Statues of a LibertinE

Art imitates life. Life imitates art.

Unconditional Surrender was one of the first pieces in Seward “Bigly” Johnson’s ‘Icons Revisited’ series, which also includes Forever Marilyn, viewed by many as highly exploitative, and a nude Barbie on a half-shell patterned after Venus.

With ‘Icons Revisited’, sculptor Seward Johnson captures images that have held their impact over generations, becoming embedded in our collective subconscious. The series asks the viewer to consider why certain images stay with us, and how their meaning changes over time. As always, the artist encourages the dialogue that public art should inspire, inviting varied interpretations and opinions.

Like a perverse puppeteer or dark-side Disney imagineer, Johnson used the world as his salacious stage, casting passerby in starring roles in play-along panty peeping and romanticized monumental marauding.

Seward Johnson with Unconditional Surrender in Times Square

Icons Revisited asks provocative questions concerning society’s embrace of particular visual icons, and their impact and shift of message over time.

— Seward Johnson

About Seward Johnson

Like his statues, Johnson was a colorful character

Seward Johnson and one of his mannequins

Known for the trompe-l’œil statues he copied from famous artists’ images, J. Seward Johnson Jr. (1930-2020) was the grandson of Robert Wood Johnson I, cofounder of Johnson & Johnson.

He attended the Forman School for dyslexics, and the University of Maine, where he majored in poultry husbandry before dropping out and serving a stint in the Navy during the Korean conflict.

Disinherited by his father, and fired from a desk job at J&J by his uncle, Johnson accidentally shot the gumshoe he’d hired to spy on his first wife for her adulterous behavior. His second wife encouraged his interest in sculpture after Johnson discovered he could not draw.

Johnson often placed his lifelike sculptures on benches and street corners so as to integrate his inanimate subjects into the bustling world around them.

His Beyond the Frame series was condemned as “prankster art” which left a bad impression when two dimensional  paintings were morphed into full-color sculptural dioramas into which viewers could immerse themselves.

Seeking to one-up his friend and fellow appropriation artist Jeffrey Koons, Johnson then turned his attention to iconic images of Americana, including the oft-derided Forever Marilyn (for which Johnson ultimately licensed the imagery he borrowed from The Seven Year Itch from 20th Century Fox).

For Unconditional Surrender, which Johnson considered the masterpiece of “his” oversized oeuvre Icons Revisited, he deliberately violated Alfred Eisenstaedt’s creative rights, and Time, Inc.’s copyright to V-J Day in Times Square.

Purloining Pictures

Life imitates art quipped Seward Johnson regarding the oversized figurines copied by a machine and produced in China at his behest, and perhaps also alluding to his own aping of more acclaimed copyright scofflaw who have blurred the lines between creation and conscription.

Johnson made an eye-popping pirated statue of a sailor, and it is in keeping with his fondness for double-meaning that the term "piracy" has been in use for centuries as a synonym for acts of copyright infringement that involve the unauthorized manufacture of commercial goods derived from copyright protected works.

For Unconditional Surrender there is good reason to believe that Johnson was copying the original "King of Kitsch," Jeffrey Koons, who pioneered the idea of swiping and colorizing a two dimensional black and white image into a three-dimensional statue produced by a machine with his famous copyright test case: Rogers v. Koons.

Koons and Johnson knew one another, and Koons cast some of his works at the Johnson Atelier, before buying the stone-working elements of the operation. Koons still works with the technologists and artisans at the 3-D printing offshoot from Seward Johnson's operation.

Perhaps wishing to see his Icons Revisted dialogue with, or even best the more critically-accepted Koons' series Banality, rather than stealing an obscure copyright-protected photograph, Johnson chose to appropriate one of the most famous images of the twentieth century: Alfred Eisenstaedt's V-J-Day in Times Square.

American Icons

A cultural icon is a person or an artifact that is identified by members of a culture as representative of that culture. The process of identification is subjective, and "icons" are judged by the extent to which they can be seen as an authentic symbol of that culture.

In 1997, art and architecture critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times that the reason the imagery in V-J Day in Times Square became iconic was because composition of the Eisenstaedt photograph reflected the overall zeitgeist: the sailor representing returning troops, the nurse representing those who would welcome them home, and Times Square standing for home.

In other words, both the setting (bustling New York City) and the framing (with two figures poised between parallel skyscrapers) were important to the picture’s lasting power.

Pirate Piracy

Copyright is a type of intellectual property that gives its owner the exclusive right to copy and distribute a creative work, usually for a limited time. The creative work may be in a literary, artistic, educational, or musical form. Copyright is intended to protect the original expression of an idea in the form of a creative work.

Seward Johnson eagerly walked the plank onto the late twentieth century trend toward art appropriation, and reveled in thumbing his nose at creative rights by adulterating the imagery of acclaimed artists. Indeed, he went so far as to name another of his pieces Copyright Violation.

When he fabricated Unconditional Surrender, Johnson worked closely with an intellectual property attorney to try and skirt copyright by adding romantic flowers to the statue in place of the purse Greta protected during the encounter, and introducing extra flare to the "nurse's" skirit to offer a peek-a-boo moment to the loving couples unwittingly emulating the domination pose, as well as a potential parody or transformation defense.

Denying ALL credit to Alfred Eisenstaedt for his indelible and zealously-protected masterwork, Johnson claimed that his statue was derived not from the iconic picture which appeared in LIFE magazine, but rather, from an obscure public domain photograph of the same pair taken by Navy photographer Victor Jorgensen. Notably, the Jorgensen picture is taken from a different angle, without compositional elements so essential to Eisenstaedt's imagery.

Moreover, in the Jorgensen photo does NOT include the legs of the figures - a signature of the submission pose when the sailor bent the "nurse" to his will. Perhaps hoping to argue the mythical "20% rule" of fair use in copyright, Johnson allowed that perhaps he had "extrapolated" the figures' lower legs and footwear from a dusty memory of Eisenstaedt photo.

Although Johnson forbade the city of Sarasota from acknowledging the source, or licensing the rights to reproduce a version of the copyrighted Life photo, his "methinks he doth protest too much" claims about his inpiration were belayed by his public confession, two years in advance of crafting the first clone, to the New York Times that he intended to fabricate a statue based on the Eisenstaedt photo.