Statue of Limitations

A Center City icon is on the move.

By Jesse Smith
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 13, 2005

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As if Center City sidewalks weren't crowded enough, pedestrians on 17th Street have long faced another foe-the bronze businessman, umbrella in hand, just outside Anthropologie's (and Urban Outfitters') main offices at 17th and Locust streets.

But in late May the oft-maligned statue, a J. Seward Johnson work titled Allow Me, disappeared. And to the chagrin of those who routinely molested the immovable man by placing cigarette butts, onion rings or trash between his open fingers, he won't be returning to his shady sidewalk spot.

Joseph Shine, who owns the statue and the building whose entrance it once flanked, recently donated the work to the Prince Music Theater, and though it's not yet on display, a pedestal is in the works. The Chestnut Street theater hopes to place the statue under its marquee in about a month.

Allow Me is part of a larger family of cast bronze figures Johnson has been making since 1968. The group includes gardeners, a fisherman, a man taking a break from mowing to wipe his brow, and a scantily clad sunbather, among other life-size human forms.

Philly's work is just one in a series of seven casts. Chicago, Portland, Ore., and Bath, N.Y., all have copies of Allow Me on public display; the remaining three are in private collections in Los Angeles, Port Smith, Ark., and Hamilton, Ohio.

Johnson makes each piece to order, and creates as many as seven casts before destroying the mold in a ceremony attended by the statues' purchasers.

Though Philly has just one Johnson sculpture, the artist enjoys a Thomas Kinkade-like popularity around the world, with works on display in Istanbul, Hong Kong, Paris, Osaka and Sydney.

Paula Stoeke, director of the Sculpture Foundation, to whom Johnson has gifted past and all future works, credits the $120,000 sculptures' lifelike nature for their popularity among both private collectors and public art programs.

"Johnson's casts mirror the human experience. They fool people," she says. "Hyperrealism is the key of their popularity."

The foundation's fawning website identifies the Princeton, N.J., sculptor-an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune-as "a charming and philosophical man, with a tendency toward irreverent wit," and creates the image of a true renaissance man.

The website goes on to say that when he's not sculpting, Johnson heads an oceanographic research institute and a science magazine. He also founded an off-Broadway theater.

Apparently his works' popularity isn't lost on the confident artist. According to the site, Johnson "loves to anonymously loiter around his public sculptures and make negative remarks to fellow viewers of the art to see what the real response to his work is! He loves to get into the position of having the stranger unwittingly defend the sculpture to this 'hostile' art critic."

Johnson will soon have the opportunity to do that again in Philly. At least after he picks the trash out from between his sculpture's fingers.

 

Jesse Smith (editmail@philadelphiaweekly.com) last wrote about a missing Larry Fine mural on South Street.

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