The Man In the Mulch

Writing this blog has proven so far to be rewarding in many ways but sometimes it can become a bit of a rabbit hole. This post, for example, was initially going to be a short post, sharing an odd public sculpture that we came across in Missouri. We were on the way back to California from Ohio and were somewhat desperately looking for things to do.

Our thinking was that since we were traveling during the pandemic we would limit ourselves to outside activities, national parks and the like. The problem was that since we live in California and had traveled throughout the West, what Missouri had to offer—and what we could get to in the time we had available—wasn’t attractive. Maybe better to drive on through and spend the time we saved elsewhere.

But we had to do something. I asked my daughter in the back seat to solve the problem, to get on Google, to go to Yelp, and see what was around us and ahead of us, to find something amazing.

She found The Awakening II, a public sculpture in Chesterfield, a suburb of St. Louis, situated in some sort of partially completed commercial development.

The sculpture depicts a greek-god-of-a-man emerging with great energy from the tanbark, some Zeus or Poseidon, his head, arms and each leg separately rising from the ground using the same illusion as seen in alligator lawn ornaments.

The expression on the man’s face, however, is not one of joy at being free at last. It is not one of the rage of revenge. He looks more surprised than thrilled, more caught-off-guard than amazed, more the look of falling into a trap than being reborn. The green rectangle of grass broken by little lakes of mulch where his body parts emerge suggest to me some sort of mucky water with a layer of floating algae, the muck sucking in the aluminum giant as the moss-colored green greedily floats in to cover his vanishing.

It’s a metaphor for something, partly buried like the sculpture, but nothing joyful, that much is clear. The area is new, still being built, and is neat and tidy, and largely empty of people. The grass the sculpture sits upon is, I think, intended to be a public square but without the other buildings being yet built it looks to be the lawn of the one building that is, occupied by MassMutual, a life insurance company.

It makes you squint in thought, wondering at the juxtaposition.

I began to look for a plaque identifying the artist but the rain started and so we retreated to the FJ Cruiser, and drove around the complex, perhaps part of some sort of arts center, and then back to the highway.

Months later I’m here, up to this point of the return trip, looking at my photos and seeing that this odd sculpture is next in line to blog about. A short paragraph or two and then I’m done. I google the artist’s name and it is J. Seward Johnson, Jr.

I don’t recognize the name at first but then I look at other works of his and then I do. It’s that guy.

Full confession: I don’t like the work of Claes Oldenburg, I don’t like the work of Jeff Koons. When I was a school kid in Akron, Ohio I came across my first Claes Oldenburg on a field trip to the Akron Art Museum, the small museum that would later provide me, in the form of their photography exhibitions, with such riches. Inverted Q, I think that was its name, was a blobby-pink, play-dough cement sculpture that sat outside the museum’s main entrance in a courtyard which also had a neat-o work of leg bones, all crowded together in a square, standing without bodies. I thought that was cool but that Q? Even then I realized that the sculpture was there as a crowd-pleaser, as a gateway-drug for the uneducated common man to the mysteries of art. Show them the Inverted Q and then get them in the door.

The work of Jeff Koons strikes me in much the same way as Oldenburg’s did when I was a child although now I know that there is more to it. This sort of work not only gets the unwashed in the door (and brings is much-needed revenue) but as an artist you can sell this stuff, not only to the museums but to the Russian vodka magnates, to the cocky hedge fund managers, and to the Chinese businessmen, looking to show off their wealth. Making work like this can make you rich, and in the art world the scent of money will attract enough critical acclaim to build your reputation, and enough controversy to generate the free press that keeps it all rolling along.

That’s where J. Seward Johnson comes in. He seems to have been playing the same game with an eye more on the common man than on the “serious” art world. He gimmick was to take iconic images and make sculptures out of them. The scene in Some Like It Hot where the underground vent blows up Marylin Monroe’s dress? He made a sculpture. The image of the sailor, home from World War II, kissing his girl? He made a sculpture.

Famous paintings by the Impressionists also fit within his idea of what could and should be sculpted. Figures depicted in paintings by Monet and Van Gogh were re-worked into life-sized metal people that you could walk around, touch, and sit next to.

Regular people loved this stuff. For art world people it was going too far. Yes Oldenburg, he was on the inside. Koons made a mountain of money and there was so much buzz. J. Seward Johnson?

Well, he was rich, too (an eventual heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune) but didn’t go to a real art school, never seemed to get to the inside of the art world. I could not find any indication that any of his works are owned by a major museum (or any museum, for that matter) and I could learn only of one museum show during his life, at the Corcoran in 2003, that very show considered by art world types one of the low points in the Corcoran’s history, a show that resulted two years later in the ousting of the museum’s director.

The art-insiders were, it seems, appalled.

“When you have a fall from grace like that show,” Maxwell L. Anderson, former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, said of the Johnson exhibition, “it does give curators from elsewhere pause about being aligned with the institution.”

The Awakening II (there’s a version one as well, a copy in New Jersey and another in Viterbo, Italy—both of these and the one in Chesterfield seem to be the same mold) is out of character with Johnson’s work in many ways. Most of his work seems to be sculpted versions of characters from Norman Rockwell paintings, little moments of American, small-town life.

There have been a few controversial pieces. Playmates from 1983 has three teen-age boys quite fascinated by a Playboy centerfold, the magazine opened and visible to the viewer, a work that would cause a stir in any church congregation. Getting Down, the year after, has a thin black man, dressed in jeans, a wide brown leather belt, and a sky-blue cowboy shirt, holding a large “boom box” radio up to his ear as he walks, caused a stir in Yale University’s home town and a bit beyond.

Even considering these, the faux mythological man emerging from the ground (or being sucked back into it) stands out, both in its subject matter and in that it is not painted in realistic colors, left bare metal instead.

The intense emotion on the face of the man and the energy of his arms and legs have little to link them to anything from the best known, Rockwell-like work that Johnson did. I don’t know what to make of it, although its popularity is undoubtable.

I almost want to think about Johnson’s rejection by the art world and his efforts to make art that makes some sort of sense to people as being embodied in this work, the man in the bark as a metaphor of own his successes or his own failure to gain recognition. Whether he intended that metaphor or not he doesn’t say.

During the New Haven controversy he did summarize his approach to art.

People are tired of abstracts. They want reflections of life, something that’s fun, something that they can understand.

It’s easy to mock Johnson and his work, awfully easy. It seems created to invite just that kind of response. But then over at the museum you walk past the Oldenburgs and the Koonses and so many more and you wonder if the art itself wasn’t the issue, not deep down. Maybe he just didn’t understand the game.

This post is from a series of articles chronicling a 2020 cross-country trip with my wife and two daughters and a boyfriend, from California to Ohio (to visit family) and Pennsylvania (to drop off my oldest daughter at grad school), and then back. We spent over five weeks on the road during the pandemic.

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