Sculptor J. Seward Johnson Jr., 53, just can’t seem to please the folks of New Haven, Conn. Last year his life-size bronze statue Playmates, showing boys ogling the centerfold of their favorite adult magazine, so outraged many of the city’s Catholics and feminists that the “immoral” and “sexist” objet was carted away after nearly six weeks in Wooster Square Park. Now, along comes yet another of Johnson’s American archetypes, Getting Down, which depicts a young black male shuffling along with a huge radio propped against his right ear. Unfortunately, Getting Down has gotten a lot of people’s dander up.
“The sculpture is an offensive stereotype,” declared a letter sent last month by the New Haven chapter of the NAACP to Parkfriends, Inc., a nonprofit park-rejuvenation group that sponsored the exhibit. The letter demanded that Getting Down be removed immediately. NAACP branch President Edward White Jr., who spearheaded the drive, contrasts Johnson’s “aimless” black youth with the sculptor’s Caucasian figures also on display—a tennis player, a Boston-bound hitchhiker, a man filling a pipe—all of whom, he says, are “doing something productive.” White is not alone in his criticism. “The statue has negative connotations,” says Logan Hill, a local black biochemist. “It plays on shiftlessness as a stereotype.”
But Mara Brazer, 28, Parkfriends’ executive director, accuses White of being “hypersensitive.” She says the whole controversy may impel her group to remove not only Getting Down but all seven Johnson works, though the sculptor paid all exhibit costs himself. “The whole thing is an embarrassment to me,” she says. “Ninety-nine percent of New Haven thinks Johnson’s been magnanimous.” Wrote columnist George Wadley in the New Haven Register: “There was no racism intended, implied or evident in that sculpture.”
Johnson, a jovial, round-faced artist who lives in Princeton, N.J., is bewildered by the whole mess. “It bothers me, it really does,” admits Johnson, who calls the youth’s prop in Getting Down a “Third World briefcase” but remains adamant about his lack of prejudice. Johnson says he got the inspiration for Getting Down from a street scene he witnessed in nearby Trenton. “I saw a particular person and his spirit that were not stereotyped,” he insists. “It was beautiful to see, and something I felt had to be captured.”
Johnson got into sculpting pretty much by accident. The multimillionaire grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, one of three founders of Johnson & Johnson, the giant pharmaceutical firm, young Seward was encouraged by his father, who himself had little interest in the family business, to go into farming. But after a year or so he dropped out of agricultural studies at the University of Maine in 1951 and served a Navy stint. He then spent three years at Johnson & Johnson before being fired in a dispute with his boss, who also happened to be his uncle.
Johnson farmed and dabbled in painting for the next 10 years. “I guess I was finding myself,” he says. “I wasn’t very disciplined.” Turned down by Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, he attended a Cambridge adult-education course in sculpting, got hooked and in 1969 turned out his first piece. Since then, he has created more than 70 different realistic works at an average selling price of about $25,000. Another 30 of his sculptures are under way at the $2.5 million atelier that Johnson and a family foundation financed in 1974 near Princeton; it has become, says Johnson, the largest art foundry in the world. More than 50 students from 27 countries are currently sculpting at the atelier, which also casts for such artistic luminaries as Georgia O’Keeffe, Isaac Witkin and George Segal.
Johnson and Joyce, 49, his wife of 20 years, live elegantly in a restored Georgian mansion. He spends only about 10 percent of his time sculpting, making his primary vocation the presidency of his family’s Atlantic and Harbor Branch foundations. He is more or less reconciled to the art establishment’s disdain for his folksy, Norman Rockwellian style, typically slammed by Princeton art professor and critic Dr. Sam Hunter as “the worst sort of kitsch.” Johnson sells to cities and corporations, but no major museum has bought his works. He makes no apologies. “People are tired of abstracts,” he says. “They want reflections of life, something that’s fun, something that they can understand.” Well—maybe not everybody. And maybe not in New Haven.