"We tried to make it a little bit threatening," Johnson says. "It looks a little bit like 'Planet of the Apes.' But if you went through you would have a wonderful surprise at the other end."
The surprise begins with a mirror at the end of the tunnel, after which the path leads to a beautiful open space ringed with trees and adorned with eye-catching modern pieces, including Brower Hatcher's stainless-steel-and-glass "Fan" and "Tower."
J. Seward Johnson Jr., shown in 2002 amid his version of Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party."
(Michael Mancuso - The Times of Trenton)
Secrecy and solace are stressed to give each visitor a unique experience. There are 10 secret rooms in the park, and in some "you can lock the door," Johnson says, "so if you're there with someone you want to get to know better, you can have a little bit of privacy."
Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, has achieved notice and notoriety in the art world. In recent years, he has taken to fashioning life-size, three-dimensional sculptures derived from impressionist paintings. To some critics, what he's done is inexcusable. The Washington Post's Blake Gopnik, while praising Johnson as a serious patron of the arts, dubbed his 2003 show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art "the worst museum exhibition I've ever seen."
But at the Grounds, Johnson's art doesn't always seem out of place. Alongside the lake are several tables for picnics, and on one of them, Johnson has installed a still-life picnic scene complete with bread, wine and place settings.
On a larger scale, outside Rat's, the Grounds' gourmet French restaurant, is a pond spanned by a bridge from a Monet painting -- another Johnson work. Art or not, it's a pleasant scene to contemplate while you wait for your table (and where else in the mid-Atlantic region can you get a picture of yourself on a Monet bridge?). Oddly, the pond also features Philip Grausman's eerie "Leucantha," a huge aluminum-cast head of a woman that appears to float on its surface. Not far from there, on the lake that borders the Grounds, is Johnson's "Luncheon of the Boating Party," his 3-D interpretation of the famous Renoir picnic scene that was part of his Corcoran show. Johnson has put himself and other artists at a table behind the life-size figures in Renoir's painting.
One of the Grounds' great strengths is its diversity, so if Johnson's works aren't your thing, there are plenty of other pieces to catch your eye. There's the haunting "Birth of the Messenger," a pregnant woman who seems to emerge from granite like a ghost, by Ukrainian-born artist Viktor, who goes by his first name only. There's Segal's "Depression Bread Line," a weathered bronze depiction of downtrodden men awaiting their rations (the first edition of this work adorns the FDR Memorial on the Mall; it was forged at the Johnson atelier, which is next to the Grounds). There's Carlos Dorrien's "Nine Muses," which evokes the ancient ruins of Egypt and Greece.
And then there are pieces that perfectly illustrate the combination of art and nature on display -- works such as "Yew Inside," by Bruce Daniels, the park's development coordinator. It's a neat square of thin trees surrounding a single yew bush. Like many works in the park, it's tough to find -- tough, even, to identify as art. Some look like trees, others like benches. What seems from afar like a boat in the lotus pond is really Marsha Pels's "Acheron," a bronze and marble work.
To take it all in requires fierce concentration and lots of time, but Johnson would prefer that you relax and come back another day to see more. With theater and dance and music among the arts on display from time to time, the Grounds for Sculpture has plenty to offer.
And the place is expanding. A large hill is being built to allow visitors to see the whole of the park from above, and inside the hill, Johnson says, an underground gallery will be constructed. Movie screens for independent and older films are planned, as is a theater space.
The Grounds is open year-round, but there's no better time than the spring to experience it in full bloom. Just head north into New Jersey and find your way to the Hamilton exit off Interstate 295. If you see a winged horse, a giant tooth or a father forever teaching his child how to ride a bike, you're heading the right way.
GETTING THERE: Grounds for Sculpture is in Hamilton, N.J., about three hours from Washington. Take I-95 north to the Delaware Memorial Bridge, then take the New Jersey Turnpike to Exit 4, which leads you to I-295 north. Exit at 65B/Sloan Avenue West, then follow the signs -- and the sculptures.
SCULPTURE GARDEN: Grounds for Sculpture (18 Fairgrounds Rd., Hamilton, 609-586-0616, www.groundsforsculpture.org) is open year-round, Tuesday-Sunday. April through October, the hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday is the priciest day -- $12 for adults and children. Fridays and Saturdays it's $8 for adults, $7 for students and seniors and $4 for kids 12 and under. Tuesdays through Thursdays the prices drop to $5, $4 and $1.
STAYING THERE: Hotels in Trenton and Princeton are the best bet. Grounds for Sculpture suggests the Trenton Marriott at Lafayette Yard (609-421-4000, marriott.com/property/propertypage/TTNMC), 10 minutes away; rooms start at about $100 a night on weekends for a double. About 15 minutes from the park is the Hyatt Regency Princeton (609-987-1234, princeton.hyatt.com), starting at $129.
EATING THERE: On the grounds themselves, the unpromisingly named Rat's actually gets rave reviews; it's the upscale choice for dining (entrees start around $26). Eat in the French dining rooms or outside on the stone terrace, where you can view some of the park. And a meal at Rat's is the only ticket to the park at night. Also on site is the Cafe by Chez Alice, which offers a casual luncheon menu and dining inside and out. The Gazebo cafe offers beverages and light snacks, weather permitting, "during the warmer months of the year."
INFO: New Jersey Travel & Tourism, 800-847-4865, www.visitnj.org.