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J. Seward Johnson Jr., Sculptor of the Hyper-Real, Dies at 89

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J. Seward Johnson Jr., a sculptor who may be responsible for more double takes than anyone in history thanks to his countless lifelike creations in public places — a businessman in downtown Manhattan, surfers at a Florida beach, a student eating a sandwich on a curb in Princeton, N.J. — died on Wednesday at his home in Key West, Fla. He was 89.

His family said through a spokesman that the cause was cancer.

Mr. Johnson had another distinction besides his art. As a member of the family that founded Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical and consumer products giant, he was one of six siblings who, in a high-profile court case in the 1980s, sought to overturn his father’s will, which left his vast fortune to a former maid, Barbara Piasecka Johnson, whom the senior Mr. Johnson had married late in life. A settlement was reached just before the case went to the jury, giving the children a share of the estate but leaving most of it to Mrs. Johnson.

But more enduring were the sculptures, which often caught passers-by unawares; many would pause for a closer look and, in the cellphone age, a picture. One sculpture in particular became something more than a curiosity. It was a work Mr. Johnson called “Double Check”: a seated businessman reviewing the contents of his briefcase.

The sculpture was in Liberty Park near the World Trade Center when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, left the area in ruins. Many other artworks in the buildings and outside were destroyed that day, but the man with the briefcase, though knocked off his perch, survived, covered in debris.

The sculpture is so lifelike that firefighters are said to have tried to rescue it. It became a makeshift memorial — a symbol of endurance to some, a reminder of the bodies never recovered to others. In 2006 it was installed in the newly named Zuccotti Park, not far from its original spot.

“I thought of him as a businessman Everyman — with his briefcase — getting ready for his next appointment, and people identified with him,” Mr. Johnson told The New York Times in 2005. “So when he survived, it was as if he was one of them — surviving as well.”

John Seward Johnson Jr. was born on April 16, 1930, in New Brunswick, N.J. His father was the son of one of the founders of Johnson & Johnson. His mother, Ruth Dill Johnson, was a native of Bermuda whose father had been Bermuda’s attorney general.

Mr. Johnson, by his own admission a poor student, was sent to the Forman School in Litchfield, Conn.

“It was a place for dyslexics,” he told The Times in 2002, “although we weren’t called that then.”

He tried college at the University of Maine, where he studied poultry husbandry. (“It was the only thing they’d let me into,” he said.) Then, in 1951, he joined the Navy.

After leaving the Navy in 1955 he took a management job in the family company, but a troubled first marriage, to Barbara Kline, proved distracting. He is said to have hired private detectives to raid his own house in the middle of the night hoping to catch her in an indiscretion; she was alone, thought the detectives were intruders and shot one of them, injuring him.

Soon after their divorce in 1964, Mr. Johnson married Cecelia Joyce Horton, who got him interested in art. Sometimes they would paint together, although he wasn’t very good at it.

“I didn’t like what I could do with paint,” he told The Times, “so my wife suggested sculpture because I had some mechanical ability.”

He took some classes and made his first piece, in stainless steel. It won a contest sponsored by U.S. Steel.

“I thought, oh gee, this is great, maybe sculpture isn’t so bad after all,” Mr. Johnson told the newspaper U.S. 1 in 2002. “I never won anything after that.”

In 1974 Mr. Johnson established the Johnson Atelier in Hamilton, N.J., a sculpture school and foundry where artisans helped fabricate his sculptures as well as those of other artists, including George Segal and Joel Shapiro. The foundry operated until 2004.

In 1984 Mr. Johnson created Grounds for Sculpture, a 42-acre sculpture park on a former fairground in Hamilton. Some of Mr. Johnson’s trompe l’oeil works are there, surprising visitors as they wander the property, but much of the work is by others, with abstract and other genres well represented.

“Seward is the artist that everybody loves to hate,” David Levy, director of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, said in 2005, a reference to those who dismiss his work as kitsch. “But quietly and selflessly, he is an enormously important citizen of art.”

Not all of Mr. Johnson’s sculptures are as realistic as “Double Check” or “Out to Lunch,” the sandwich eater on the curb in Princeton.

One of his best-known works is “The Awakening,” a 15-foot-high depiction of a giant struggling to emerge from the earth. For years it was at Hains Point in Washington, though about a decade ago it was moved to Prince George’s County in Maryland. Another well-known piece, which exists in several versions, is “Unconditional Surrender,” a 25-foot-high re-creation of the famous V-J Day photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square.

Mr. Johnson also made a series of works called “Beyond the Frame,” three-dimensional translations of 18th- and 19th-century paintings by Manet, Renoir and others. An exhibition of those works at the Corcoran in 2003 did not impress Blake Gopnik, who reviewed the show for The Washington Post.

“Bad art is made every day, by tens and hundreds of thousands of well-meaning people,” he wrote, “and this is just more of the same. It’s not shameful; it just happens to be hideous and dumb.”

Mr. Johnson seemed unbothered that the art world sometimes dismissed his work.

“Most people who like my work are timid about their own sense of art,” he told The Times. “I love to draw it out of them, because they have strong inner feelings. They’ve been intimidated by the art world.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Johnson is survived by a son, John Seward Johnson III; a daughter, India Blake; and five grandchildren.

Several other Johnson works are part of the landscape of Princeton besides “Out to Lunch,” which is in Palmer Square in the center of town. There is, for instance, “The Newspaper Reader,” near Trinity Church. A seated man — Mr. Johnson envisioned him as a conservative fellow, as evidenced by his tie and wingtips — is reading The Times. Mr. Johnson cast the newspaper pages from mats used by the newspaper in the printing process.

The issue in the man’s hands is dated March 22, 1974. But on the bench beside him is the newspaper of Aug. 9, 1974. You’ve probably seen it: Its lead headline, in gigantic type, says, “Nixon Resigns.”

In a 1975 interview, Mr. Johnson said he had already completed the metalwork when that news broke; he felt he had to add the August newspaper to the scene as a nod to history.

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