Credit Line: Gift of Steven C. and Diane I. Boody. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Walk around Ice Blue, nestled among the shrubbery, on the east side of Gerdin Business Building. Gaze down on it from Gerdin’s first and second floor windows. Look up at it from Wallace Road. John Henry’s painted steel composition changes as the viewer’s position changes. From one viewpoint the 6 rods seem to fan out from the 2 rectangular elements anchoring the composition at its base. Walk a little further and the arrangement seems dynamic, like giant pick-up sticks stopped in mid-fall.
John Henry created Ice Blue in 2002 as a maquette or model in preparation for a larger sculpture. While this model is 11 feet tall, the larger artwork which evolved from it, is over 50 feet tall. The larger Ice Blue is now installed on the grounds of the Lincoln Plating plant in Lincoln Nebraska.
Henry, born in 1943, is internationally known for his large-scale sculptures created for museums and other public spaces. Whether they soar over 130 feet into the sky or sprawl 130 feet over the landscape, their relationship to the architecture and environment around them is important to Henry. He tends to work in series in which the current work builds on previous artworks and models in the series.
Early on Henry learned to weld and to operate cranes and bulldozers from his father, a construction contractor, so it was natural that he should adopt industrial materials and technology for his sculptures. Those materials and technology along with the monumental size of his sculptures present challenges; however, the designing, engineering, fabricating, and many assembling processes can be done in his studio in Chattanooga, Tennessee with assistance of a talented staff.
Ice Blue is an example of Abstract Expressionism. In this art movement, the subject is non-representational, materials are non-traditional or used in unexpected ways, and the scale is often large. As an abstract expressionist, Henry is driven to visually defy gravity and provide experiences of arrested motion to the viewer. He uses steel, yet projects a sense of elegance, immediacy, and lightness by manipulating the elements to achieve a feeling of harmony and balance. His sculptures are often described as “huge welded steel drawings”. He has been likened to “Zeus with a blow torch.” Imagine him tossing rods into the air and watching them fall, then sketching or making a model – making one rod a little longer, moving another one over a bit, and viewing it from all angles, paying particular attention to the positive and negative spaces before declaring it finished.
He is a prolific artist, having more than 2000 sculptures, large and small, in collections across the United States, Europe, and Asia. A few specific locations for his monumental sculptures include Chicago, IL; Pittsburgh, PA; Shenzhen, China; Hannover, Germany; and many locations in Florida. In 2005, recognizing his advocacy for the arts and especially Public Art in local and national arenas, the City of Chicago awarded him the honorary renaming of a Chicago street “John Henry Way”.
Written by Rae Reilly, University Museums Docent