John Henry in Chicago

Victor M. Cassidy

John Henry's "Bridgeport" (1984)

What’s a sculptor to do? Sculpture is tough to sell: most dealers won’t touch it. Marketing on one’s own is a chore and a distraction. Problems multiply as the sculptor’s scale increases.

But wait—can’t sculptors get Percent for Art commissions? Don’t they place big pieces in airports and plazas nowadays? And don’t we have three outdoor sculpture parks nearby—the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park in University Park; the Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park; and Purdue North Central in Westville, Indiana—full of work by local artists?

True, but forty years ago there was hardly any demand for large-scale sculpture by living artists. John Henry and other sculptors pioneered that market, starting in Chicago and expanding all over the US. Since then, Henry has placed more than 2,000 of his works all over the world. John Henry, a newly-published monograph from Ruder Finn Press in New York, tells this story and accompanies it with fabulous photographs of the artist’s work. Included is a DVD with a filmed account of Henry in action.

Construction Skills

John Henry was the son of a construction contractor and learned very young how to run a bulldozer, operate a crane, and weld metal. Originally a painter, he started to make sculpture while he was a student at the University of Kentucky. He graduated from Kentucky in 1965 and moved to Chicago a year later where he had a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute.

Gregarious by nature, Henry rapidly made connections in Chicago, with artists and the art establishment. Soon he was showing around the area, selling a piece from time to time, and putting bread on the table by supervising small construction projects. In 1967-68, he became studio assistant to the sculptor Steve Urry, who also worked big. Henry and Urry were Chicago’s only monumental sculptors in those days but many others wanted to make large-scale pieces too.

During the late 1960s, Henry teamed with his peers to organize exhibitions of their work in public settings. Eight American Sculptors, a path breaking show, took place at Equitable Plaza in downtown Chicago during October and November of 1968. Henry, Urry, Richard Hunt, Jerald Jacquard, Edvins Strautmanis, Mark di Suvero, Michael Steiner, and Michael Hall participated. For the first time, Chicago’s public saw what local sculptors could do.

Detail of Henry's "Bridgeport" (1984)

History worked in the artists’ favor. On August 15, 1967, Mayor Daley dedicated an untitled 50 ft tall monumental sculpture by Pablo Picasso in downtown Chicago. This work, which has since become a Chicago icon, was the first of many large-scale sculptures by Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Jean Dubuffet, Jaume Plensa, Anish Kapoor, and others to go up downtown. Essentially, the City of Chicago and local artists collaborated to win a public for monumental sculpture.

Soon after he finished school, Henry found teaching at the University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. Though he was often out of town, he kept in touch with Chicago. In 1970, he and Richard Hunt purchased an abandoned high-ceilinged Chicago Transit Authority substation building on Lill Street, which they turned into a studio. Hunt still works there.

During those years, Henry sold large-scale sculptures to the City of Rockford, the Illinois State Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art, Central Florida University, and other buyers. He coordinated Chicago’s Art in the Park exhibition, showing his work and that of others in Grant Park. He also participated in Sculpture Off the Pedestal, an important group exhibition of monumental works at the Grand Rapids Museum of Art—and in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Construct Gallery

In 1977, Henry and Mark di Suvero, Jerry Peart, Charles Ginniver, Linda Howard, Lyman Kipp, Kenneth Snelson, and Frank McGuire founded Construct Gallery in Chicago, a for-profit venture that showed artist members and toured group exhibitions. Construct Gallery lasted for ten years and helped to establish large-scale sculpture all over the United States.

John Henry's "Arris" (1975)

In 1978, the Chicago City Council approved the Percent for Art Ordinance, which stipulates that 1.33% of the cost of constructing or renovating municipal buildings and public spaces be devoted to original artwork on the premises. The Ordinance also stipulates that at least half of the commissions be awarded to Chicago area artists. Chicago was one of the first cities to pass such an ordinance; we now have more than 200 nationwide. Percent for Art put public sculpture in many more places than it had ever been seen before—and put money into the pockets of sculptors. Henry and his colleagues had helped to create the climate in which Percent for Art became possible.

By 1980, Henry was spending more and more time in Florida where he found generous patrons and could work outdoors all winter. After some years in Florida, he moved to Kentucky, and then to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he now employs roughly twenty people to help him build large sculptures and manage worldwide gallery relationships. Early this year, Henry was commissioned to build a 302-foot-tall illuminated steel sculpture in a public park along the Baltimore waterfront. Work on this project—a sculpture that’s taller than the Statue of Liberty– will begin in 2012.

A Passionate Photographer

Detail of Henry's "Arris" (1975)

As one would expect with an art monograph John Henry is filled with color photographs. What makes this book special is that David Finn has photographed key Henry pieces from multiple angles, which greatly amplifies our understanding of them. Finn, who is Founder and Chairman of Ruder Finn, the public relations firm, has photographed sculpture for years and published several books of his work.

Two pieces that got the Finn treatment are located in downtown Chicago, which makes them accessible. Bridgeport (1984), the first of these, is the blue-gray aluminum sculpture, 35 ft high by 25 ft long by 15 ft wide that we see in the lobby of the James Thompson Center. Finn publishes five color photographs of Bridgeport from different angles, essentially walking the reader around it. He also provides ten detail shots, which show how the sculpture was made—and suggest some of Henry’s influences. Overall, Bridgeport recalls the visionary drawings and paintings of the Russian Avant-Garde, Tatlin in particular, but what the Russians dreamed, Henry built. The details suggest a Franz Kline influence—remember that Henry started out as a painter. A closer look at the photographs (visit the original too!) suggests that Henry’s work succeeds because he takes great care with scaling and proportioning each element in his sculptures.

The second Henry sculpture in downtown Chicago is Arris (1975), an aluminum piece painted bright yellow that’s 12 ft high by 50 ft long by 15 ft wide. Arris, which is located at the corner of Cermak Road, Calumet Avenue and King Drive at the entrance of the McCormick Center, looks like some fantastic crawling insect. Finn’s four full-sized and nine detail shots of Arris suggest the many ways that Henry works with positive and negative space in this piece. Illinois Landscape #5(1976), a cousin to Arris, is located at the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park thirty miles south of the Chicago Loop.

In addition to the photographs, John Henry also includes an essay by Steve Luecking that sets the work in historic context, David Finn’s interview with the artist, a short essay by David Levy, and translations (into four languages!!) of the essays. John Henry sets a new standard for art books. By all means read it, but better yet, visit the work. Just get on the bus—it’s that easy.