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Morning Sedition

Art Paid For By Bandaids

Edouard Manet's Le Dejeuner Sur l'Herbe

"Le Dejeuner Sur l'Herbe" by Edouard Manet

Seward Johnson's Dejeuner Deja Vous

"Dejeuner Deja Vous" by J. Seward Johnson

Blogging the Bosch models got me thinking about how a variety of artists are reinterpreting earlier works into three-dimensional versions. Seward Johnson — among the heirs to the Johnson & Johnson fortune — is one of them. For some time, he's been rendering figures from famous paintings as three-dimensional outdoor sculptures.

In Beyond the Frame, Impressionism Revisited, Johnson takes 19th-century masterpieces and transforms them into three-dimensional tableaux. Johnson's interpretations are life-size scenes beckoning you to explore. Each piece has a "sweet spot," marked by a pair of footprints, allowing viewers to see a close estimation of the original painting in three dimensions. Move from that spot, and the works are sheer Johnson invention. With the help of a team of artists, he has continued the sculptures beyond the borders of the framed paintings, imagining the scenery and details that might have surrounded the original artwork.

Unframed: A 3-D leap at the Corcoran by Meghan Keane

One of the problems he faced was finding a foundry to cast his works. Unlike ordinary artists, however, that is a problem he was able to easily solve. (Massive personal wealth often works that way.) In 1974 he founded the Digital Atelier and Sculpture Foundation Studios as a sort of foundry for sculptors. You can see one of his works progress here as well as a large variety of figures on his official Website. The results are quite realistic:

Are there real clothes on the sculptures?

No. Surprisingly each sculpture is entirely bronze. The realism of the textures and details is the hallmark of Johnson's art, and this detailing is achieved with hours and hours of intense labor. Seward Johnson begins each bronze with a l2 inch tall "sketch" in clay, and then enlarges this to life scale in clay. Often delicate textures, such as the skin, can be made more real with fabrics pressed into the clay at this stage. Sometimes articles of clothing are stiffened with a resin and used in the mold process, but there in no clothing on top of, or under the bronze, in the sculpture that you see today. Other times clay clothing is sculpted onto the figure by the artist using wooden and metal tools with very fine points and edges. As the figures are sawed into many parts for the casting process, there are dozens of roughly welded areas when the parts are reassembled in bronze. At this stage, the artist must replace many of the fine textures; a corduroy, a tweed, a cable knit sweater pattern, with an electric tool that is much like a fine dentist's drill. This is the most time consuming part of creating these bronzes. It takes between one and two years to create one sculpture.


How does he get the unusual colors?

Seward Johnson has been developing unique chemistry for the colors of his sculptures for years. In an effort to better fool the eye, and allow the pieces to blend successfully into our colorful world, he began to add colors about ten years ago. The skin on the pieces remains a traditional bronze patina, and the current opaque colors are achieved using the type of paints that are the most advanced technical pigments used on airplanes. They are quite resistant to climate conditions, and each sculpture is also coated with a thin film of incrylac and a final coating of wax for added protection.

Seward Johnson Sculpture

Poster of Marilyn Monroe on Subway Grate from The Seven Year Itch

Movie Poster for Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch"

Seward Johnson's Marilyn Monroe on Subway Grate

Johnson's reinterpreted Marilyn

The construction process from model to figure is quite interesting. Too bad there aren't any pictures of it.

Seward Johnson uses a maquette (small clay model) to fashion the gesture and pose of a figure,which will take up to two years to reach completion.

Once the pose is final and the age, narrative, and facial expression are established, the artist selects a live model to come to the studio to pose. Apprentices at the foundry enlarge the maquette to a life-size nude clay and plastecine figure. Johnson then poses the live model and sculpts the face and the exact stance.

After Johnson selects appropriate clothing for the narrative, each item must be disassembled and sewn onto the nude figure, which has been converted to plaster form. Resin is applied to stiffen all the fabrics, and Johsnon then arranges the folds into proper motion shapes, pumping air into folds and pockets for a lifelike quality. The sculpture dries for two days and is then carved into sections.

The true foundry process now begins. The pieces are transferred from plaster to wax by making a rubber mold of each plaster section.

The wax is carefully chased, that is, all imperfections are corrected using tools similar in their precision to dentist drills. The wax is then given a ceramic shell by a repetitive dipping into a slurry solution. This slurry is made of increasingly fine grains of silica flours and an aqueous slilica solution that hardens in layers. The wax is then burned out at a high temperature, leaving only the ceramic shell with a precise image of the original; formed by the silica layers. This is called the lost-wax method of casting.

The pouring of molten bronze is the next phase of the foundry process. With the bronze reaching a temperature of 2,000 degrees F, it appears almost as poured light. Again, as in the wax stage, extensive chasing assures that all the textural details of the original will be preserved. The pieces are once more joined to for a full figure, and all welds and seams are chased. Items such as pencils and eyeglasses are modeled in bronze and attached to the figure at this time.

The final stage is patination, or the chemical coloring of the surface of the bronze. The unique colors of Seward Johnson's sculpture were developed specifically for his work by the Johnson Atelier. They are a combination of traditional patina chemicals and tinted lacquers. The bronze surface is heated with a hand-held acetylene torch flame, and the specific chemicals are brush applied. The flame then "burns" the chemical color into the bronze. A thin film of incralac, a protective coating, is applied to guard against paint or scratches. The entire sculpture is then waxed, as an additional protection from climatic changes. The Johnson sculpture is now complete.

Construction Process

While I find the work whimsical and clever — who else but Johnson would conceive of rendering Van Gogh's "The Bedroom" as a three-dimensional piece — not everyone, however, is a fan.

But what Levy fails to understand is that Johnson has so far remained unknown for the same reason that I can't recall the makers of any of the other ugly lumps that have discolored my workdays: People who like his street sculpture don't really think all that much about it, and people who don't like it would just as soon never think of it again. With both admirers and detractors, there's a threshold to be met, and things such as Sasakawa's Tomorrow simply don't reach it.


The sculpture, alas, is graceless crap: clumsy, swollen and unrefined -- poorly conceived and poorly finished. The digitally crafted backdrops are blurry messes. Slathered-on color causes the figures to evoke less those in the original paintings than the rusticated menu-board butlers you find outside the sort of restaurant that is nestled beside an antique mall in a converted mill.

Diversionary Tactics by Glenn Dixon

The Grounds for Sculpture in southern New Jersey is an outdoor museum in New Jersey that has a number of Johnson's pieces. Those of you who stay out of New Jersey — wisely, I might add — should find Johnson's book an interesting alternative to a visit to the land of the Kallikaks.

Book Cover for Beyond the Frame

TitleBeyond the Frame
AuthorJ. Seward Johnson

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Seward Johnson's Official Website
  2. Grounds for Sculpture
  3. Seward Johnson pieces at Grounds for Sculpture
  4. Unframed: A 3-D leap at the Corcoran by Meghan Keane
  5. Digital Atelier and Sculpture Foundation Studios
  6. Diversionary Tactics by Glenn Dixon


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