They were everywhere last weekend--young men playing Frisbee on broad, sunny lawns, skateboarding and soaking up the early spring sunshine under trees not yet in full leaf.
But in Princeton, N.J., the men were different: There were Frisbee players all right--and skateboarders and sun-worshippers--but they weren't moving. Real as they appeared, they turned out to be superreal painted bronze sculptures by J. Seward Johnson--the man who established a bronze-casting foundry in Princeton known as the Johnson Atelier in 1974, and who has since given that city a proliferating population of bronzed men who look like husbands to The Stepford Wives.
Johnson also gave Washington the giant sculpture called "The Awakening," which has been struggling to rise out of the earth at Hains Point ever since it arrived for the International Sculpture Conference two years ago.
Though Johnson Atelier started out as the fully supported project of this Johnson & Johnson heir, it has recently become a hotbed of activity for other (dare we say better) artists, among them George Segal, Reuben Nakian, William King, Marisol and Isaac Witkin, the last of whom is currently showing at McIntosh/Drysdale Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW. Witkin, who learned to make large-scale, open-form constructions from Anthony Caro--and who subsequently was an apprentice to Henry Moore--seems to have taken a very different tack as a result of his work at the Johnson Atelier.
Using bronze and iron poured in the molten state, Witkin has moved away from hard-edge, cut and welded forms--such as those at the Hirshhorn and Federal Reserve--to smaller, more lyrical works that make expressive allusions to specific natural forms.
The poetic "Linden Tree" is typical of the current work, made by welding together rounded, flattened blobs of metal resulting from several small pours. "Crazy Horse" is another richly ambiguous piece, in its simultaneous references to dancers, riders and warriors. "Mirage" looks like a tree on a moonlit night. Fortifying the expressiveness of these works is color: a rich palette of varied patinas ranging from pale pastel to rich, deep golden rust and iridescent blue.
This show--a small sampling of the better new work now emerging in Princeton's suburbs--continues through April, and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Also on view is a small show in memory of photographer William Wegman's dog "Man Ray," which died of cancer on March 27.
Animals in Wood
Jennie Lea Knight is a Washington artist much admired for her spare, sensuous, abstract sculpture in wood.
But Knight also loves animals--of which she sees a great deal on her Virginia farm--and they have persistently turned up as subject matter in her drawings and paintings, though rarely in her sculpture.
In her current show at Diane Brown, Knight has attempted to combine both passions in a new cycle of work that has taken a distinctly folksy turn--straight into the barnyard. The gallery looks as if each of Knight's chickens, cats, horses and owls had somehow gotten into her studio, chosen a favorite sculpture to perch on, and just stayed. It does not make for the best show Knight has ever had.
Some animals have formed more successful liaisons with their wooden "bases" than others. "Small Black Mammal" carved from marble, for example, is most endearingly huddled under a protective arch of laminated bent oak, making an expressive ensemble over which the artist--rather than the rabbit--seems to have exercised ultimate esthetic control. The "Running Horse" also has found a most fortuitous perch in front of a wavy bit of carved wood, suggesting a broad meadow to romp in. This work incorporates the sort of minimal landscape reference Knight has always been good at conjuring.
Several long-legged birds, however, have made most unfortunate landings in front of coffin-like boxes that look ready to slam shut on them if they don't move--and fast. Other pieces--notably those featuring the ceramic heads of kitty-cats--are most appropriate to their barnyard theme: pure corn.
There's no reason why figuration and abstraction can't be meaningfully combined; Knight herself has made superb sculpture in the past by combining natural and man-made forms. In this case, however, she seems to be caught in the early stages of finding her way to new terrain. Her experiments with hand-held, scepter-like pieces with animals on top could be a step in the right direction. The show continues through May 6, and hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays.