American Gothic, Grant Wood’s portrait of a farmer and his unwed daughter in the agrarian Midwest, is one of America’s most famous paintings. The dour visages and stark, Northern Renaissance-influenced style ushered in the Regionalist period later parodied through the ages of pop culture. And now, it’s back, this time not just spoofed, but completely ripped off in a three-dimensional version called “God Bless America” in Chicago’s Pioneer Plaza. Whether you see Wood’s original painting as a satire of repressed Midwestern society or a glorification of its moral virtue, we doubt any of the visitors posing for pictures aside the sculpture are analyzing it much at all. Though perhaps, in the grand scheme of public art, that’s not such a bad thing.
The artist J. Seward Johnson Jr., grandson of the Johnson & Johnson founder and an heir to the family’s immense medical supplies fortune, has been making sculptures since the early 1970s, according to a revealing New York Times profile from 2002. Seward has “placed over 500 of his works — about $21 million worth, according to Paula Stoeke, who manages the foundation that places and sells his works — with municipalities, hotels, airports, corporations, schools and private collections.”
Seward certainly isn’t immune to critical barbs in spite of (or perhaps because of) his wealth. Art critic Robert Hughes once wrote, “Johnson’s work is chocolate-box rubbish. It has no imaginative component that I can see and apparently appeals to dull corporate minds like his own — the sort of people who run American motels and malls.” Zing!
However, no matter how lowbrow it may seem within an academic setting, public art should be engaging to the, well, public. Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Johnson describes the effect of Johnson’s giant remake: “Stand for a time and watch people come upon the sculpture. You see, mostly, stops, smiles and, in short order, snapshots. People clamber over the suitcase that the sculptor has placed at the pair’s feet — an addition to the painting, which stops at the waist. They kneel on the sidewalk to try to photograph the statue heads amid the towering hotels and office buildings around them.” Sounds like a hit.
That isn’t to say that artistic integrity should take a backseat, something Chicago should well know by now after the success of critically-praised and universally-appreciated works like Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor and Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa in nearby Millennium Park, as well as a Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, and Calder’s Flamingo in Federal Plaza.
We heard some strong feelings over the repair of Ben van Berkel’s pavilion for the park; what do you think of Seward’s contribution to public art in Chicago? Easily digestible schlock or cause for delight among residents and visitors alike?