John Henry – Mostly Red

American sculptor John Henry has long been recognized as the artist who can transform the simplest of forms into complex visual statements.  His monumental abstract sculptures interrupt the many locations in which they are placed, not in an intrusive way, but as an unusual kind of juxtaposition that results in a unique relationship not easily found between art and its environment.  Whether they are situated in the land or as part of a cityscape, John Henry’s angled forms challenge notions of balance and equilibrium.  Always interested in the way shapes fit together, over the years he has experimented with geometric forms ranging from the tubular to flat slabs to three-dimensional.  A formalist at heart, his concern for line, shape and form is essential to the structure that is the basis of his work and the varied angles that define their recognizable configuration.  It has always been important to him that the viewer sees the shapes and how they fit together, as much as the architectonic features that result.  One of the ways that he is able to focus on the structural arrangement of his abstract formations is to concentrate on one color for each, rather than using several colors, which would distract from their geometry and the environment in which placed.  After much experimentation with materials (some retaining their metallic surface, such as aluminum or steel), and different gradations of tone, he realized that primary colors best suited the key elements and aesthetics of his pieces. 

Color had to provide a contrast, not get lost in the surroundings, attract attention and invite viewer interaction.  With the work as the main focus, color could enhance the experience and lure one to walk around, see it from numerous perspectives, and even touch or climb.  This is not work for a pedestal, removed from the audience.  John Henry’s work summons awareness at a more intimate level, despite its often daunting scale, and the use of primary colors, with a penchant for red, facilitates such levels of engagement and is integral to the fully realized form in all its abstract objectivity.  Purified of everything extraneous to its own unique physicality, the sculpture retains its identification with the properties of pure primary colors, as it also reinforces their symbolic powers.  Red is the color of fire and passion, the most vibrant of colors.  He notes that some of our most noticeable (necessarily) objects are bright yellow – like fire hydrants; others are bright red, like STOP signs, and that primary colors (red, yellow, blue) cannot be made from mixing any other colors – they are absolute and complete, just as the mathematical simplicity of geometric shapes are absolute, exacting and inorganic. 

Henry projects his geometries on a colossal assertive scale, more like engineered structures, bridges or skyscrapers that suggest mathematical concepts toying with an erector set.  His vital forms reconcile issues of architecture with engineering through balance, cantilevered elements, and sheer ingenuity.  He also has a proclivity for working in series, maximizing the effectiveness of his structures with a builder’s cultivated sense of scale and interrelationships, and a fascination with tools, especially giant cranes and other machines necessary to facilitate the manipulation necessary to complete his projects.  Admitting to the influence of his family and their involvement in architecture and land development, both key to his work ethic, Henry was able to figure out how to make things fit and work together, how to design and assemble parts.[i]  It is no surprise that John Henry’s works seem so suited for the outside, as if growing a garden of metal blooms transformed into the simplicity of formally controlled stems and cantilevered spikes.  Their relationship, both within the unity of the whole and outside, is further established through the interaction of shapes and shadows, and positive and negative spaces.  As American sculptor Robert Morris wrote about the interest in today’s way of looking at the interrelations between an object and the space it inhabits: “Simplicity of space does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience…”[ii]  Although the shapes in John Henry’s works may appear as simple elements arranged like pick-up-sticks, there is no doubt that the concepts that drive his constructions are complex, and the visual experience enhanced by their energy. 

Carol Damian

Miami, 2013

[i] “John Henry Talks With David Finn,” in John Henry (New York: Ruder Finn Press, 2010), p.33.

[ii] Katherine Hoffman, Explorations: The Visual Arts Since 1945 (New York: Icon, 1945), p.163.