Published: December 9, 2003
Sometimes museums ought to have exhibitions that are fun, as well as artistically interesting. “Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, the Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr,” on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through January 5, is an often humorous, generally engaging show that surely fills that bill.
The artist-in-charge freely admits that his life-size tableaux, although based on serious study and arduous effort, also reflect his whimsical sense of humor. This is the first museum exhibition of the intriguing work of this unorthodox sculptor consisting of 18 large sculptures recreating Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings by Gustave Caillebotte, Mary Cassatt, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Vincent van Gogh.
The works exhibited are mixtures of figures modeled in metal and then painted, three-dimensional objects — some sculpted and some props — and backdrops generated on computers by assistants that recreate the settings of the paintings. Viewers can see the finished versions from a perspective that corresponds to the original painting — the so-called “sweet spot” — as well as from innumerable angles that reveal touches added by Johnson.
Johnson, 73, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, is a free-spirited man who left the family business to become a painter. He took up sculpting in the late 1960s. To date he is best known for ultrarealistic, life-sized bronze sculptures of everyday people doing ordinary things that inhabit parks and public spaces, including Rockefeller Center and five sites within the nation’s capital.
David C. Levy, the Corcoran’s president and director, observed in introducing Johnson recently that he is “probably the best-known sculptor in America…People know his work and like it…He is also probably the most controversial artist in America.”
A genial man with an irreverent, playful sense of humor, Johnson works hard — with the help of assistants — to turn out these works derived from famous canvases. But he never seems to take himself — or his creations — too seriously. “It’s a lot of fun” working on the pieces, he says. “Art is supposed to be fun,” he adds, stressing that he wants to share his enjoyment with others.
By applying automobile paint to solidly-crated metal pieces, he makes possible the “ground rules” outlined in the Corcoran’s exhibition guide: “DO photograph, touch, pose, imagine!” the three-dimensional tableaux.
“I am recreating the artist’s subject, not his work,” Johnson emphasizes. “The artist painted only part of what he saw. What is beyond the original frame is my territory, and I have tremendous amount of fun deciding what else to include.”
As explained by the Corcoran’s Chief Curator Jacquelyn Days Serwer, who organized the show, Johnson’s works are “recreations with additions.” Based on historical research, the add-ons to masterpiece paintings range from the witty to the bawdy and can constitute subtle or major alterations. Lecturing at the Corcoran recently, Seton Hall University art professor Petra ten-Doesschate Chu said that Johnson has “deiconicized” these masterworks.
In “Confrontational Vulnerability,” Johnson’s version of Manet’s infamous “Olympia,” 1863, visitors literally enter the courtesan’s boudoir through beaded curtains. Its period furnishings set off the provocative demeanor of the naked woman. The titila-composition beckons visitors to pose for photographs in various relationships with Olympia.
In another unconventional canvas that shocked Nineteenth Century Paris, “Déjeuner sur l’ herbe,” 1863, Manet depicted two clothed men nonchalantly picnicking in a parklike setting with a nude young woman with a partially-draped female in the background. The sculptor’s take on the celebrated painting, which he calls “Déjeuner Déjà Vu,” contains the same elements with the added feature that observers can walk all around the place, viewing the figure from all angles.
Manet, says Johnson, was “trying to surprise and shock viewers. I thought if I made a sculpture of the same subject it would work just as well 100 years later.” From the delighted reactions of Corcoran visitors, it is clear the sculptor has succeeded.
In addition to the advantages of the Corcoran’s spacious galleries, which give most works room to be appreciated on their own, one of the museum’s top treasures, Cassatt’s elegant painting “Young Girl in a Window,” circa 1883, is hung adjacent to Johnson’s painted, cast-aluminum recreation of it. This offers an opportunity to compare the original canvas with the sculptor’s interpretive creation, “Lap of Choice.”
Perhaps the most compelling sight in the exhibition is “Welcome Home,” based on Johnson’s interpretation of van Gogh’s celebrated “The Bedroom,” 1889. The three-dimensional version captures the skewed perspective, oddly-shaped furniture and vivid colors of the original canvas, and offers a bed so inviting that visitors flop on it to have their pictures taken. “I take naps…here sometimes,” Johnson admits with a laugh.
The sculptor could well have had this tableau in mind when he observed that “People have fun interacting with these pieces.” Adds Chu, “Who would not want to sit on van Gogh’s bed, [or] stroke Olympia’s leg….?”
Several Renoir paintings of couples dancing stimulated Johnson’s sculptural interpretations, including “A Turn of the Century” (based on “Dance at Bougival,” 1883) and “Whispering Close” (recreating “Dance in the City,” 1883). They encourage visitors to come close and feel part of their pleasure and graceful movements.
For many, the standout in the show is the expanded version of Renoir’s famous “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” 1880-81. In “Were You Invited?” the sculptor has recreated the original, jolly group of 14 guests and then added a whole new section, populated by Johnson, Red Grooms and three friends. They are busily “drinking up all of Renoir’s wine,” says the sculptor. It is a delicious scene.
“I am playing with icons,” Johnson declares. In doing so, he is bringing to life these Impressionist masterpieces in an entertaining and often informative fashion. By literally inviting visitors to walk into a Monet landscape, visit a Caillebotte scene, sit in on a Renoir repast or sidle up to a Manet nude, Johnson’s three-dimensional versions open up new ways of seeing familiar paintings.
While few would contend that these are great works of art, Seward Johnson’s carefully crafted tableaux do approach masterpieces in a fresh manner, encouraging new ways of seeing the paintings. By making his work humorous and accessible, Johnson offers a fun experience, something museums could use more of these days.
The 127-page catalog is illustrated with 100 color reproductions and a pop-up section replicating Manet’s “Déjeuner.” It includes an informative essay by art historian Chu, an interesting interview with Grooms conducted by curator Serwer, quotes from Nineteenth Century critics and Johnson on most works, and Corcoran public relations chief Jan Rothschild’s helpful examination of Johnson’s complex creative process. Published by Bulfinch Press in association with the Corcoran, it is a good buy for $35.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art is on 17th Street at New York Avenue NW. For information: 202-639-1700 or www.corcoran.org.
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