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Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, the Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr.

September 13 - January 5, 2004


Imagine walking into a Monet landscape... or a Renoir scene... or a Cassatt interior... J. Seward Johnson, Jr. allows viewers to do precisely that. In Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, the Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr. , audiences can explore more than 15 life-sized tableaux, previously known only as paintings. Johnson invites visitors to walk into sculptures inspired by masterpieces from the French Impressionist era and experience the work in three dimensions - a new take on these celebrated images. On view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from September 13, 2003 through January 5, 2004, Beyond the Frame marks the first museum presentation of these works. A fully-illustrated catalogue published by Bulfinch Press accompanies the exhibition. (right: J. Seward Johnson, Jr., Sailing the Seine, 2003, mixed media, based on Edouard Manet's Argenteuil, 1874; photographs copyright 2003 Wyatt Gallery, Coutesy Corcoran Gallery of Art)

"People have fun interacting with these pieces," comments Johnson, who turned his attention to sculpture in 1968 after a successful career as a landscape painter. "They invite an intimacy with the paintings that the paintings themselves don't allow simply due to the limitation of scale, depth and access."

From the provocative gaze of Edouard Manet's Olympia to the interrupted calm of Auguste Renoir's On the Terrace to the mystery of Claude Monet's La Japonaise, Johnson encourages visitors to take another look at these masterpieces. "I lie to tell the truth of the painting," Johnson admits, referring to the way painters use perspective to show three dimensions in two. "I am doing the opposite of what painters do, so I use the tricks of perspective to turn perspective on its head." Gustave Caillebotte's atmospheric Paris Street; Rainy Day and Vincent van Gogh's idiosyncratic The Bedroom , among other works in the exhibition, reveal Johnson's extraordinary ability to bring these famous works to life. In another gallery, Johnson re-imagines the Corcoran's Mary Cassatt's Young Girl at a Window . In this instance, the painting is exhibited with the sculpture to give audiences the opportunity to compare the two forms and experience Johnson's work in close proximity to the original.

"I am recreating the artist's subject, not his work," Johnson explains. "The artist painted only part of what he saw. What is beyond his frame is my territory. I have a tremendous amount of fun deciding what else to include." Sometimes Johnson adds elements that are historically accurate and based on his research, as in his series of dancers where the costumes and attitudes match Renoir's paintings. Sometimes, however, he adds a touch of humor as in his sculpture Sailing the Seine , based on Manet's Argenteuil , where an amorous sailor strokes the derrière of his date, suggesting, perhaps, a bawdy moment that Manet did not include. And sometimes Johnson adds whole scenes, as in Were You Invited? where he sculpted himself and some friends crashing Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party and drinking most of the wine. The additions can only be discovered when the visitor enters the setting.

"Does the sensation of being 'in' the picture, particularly in such works as Van Gogh's Bedroom , intensify the viewer's engagement with the pictures on which they are based?," wonders Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu, Seton Hall University art history professor and catalogue essayist. "There is no doubt that to have touched Olympia's cast-off slipper or to have manipulated the objects on Van Gogh's table does give the viewer an altered relationship to the original picture, a sense of familiarity, a feeling that one 'was there' and affected the artwork... Who would not want to sit on Van Gogh's bed, stroke Olympia's leg or put an arm around the shoulder of Manet's little fifer?" (right: J. Seward Johnson, Jr., Follow Me, 2003, mixed media, based on Edouard Manet's The Fifer, 1866, photographs copyright 2003 Wyatt Gallery, Courtesy Corcoran Gallery of Art)

Johnson's works are a mixture of three-dimensional objects - some sculpture and some props - and computer-generated backdrops that reproduce the settings. "Seward is using every technology at hand right now to create these works," says sculptor Red Grooms in an interview from the catalogue. "It is almost cutting edge in itself because his appropriations have been so complete. Yet, I think he's found out something about the original paintings that he incorporates to make the pieces his own."

J. Seward Johnson, Jr., 73, is best known for his life-sized cast-bronze figures featured in private collections in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia, as well as in prominent public places such as Rockefeller Center and Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Park. His sculptures have been highlighted in Architectural Digest, The New Yorker, The New York Times , the Boston Globe and Life magazine , among other publications. The former President of the International Sculpture Center of Washington, DC, Johnson also founded the Johnson Atelier Foundry and Technical Institute (Princeton, NJ) to encourage young sculptors. In addition to his work as a sculptor, Johnson is the President of a large oceanographic research institution in Florida, the publisher of a science magazine and the founder of an off-Broadway theater in New York.



Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, the Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr. is organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art.



A comprehensive, fully-illustrated catalogue published by Bulfinch Press accompanies the exhibition. This 128 page book includes 100 color-reproductions and a pop-up after Manet's provocative Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe . The catalogue also features an interview with artist Red Grooms, an essay by Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu, an expert on nineteenth-century French painting, and a exploration of Johnson's complex process for creating these works.



Following the presentation at the Corcoran, Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisted, the Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr. begins a national tour. For more information on booking this exhibition, please contact Joan Oshinsky, Manager of Traveling Exhibitions, at (202) 639-1713 or joshinsky@corcoran.org .


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