Visitors to Old Westbury Gardens’ new Seward Johnson exhibition may feel the urge to touch, take photos with or even strike up a conversation with the artist’s famously lifelike sculptures, 38 of which will be on display this summer at the former Gold Coast estate.
And that’s not only OK with the sculptor, it’s also part of the appeal of his work, says Paula Stoeke, curator for The Seward Johnson Atelier in Santa Monica, California, and Hamilton, New Jersey, a nonprofit that owns and manages 425 of Johnson’s works.
Art lovers will have a chance to meet the artist at “An Evening With Seward Johnson,” which kicks off the exhibit on June 16 at 7 p.m. at Old Westbury Gardens. Johnson, 87, who has produced more than 425 sculptures and is still working, divides his time between homes in New Jersey and Key West, Florida. Johnson “truly feels that the interaction with people is part of his art,” Stoeke says. Passers-by have been known to stop and ask directions of Johnson’s figures in public spaces, then do a double take when they realize they’re talking to a statue, she adds.
ALMOST TOO REAL
You may think — for a moment, at least — that it’s a real live girl sitting on a bench in the garden and reading a newspaper, or that those are actual dancers kicking up their heels in the grass outside the main house.
But they’re really cast bronze pieces from Johnson’s “Celebrating the Familiar” series, which depicts people engaged in everyday activities, and “Beyond the Frame,” which re-creates scenes of famous works of Impressionist art by Monet, Manet, Van Gogh and Renoir.
The sculptures will spread across 80 acres of the gardens and also will be displayed in Westbury House, the Gold Coast mansion that has stood on the property since 1906. Visitors can encounter the installations in the walled garden, by the colonnade pool, the big beech tree, the rose garden, the primrose path and the lake trail.
“Some of them are very large, with multiple sculptures. Some will be on hills,” says Nancy Costopulos, Old Westbury Gardens’ president. “You might be strolling along the wooden walk and come upon one of the sculptures, something fun and interesting that interacts with the garden.”
ART AS LANDSCAPE
The Old Westbury exhibit is a return to Long Island for Johnson, whose works have been exhibited at the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor. His lifelike sculptures also are on permanent display outdoors on the Hofstra University campus.
“As an artist working in the public realm, I have always been focused on sculptures fitting into the landscape. This show accentuates that challenge,” Johnson said via email.
He hopes visitors will wander the property and discover his sculptures along their way. “Hopefully, the pieces will be an enticement to socialize, to interact and will incite conversations between strangers, and if I’m lucky, maybe even arguments,” he said.
To learn how Johnson creates his sculptures, an indoor exhibit features sketches of live models used for the statues, clay scale models and the wires Johnson used to cast his full-size sculptures.
Says Costopulos, “It is a spectacularly beautiful gardens and historic property, and now a visitor can come and, whether you’ve been there before or not, you will encounter . . . and be surprised by Seward Johnson’s art.”
Seward Johnson exhibition
WHEN | WHERE Exhibit 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (closed Tuesdays) June 16-Sept. 4, and “An Evening With Seward Johnson,” 7 p.m. June 16, Old Westbury Gardens
INFO 516-333-0048, oldwestburygardens.org
ADMISSION $12 ($7 ages 7-17) for the exhibit; $30 for the “Evening” meet-and-greet (reservations required)