Tucked in an unlikely location amid warehouses, industrial facilities, and modest row homes, Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton Township, N.J. is a 42-acre oasis that invites visitors to encounter more than 270 artworks cleverly placed throughout its landscape.
Six indoor galleries host changing exhibits by emerging and established artists. There are programs for all ages, a full calendar of special events and a range of dining options. Open year-round and easily accessible via major highways or train, Grounds For Sculpture is the ideal day trip for anyone in our region.
The site owes its existence to sculptor and philanthropist J. Seward Johnson, whose famous trompe l’oeil painted bronzes depict figures in lifelike settings. Now 88, Johnson also founded the Seward Johnson Atelier, which promotes education and appreciation of public art. In 1984, he looked at the property adjacent to the Atelier—the former site of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds—and envisioned a public sculpture garden and museum that would help people from all backgrounds get comfortable with contemporary art. Construction began in 1989, and Grounds For Sculpture opened to the public in 1992 with 15 works on display. Since 2000, it’s been a public not-for-profit corporation overseen by a board of trustees.
It’s difficult to imagine the barren, weedy terrain that Seward and his enthusiastic partners started with. Today, the garden features allées of maple and river birch, a bridge reminiscent of Monet’s at Giverny, a wisteria pergola, grassy areas, forested spaces and water features, as well as a warming hut and a bamboo observation tower. If you sense movement, it might be one of the resident peacocks strutting by.
The garden would be a pleasant enough diversion on its own— add several hundred sculptures set harmoniously in their surroundings, and it becomes truly memorable. There is no set route; visitors are allowed to wander and discover. As docent Volker Arendt told me, the layout is designed to encourage people to “go behind the first thing. If there’s a door, see if it opens. After you look at one side of something, look at the other side. And remember, you don’t have to like everything.”
That’s valuable advice when there’s so much to see. From Red Grooms’ fanciful 2002 cast, “Henry Moore in a Sheep Meadow,” to the aluminum “Two Face Telescope” by Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas, to Peter Woytuk’s sprawling bronzes, “Bull #4” and “Bull #5,” the variety of materials, styles, scale and techniques is astonishing.
Seward Johnson’s own figures are some of the most fun. “I want my work to disappear into the landscape and then take a viewer by surprise,” Johnson has said. “After he gets over the shock of being fooled, it becomes an emotional discovery.”
And fooled you’ll be. Your first reaction when coming across a couple deep in conversation or a young girl reading a book in the grass may be, “Oh, excuse me!” even as the realization dawns that you’re talking to a sculpture. Pieces from Johnson’s Celebrating the Familiar series regularly evoke that response, as do works from his Impressionist-inspired series Beyond the Frame, which consists of elaborate tableaux that allow viewers to walk into the scenes of familiar Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings.
A delightful aspect of Grounds For Sculpture is that you’re permitted to touch and interact with most of the outdoor sculptures. Take Johnson’s “Were You Invited?” inspired by Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 19th-century masterpiece, “The Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Viewers can actually join the action and mingle with the diners, fulfilling Johnson’s goal to create an intimacy with the painting that the painting itself doesn’t allow.
One of the four figures seated at a nearby table represents Johnson himself. And an art gallery director is portrayed as a bouncer demanding, “Were you invited?”
Grounds For Sculpture’s indoor galleries host changing exhibits. “Masayuki Koorida: Sculpture” is now on view in the Museum Building. A short video, Power of Stone, explains Koorida’s interest in mathematics, geometry and natural processes. His sculptures can take up to two years to create. The show includes large-scale works in granite and marble, in addition to small playful works in stainless steel and acrylic.
Other current exhibits are “Michael Rees: Synthetic Cells,” which combines augmented reality and inflatable vinyl sculptures; “James Carl: oof,” a monumental wall relief inspired by the egg carton; and “James Carl: woof,” which should win an award for the most creative use of venetian blinds.
First-time visitors may find the sheer number of sculptures overwhelming. Signage at each piece presents only the title, artist and medium, and because rambling is encouraged it’s easy to forget where you saw what. If you want to know more about a particular piece, make a note of the number, take a picture, and look it up on the website later. Better yet, return to Grounds For Sculpture for a free docent-led tour to learn more. It’s a gem that deserves revisiting. o
Grounds For Sculpture, 80 Sculptors Way, Hamilton Township, N.J., (609) 586-0616, www.groundsforsculpture.org. Free one-hour outdoor tours, one-hour indoor tours, and 75-minute HortiSculpture tours available on a walk-in basis; call day of arrival to check availability.