By Jeff Bahr
Are you an art lover? If so, you will simply adore the open-air exhibits found at Grounds for Sculpture, a unique outdoor display of artistic magnificence located just south of Trenton.
On the other hand, if the static viewing of art strikes you as an exercise in tedium – one almost guaranteed to bore you witless – you will still love this place.
Confused? You won’t be after your visit, I promise you. For this is the rare place where a surprise lurks at nearly every turn, and the overall experience is actually worth more than the price of admission – even for the non-artsy set.
From fairgrounds to sculpture grounds
The 42 acres of land where the sculpture garden is situated once comprised a portion of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds. From 1866 until 1980 — a pivotal year when urban decay and nearby Great Adventure amusement park finally delivered a one-two punch to the long-enduring enterprise, forcing its closure — the fair entertained and educated.
By the mid 1980s, things had grown worse still. The once vibrant grounds had become a downtrodden wasteland. The Domestic Arts Building, an ornate hall that had displayed handicrafts, needlework and other home arts to fairgoers since 1920, had become a vandals’ den, stripped of much of its unique decorative tiles and overrun by choking grasses and weeds. The same was true of the nearby Motor Exhibits Building.
Some deemed it the end of an era and wrote the fairgrounds off as a total loss. But not all. One man, with an abundance of creativity and vision (and more than a little clout) decided that something needed to be done.
J. Seward Johnson to the rescue
J. Seward Johnson (a controversial artist best known for his life-size bronze castings of living people) began eyeing the decaying site in 1987. To Seward, the former fairgrounds represented an unpolished diamond in the rough – precisely the type of place he’d dreamt of for a magnificent public sculpture garden.
After some behind-the-scenes wrangling, Johnson acquired a tract of land from the former fairgrounds and got busy. His vision came to life in 1992, when fifteen outdoor sculptures produced by thirteen area artists were presented to the public. An indoor museum was added to the grounds in 1993, and the Domestic Arts and Motor Exhibits Buildings – the very building that seemed doomed only a few years earlier was completely restored, tiles and all, and used to exhibit additional sculptures.
Grounds for Sculpture
Grounds for Sculpture has grown in leaps and bounds since those early days. The park now features over 250 works created by a bevy of distinguished artists including Clement Meadmore, Anthony Caro, Beverly Pepper, Kiki Smith, George Segal, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Isaac Witkin.
A Visitor’s Center at the new Seward Johnson Center for the Arts features an introductory film about the history of the park, conference and catering facilities and self-guided tour maps. In the film the narrator tells how Grounds for Sculpture represents many different things to many different people. This is indeed true. Because of its variety of something-foreveryone sculptures, the park has reached across cultural divides and attracted a wideranging audience.
In truth, visitors never know just what they’ll encounter next as they walk the grounds (trust me!), but odds are they will find something that appeals to their senses. Beautiful trees, grasses and flowers abound at the park and captivate at a level at least on a par with the sculptures themselves. It is this interplay of cultivated natural setting and man-made works that truly defines Grounds for Sculpture.
A fanciful impression of French Impressionists
When I was younger, I had little regard for the muchballyhooed French Impressionists (Monet, Manet, Renoire, etc.) and their “stuffy” paintings. To me, each canvas looked as if it had been painted by a person with vision problems. “Why is everything so muted, blurry and subdued?” I’d ask with mouth agape in total ignorance of what the artists had so brilliantly accomplished. “Couldn’t these guys see clearly?”
Then, as the years passed and my appreciation for subtlety and mood grew, these very same paintings began to speak to my soul. I’ve now come full-circle and become a genuine fan. I’m elated to report that Grounds for Sculpture pays homage to French Impressionism in a way not often seen or experienced. Allow me to give you my personal impressions (pun intended).
Imagine for a moment what it might be like to step into a sublime scene painted by one of the great masters. Could anything ever be so impossibly beautiful? Now, imagine forking over $12 (the current price for adult admission at the park), taking a short stroll and finding yourself smack, dab in the middle of impressionist paintings rendered by the likes of Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, and others.
A lily pond and bridge inspired by Monet and appropriately dubbed Monet’s Bridge is as arresting for its beauty as it is for its ingenuity. Small hidden valves emit a fine water mist that hangs low on the water imparting the perfect mood for the setting.
But it is Déjeuner Déjà Vu, a sculpture by Johnson — inspired by Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe — that truly captures me. Here, in lifelike scale is an uncanny representation of the famous scene depicting two near naked women and their curiously detached escorts. It’s as if someone snapped their fingers and Manet’s painting simply sprang to life.
Other sculptures include everything from the whimsical and stark to the crafty and obtuse. There are highfaluting offerings so staid and polished, the aristocracy would welcome them. Then there are those sculptures that might be considered “racy” by some. Finally, there are pieces that totally confound the senses and defy pat classification. In other words, there’s “art” to be found here, and oodles of it at that.
Hidden (in plain sight) surprises
There are sections of the park that are located off the beaten track, but ones worth the hunt. You will know that you’ve found the most bawdy of them when you encounter a full-sized contemporary male sculpture grasping a bra and other female accouterments in his hand. Just what is this smiling figure staring at so high up in the tree? Could it possibly be? Come and find out! There’s another bit of whimsy to be found beside the lake. Precisely where, you ask? Here’s a hint: Just follow the sounds of a running shower. Then, when you arrive, try your best not to blush!
A last hurrah
After a walking tour, there are a few more places for visitors to check out. The Toad Hall Shop and Gallery offers decorative jewelry and a changing selection of smallscale sculptures for sale.
The Domestic Arts Building feeds body and soul at its Peacock Café: a place where food and art intertwine to delight the senses.
When I visited, a living, breathing peacock stood just outside the window, oblivious to my presence.
And last but far from least, there is Rat’s. This highly rated French restaurant (with an unfortunate name) serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner indoors and outdoors. Located directly beside the Monet Bridge, Rats offers tasty country cuisine in a setting inspired by Monet’s beloved town of Giverny. Bon appétit!