J. Seward Johnson passed away on March 10 of cancer. He was 89. His father was a Johnson & Johnson millionaire, and Seward himself made millions from a long career as a public sculptor, churning out artwork that average Americans loved and almost all art critics loved to hate.
Seward’s first roadside-worthy sculpture, The Awakening, featured a buried human giant clawing his way out of the ground — but it was an stylistic outlier. Seward really began infiltrating the public space when he started making full-color life-size bronzes of everyday people standing around, doing everyday things, which he would place on downtown sidewalks. The figures were so boring and realistic (except for their gold-tinted skin) that passers-by sometimes thought they were real people. The most conceptual of these early pieces, “Return Visit,” features Abe Lincoln talking to 1950s crooner Perry Como. Seward sold that one to Gettysburg.
Seward had made one oversized sculpture of an everyday thing — a giant tooth — and it proved so eye-catching that Seward began creating giant 3-D statue-versions of famous photos and paintings, which continue to be leased to cities and attractions for a year at a time, or permanently if they have the cash. There’s “Unconditional Surrender,” replicating the iconic sailor-nurse smooch at the end of World War II, and “Forever Marilyn,” mimicking Marilyn Monroe’s well-known pose in her billowing dress over a subway grate. Seward made a giant version of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and Renoir’s “A Dance at Bougival.” He even made a 31-foot-tall version of his own oddball Abe-Lincoln-Perry-Como statue, and cities happily pay to display it as a patriotic tribute.
Seward used some of his millions to create Grounds for Sculpture, a 42-acre park that displayed his artworks between their city-stops (and exhibited the sculptures of other artists as well). It was equipped with a foundry where Seward could pump out more sculptures for culture-starved Americans, who would rather see a giant Lincoln than abstract or high-concept public art. According to his various obituaries, Seward was busy making copycat sculptures right until the end.
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