Recipient of the 2020 Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award
Seward Johnson, whose artistic and professional career as a sculptor spans more than 50 years, initially received wide critical acclaim in the 1960s for his first work, Stainless Girl. The piece garnered the top prize at the Design in Steel Awards, an international competition held by the U.S. Steel Corporation to honor artists and designers who created art and other objects out of steel. A year later, several months after Johnson’s career had begun to flourish, he found himself in “a creative storm,” as he remembers it, centered in his Princeton, New Jersey, studio. Realizing he was overwhelmed by all of the ideas he had for new works, he hired several artisan/technicians to help him weld armatures and create molds. It was then that his career as a maker truly launched.
As the Johnson Atelier grew rapidly throughout the 1970s and achieved a global reputation as one of the finest foundries for sculptors to have their work finished, Johnson’s standing as a sculptor was also expanding. Exhibitions throughout the United States and overseas began to occur, giving him international scope. Over the next decades, numerous exhibitions and installations of his work were mounted in Germany, Ukraine, Switzerland, Japan, China, Turkey, France, Monaco, and many times in Italy, in Rome, Milan, Turin, Sardinia, and Sicily.
Today, more than 50 years after completing his first sculpture, Johnson continues to explore profound questions surrounding what it means to be human and to be living in an era full of variety, complexity, and now, dissonance across many levels of society.
His response to fundamental issues of what it means to be living fully led first to the creation of works that embrace and highlight aspects of what are often seen as the most prosaic tasks of our daily lives—day-to-day “mini heroics” conveyed through his “Celebrating the Familiar” series. Two decades later, his admiration and deep reverence for the painters of the Impressionist period led to “Beyond the Frame,” a lauded, albeit sometimes controversial, series of three-dimensional interpretations of some of the best-known Impressionist and post-Impressionist works. “Beyond the Frame” debuted at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the works continued to be shown in museums over the years. Some of these pieces were exhibited in Paris last summer in collaboration with the Cultural Route of the Council of Europe.
Johnson’s ongoing fascination with how iconic images can influence human behavior has had a deep impact on his work and continues to inspire him today as he contemplates new additions to his “Icons Revisited” series. He is mesmerized by the power of images depicting certain people and certain inanimate objects such as monuments or landscapes, particularly by the profound impact such images can have in bringing people together to foster a sense of community and to fight against the negative effects of social isolation.
With that goal in mind, Johnson turned to developing an impactful and popular series of large-scale, three-dimensional works that reflect, depending on the sculpture, his well-known sense of fun and at times irreverent sense of humor. Twenty-five feet tall and up, these works honor famous popular culture icons, including Marilyn Monroe and the Times Square image of a sailor and a nurse kissing in celebration of the end of World War II. The “Icons Revisited” series continues to garner worldwide attention, and individual works have transformed the landscape in several cities in the United States, as well as in Australia, Europe, and China.
Most recently, Johnson has focused his intellect and talents on additions to his oeuvre that display his fascination with complex ideas about memory, culture, and society. But no matter where his creative inspiration has led him, Johnson says, the spark and drive that have compelled him to pursue so many different worlds of thought arise from a deeply personal desire to contribute something positive to the artistic and social ethos of his time. And, perhaps more importantly, to connect with people.
Barry Raine: What inspired you to create your first sculptures, and what inspires you now?
Seward Johnson: I remember during my show at the Corcoran Gallery for my “Beyond the Frame” series, the director David Levy said that I was hoping to reach and inspire a broad segment of the public with my work rather than aiming to wow the rarefied art world. He was exactly right then, and he would be exactly right now. I have no interest in wowing or pleasing a certain sliver of pretentious people in the “art world” who take themselves so seriously and think they alone know what art is and are ready to instruct us all on what we are supposed to get from it.
I say that with a sense of humor. I don’t take myself or my work seriously—never have. But what I do take seriously is figuring out how, and if, I can bring people together through their curiosity about my work. As most people familiar with me and my work know, I have an irreverent sense of humor and approach to life. A lot of people tell me I’m playful. Sometimes maybe too much. But irreverence and humor and play are what I think we need more of in society. I thought that 50 years ago, and I think it now.
BR: You have talked before about what you call your “hatred of propriety.” How does that connect to your irreverent playfulness?
SJ: Propriety is my mortal enemy. It pretends to be what morality is. Propriety is a hypocritical and self-righteous application of morality, and you see it in society all the time.
BR: Is it correct to say that your aim has been to humanize art, in a way, rather than to make people feel insecure if they see a work and think they don’t understand it?
SJ: Yes, that is exactly what I mean. I want people to experience my work, and to feel a connection to whatever art they are looking at through their five senses rather than through their intellects. I wish all art could do this, on a visceral level. Unfortunately, too many people think viewing and emotionally connecting with art involves following a formula. I think that is missing the point. Art can be a way for us to see and understand our lives better, to feel our humanity more deeply.
BR: What do you think are the high points of your long career?
SJ: On a tragic level, Double Check (1982) at the World Trade Center became one of my hallmark pieces after 9/11. I originally created it—a businessman in a suit looking into his briefcase—to honor the thousands of workers in those buildings. After the attacks, the sculpture survived; many people attached pictures of the missing or other mementos of that horrible day to it, and it became an object of comfort, of hope and survival. That was very moving for me. When I think of the high points, I never forget that in my personal life and in my life as a sculptor, I have a history of great successes and total failures. I call the two of them together the scrambled eggs of my life. Failure is as human as success.
Many people love my sculpture of the Times Square photograph of the couple embracing. It has traveled around the world, and it makes people feel good. Veterans especially love it, which thrills me. Forever Marilyn, inspired by the famous image of Marilyn Monroe with the white dress billowing up, was and is a personal success. She has traveled to a museum in Australia and is now a permanent piece in China. I love the reach over many cultures. It proves that the language of the visual arts has no boundaries. Thousands of viewers have now interacted with it. I was interested in her impact globally as a public icon in spite of her tragic life. I was honoring and celebrating her power and wanted to spread some fun. She didn’t take herself—or rather her public image—too seriously, and I understood that.
BR: Are there any works that stand out for you that are not part of a series?
SJ: The Awakening, which I finished 35 years ago. It is of a giant waking up and trying to pull his body out of the earth. It is 70 feet wide, and it is now installed along the Potomac River just outside Washington, DC, as well as outside Rome. The idea came to me from Chinese mythology, which features many giants and ominous creatures. The size of giants thrills people, and I wanted to create a place for people to feel that sense of awe. Also, King Lear, whose pained facial expression evokes so much of the tension and drama of Shakespeare’s play.
BR: What inspires you today? Are you working on new pieces now?
SJ: Yes, I’m always working through new ideas. The political arena of the past few years has made me want to make what I am calling “Leadership Walk.” Past leaders, and I mean leaders from now all the way back to Nefertiti, gave their followers human values that maybe had not existed before. The idea I have is to somehow show how the world’s social systems have evolved over centuries through leaders and their values. I have in mind many sculptures of some of the world’s greatest leaders, engaged in conversation, covering a large space at Grounds For Sculpture, which I co-founded. I think it will be the most important work I’ve done. I hope it will help to teach people about how important certain choices in life are—the choice of a mate, the choice, if one can, of a profession. And what has been shown now to be so important—the choice of a political leader. As part of it, I want to erect a large mirror for viewers to look at, to see themselves, and to ponder their strengths and weaknesses and maybe ask themselves while looking at their reflections: Have I made the right choices in my life?