hearing what the material has to say.”

Symphony of the Bluegrass, 2010. Steel, 70 x 24 x 26 ft. Photo: R L Isenhour

Symphony of the Bluegrass (2010), an installation in downtown Lexington, Kentucky (my father’s hometown), conferred a sense of coming home in his mind: “I wanted to create large scale works that returned to a certain simplicity, cutting out anything extra while retaining everything that was needed.” This pivotal work, one of the first in a series of large-scale works using tapered elements as well as a more singularly vertical direction, brought innovation to an established vocabulary fully 60 years into his career.

“The Peninsula Project” (2008) was conceived as an exhibition that would span the state of Florida, with seven large-scale works connecting across space, accompanied by museum and gallery exhibitions highlighting smaller works as well as the artist’s processes. Several revelations came out of this huge undertaking, among them, the concept of a body of work being one, as well as a clarification of the process of evolution through attention to nuance. 

My father explained, “Never before had I realized that it’s all one piece. When an artist looks back at his work, you start to come to grips with what I call the ‘continuation of what’s important.’ There is an affirmation or justification of everything you’ve done to date. It calls into focus how one piece is connected to another—in my case, they’re all connected, even the ones that jump off the grid from time to time. When I look carefully, I can see the replication of something that came before, and the pieces all relate to one another. There is an obvious kinship as a result of some germ within one piece building up in the next. Sometimes the sequence is a little out of focus, not really linear; they may be 20 or 50 years old and they show up again. It happens, and you either flow with it or try to stuff it away somewhere, which doesn’t work. It’s a natural occurrence that you can’t control, you can’t see it coming. That’s the funny part, you’re not even in control of the thought process that allows that to happen. There’s a bit of a difference now, as I find myself more in tune with trying to satisfy a desire to accomplish a certain scale. That comes from juxtaposing my work with architecture and being driven by that. I’m always looking for site and scale appropriateness. That is really one of the governing factors of a lot of what I have done.”

Meridian, 2003. Steel, 22 x 25 x 15 ft. Photo: Doris Kuert

In recent years, serious illness brought my father near to death. While he was working on several large-scale works started or engineered before 2019, the new work emerging from his studio was more direct, like his solid steel pieces of the Shey Cathedral era. These works are smaller in size with a direct approach to connection, not bridgework but joinery. Some physical limitations create the necessity to rethink approachability, that of the artist to his materials and the work to its audience. 

When you give your life to a muse, there is sacrifice implied. No mythology gives voice to those who do not offer a sacrifice of time or blood. All of the gods and heroes place their existence in the hands of retribution for the touch of the muse—perhaps a bit of arrogance in their own capacity and audacity. The body can neither contain nor delay the forces of nature, the expression of the drive alters to accommodate. 

Quark, 2003. Steel, 70 x 36 x 33 ft. Photo: John Henry staff

Perhaps there is less a letting go in the newest work, and the accompanying authenticity is left exposed. There is no space for a raucous outpouring of energy; it is conserved and packed into these bars of steel, defiant and unflinching—there are no limits that the body can impose on the drive of the artist. The creation of defined space within the confines of closely intersecting elements was pushing my father into new trajectories of thought: “These pieces come and go in a very mystical way, it’s hard to pin them down. They seem to have…not a life of their own, but a thrust of their own. Sometimes it simply happens, and you don’t have any control over it—the pieces talk to themselves and become what they are on their own, with not much interference from me or anyone else. Mystery pieces. Sometimes it doesn’t come together, and that doesn’t frustrate me, it just tells me, ‘Okay, John, you’re reaching into the bottom of the barrel and nothing’s fitting, so you know it’s just not working.’ There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Our understanding of the way we’re supposed to communicate and we’re supposed to have these assigned responses to certain feelings. Sometimes the feelings just aren’t there.”

The spark is not always fanned into a flame, but we all have it, we can all connect to that language—we recognize it, somewhere in the depths of our souls. When I think of my father, I acknowledge the spark and the muse that fanned it into flame, and the raging fire that became the man and the sculptor. It is a rare and dangerous beauty that can be blown about by outside forces, but at the core, it is where the audacious alchemy lives.