Walking in wonderland: Grounds For Sculpture is an NJ gem

Seward Johnson wanted art, especially sculptural art, to be accessible to, and enjoyed by, well, everybody—“the broadest cross section of the public,” as said in his vision statement. He wanted people to experience art first-hand and viscerally, to feel it before being told by experts what to feel, for the “joy of discovery” and “an experience that elevates the soul.”

Johnson, from the Johnson & Johnson family, put his money where his mouth was and founded Grounds For Sculpture, the 42-acre sculpture park, museum and arboretum in Hamilton that opened in 1992 and is, easily, one of most pleasurable gardens in the Garden State.

Talk about user-friendly. All you need to do is get there, pay the admission and take a stroll with your eyes open. You will be rewarded a hundredfold.

The park’s greenery is punctuated with captured explosions of creativity that surprise and delight as you round a bend or glance up a hill or into a grove. Close to 300 modern works in wood, stone, metals and other materials, wrought by established and emerging sculptors from around the nation and the world, are placed in a landscape which is itself a work of art, fashioned from both native and exotic trees and plants.  Highbrow, lowbrow, no-brow, it’s hard not to be taken aback by the abundant, large-scale wonder of the place.

Andrzej Pitynski, Space, Conquer or Die – Swiatowid, 2013, bronze, 432 in x 161 in x 159 in, Unique, Grounds For Sculpture, Gift of The Seward Johnson Atelier, © Artist or Artist’s Estate; photo by Theresa Picard

“It’s mind-boggling,” said Tim Reed of Wilmington, Delaware, visiting the park for the first time with his wife, Sherry Reed. “The arrangements, the volume and quality of the work, the beauty of the setting. We’ve been to sculpture gardens before, but never any place like this. It’s like it’s been under the radar.”

At any point in your stroll through this sculptural shangri-la, you can avail yourself of an artist’s specific offering. 

Contemplate, for example, the monumental piece by Andrezej Pitynski just outside the welcome center. It’s a rocket ship encrusted with the forms of ancient gods, kings and warriors, entitled “Space, Conquer or Die — Swiatowid.”  You can, if you like, look the piece up on the GFS website and learn the artist’s intent, as well as the names of the characters invoked and matters alluded to. But, as Seward Johnson knew, you do not need all that to appreciate what is before your eyes. Whatever else Pitynski’s message may be, he is clearly telling us that Space Age man is taking all the old bellicose hierarchies with him into the future.

Of course, that’s my personal interpretation. At Grounds For Sculpture, that’s the point.

On the knoll just beyond the colossal “Swiatowid” is a gigantic sculpture of a naked woman reclining on a couch. It’s a three-dimensional rendition of Edouard Manet’s “Olympia,” an 1863 painting of a Parisian prostitute that, at the time, scandalized polite society. The larger-than-life re-creation, titled “Confrontational Vulnerability,” is by Johnson himself, one of many of his works featured throughout the park. Johnson, who died in 2020 at age 89, was strongly influenced by French impressionist painters of the 19th century. He was also hands-on in designing the grounds and the placement of the various pieces. Once again, you do not require a guide or supportive text to see what the piece represents, or to note the park designer’s playfulness in putting the object of desire on a hilltop just beyond the big, phallic rocket ship. 

That’s just two luminous sculptures, each worthy of thousands of words, two of hundreds set like gems amid lush, varied flora.  And I’ve just begun to walk.

On a verdant lawn stands a buoyant, brilliant copper embryo, a work by Taiwanese artist Kang Muxiang. A multitude of thin, elegant ridges gird the form, adding to the happy illusion of stillness in motion. The piece is aptly titled “Infinite Life,” and is one of six related works by Muxiang currently on display.

Turn from “Infinite Life,” gaze across a sward of exotic grasses and colorful flowers, and behold the spectacular “Eolith,” gracing the top of a rise with its marvelously stacked stones. I do not know what it is, or what it means, and it doesn’t matter. Like so many of the installations here, the sheer strangeness of its sudden appearance is eye-catching and enchanting. I pad up the rise, learn the piece’s name and that of the sculptor, Isaac Witkin, and get further blown away by this towering ladder of floating stones. When I later learned what an “eolith” is—a chipped stone once thought by anthropologists to be flaked by paleolithic humans for tools, but later discovered to be naturally flaked—my appreciation for the work and the artist increased.

On another green rise a little further along stands “Lintel,” by Emile Benes Brzezinski. The simplicity and muscular grace are breathtaking. The symbolic beauty is quietly shouting. This is every doorway, from birth to death, and all the entrances and exits in-between. “Lintel” is there to remind us that we are all passing through.

Later I came upon another doorway, titled “Sagg Portal,” by Hans Van de Bovenkamp, which brought a whole new perspective to entrances and passages, with a heavy, wavy, disjointed lintel, and the whole fashioned in shiny, industrial steel. Then there appeared another futuristic vehicle, this one sleek and modernistic, titled “Schatz’s Spaceship.” I could picture the graceful form moving swiftly and silently through the starry void. The sculpture is the work of  E. Calder Powel. It’s subtitle is (Inspired by the Oloid). So, I learned that the oloid is a fantastic yet real three-dimensional geometric form discovered in 1929 by a sculptor named Paul Schatz. It has numerous scientific applications.  But I did not need to learn any of that to be captivated by the object’s beauty.

And there are objects of beauty, of curiosity, of imagination around every corner. Far more than any one human being can take in on one visit, or several visits, let alone write about in a single article. It would be like trying to cover the Renaissance in a tweet.

“There are a lot of surprises that pop up as you go along,” said Ellen Kranefuss of Madison, a return visitor.  “There is so much. You forget what you saw the last time. Then there it is again. Then you see something for the first time. And the grounds themselves, the grounds are half the experience.”

We were talking at the entrance to a grotto, wherein was the surprise of the mystic “Birth of the Messenger,” by Viktor. Across a meadow stood the surprise of the absurd, profound, gigantic, hilarious “Skyhook” by John Newman. “The Oligarchs,” by Michelle Post, was a welcome eye-opener of political satire. Ernest Shaw’s “Sumo” made me smile. The joyful “Dancers” by Alexander Rutsch was another delightful surprise, and I was held captive by the classical beauty of the head of “Leucantha” by Philip Grausman, risen above a water lily pond inspired by Monet’s Giverny. 

“I have no significant artistic background,” said Margie Klueber of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, who was there with her young adult daughter Jillian Klueber. “I just find the whole place interesting. I’ve been here a number of times. Each time I come I try to bring along someone who hasn’t yet been.”

I daresay the founder would have appreciated comments like those of Margie Klueber, Ellen Kranefuss and Tim Reed, and seeing all the folks walking around and enjoying the wonderland he created would surely have pleased him.

 “He (Seward Johnson) was not simply a philanthropist making a donation to a museum, or organization, or cause,” said George Chevalier, manager of Marketing at Grounds For Sculpture. “These grounds came about directly from his life’s work, and they became his life’s work. He was completely involved in the design, the development, in every part of it. He had the vision, and the tenacity, and the money, which doesn’t hurt. He wanted to do things his way. And he wanted this special place, his life’s work, to be a gift to people, to be accessible to everyone.”

In addition to the outdoor artworks and the diverse, environmentally friendly park, Grounds For Sculpture has several indoor galleries and museum spaces onsite, periodic exhibits by various sculptors from around the world, an education center, shops, a French restaurant and the Seward Johnson Atelier. The current management team is dedicated to preserving and advancing the founder’s vision, which is evident throughout the operation from the splendid collection and beautiful grounds to the active exhibition schedule and acquisition efforts. The Grounds also maintains an excellent website, containing a great deal of information, including an interactive map.

The atelier, where Johnson fashioned his own sculptures, was the initial building block for the greater project of the Grounds. A number of his pieces from the atelier appear throughout the park, and apparently right where Johnson wanted them to appear.

For instance, “Were You Invited?” a three-dimensional trompe l’oeil inspired by Pierre Auguste Renoir’s painting “The Luncheon of the Boating Party,”—featuring some of the sculptor’s fellow artists like Red Grooms and Andrezej Pitynski, as well as Johnson himself, among the guests—is installed between the park’s pond and Rat’s Restaurant. I’ve mentioned the provocative “Confrontational Vulnerability,” in full view on a hilltop. The profound “King Lear” looms outside the main building named for Johnson himself; the humorously macabre “Has Anyone Seen Larry? (The Three Fates)” is at a crossroads’ and the romantic “Contact” is hiding in the woods. 

Viral Art by Seward Johnson (detail showing artist Johnson) ©2020, The Seward Johnson Atelier, Inc.; photo by Theresa Picard

He not only put himself at a festive table at the Renoir-esque luncheon, the playful Johnson is a self-fabricated painter, with palette and easel, standing on a landing painting two Johnson-fabricated painters, one an image of Winston Churchill and the other of Edouard Manet, each of whom is painting an additional fabricated scene. The sculpted sequence is titled Viral Art, a video concerning which, and featuring Seward Johnson, can be found on the website.

Johnson said: “The human spirit triumphs, if only for moments in a day. I try to have my work call attention to those moments.” 

He said: “It’s easy sometimes to forget the simple things that give us pleasure. If we open our eyes, life is marvelous.”

So is Grounds For Sculpture. Go. Take a walk. Open your eyes. Lift your soul.