Can Johnny Come Out and Play?, 1990–1991
Jim Love, American, 1927–2005
70 in. diameter (177.8 cm)
Museum commission funded by Caroline Wiess Law in memory of Theodore N. Law
Habits of Mind
- UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
James Franklin Love was born in Amarillo, Texas, in 1927. In 1948 he enrolled at Baylor University on the GI bill. During his last semester, Love took a theater class which ignited a love for the arts. Although his degree was in business administration, when Love moved to Houston he instead began working in theatrical lighting and set design. It was while constructing the set for The Glass Menagerie at the Alley Theatre that he learned to weld. Soon after taking a job as a technician for the Contemporary Arts Association in 1956, Love exhibited his first sculptures—hieroglyphic screens made from cut scrap steel. By the end of the decade, Love was constructing small whimsical sculptures of birds, human figures, and flower bouquets assembled from machine parts, tools, and scraps of steel.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Love began experimenting with small sculptures, narrative and anecdotal tableaux, and a series of what he called “almost useful objects,” such as bowties and jacks. In the 1990s he began to mix and meld newly fabricated steel with found materials and scrap metal. Although his materials and methods continue to evolve, the elegant abstract geometry of his work gives it a quality of timelessness.
Can Johnny Come Out and Play? is a cast-bronze sphere, almost 9 feet in diameter, commissioned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden. The seemingly mundane form of a sphere, though giant in scale, is quietly placed in a corner of the garden and seems essentially benign. But closer inspection discloses a dark, blotchy, distressed surface which—when juxtaposed with its playful title—suggests a series of ambiguous meanings. To some, the colossal ball might be viewed as a child would see the huge and intimidating world of adults. For others, the rough surface looks something like a cratered meteor or the planet earth. Its planetary size and form could also allude to the global political power plays contending in the world. Perhaps the work is actually a toy globe for giants of the cosmos to play with!
In 1990 Love was the first Texas artist to receive a commission to create a sculpture for the recently opened Cullen Sculpture Garden. He decided to depart from his style of mostly representational assembled steel sculptures and create a piece that would respond to the more abstract sculptures already existing in the garden. Dr. Peter C. Marzio, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, explained Love’s thinking in a 1990 Houston Chronicle article: “...in his mind, the garden is like a surrealist landscape, so he just walked in my office one day with the idea of plunking this huge ball in it.”
After deciding to make his sculpture in the shape of a sphere, Love constructed a full-scale fiberglass model. He then physically rolled the model around the sculpture garden to determine the best installation site for the finished piece. Can Johnny Come Out and Play? Lies in a grassy patch in the northwest corner of the garden.
- What words would you use to describe this object?
- What is this object’s relationship to the space around it? To your body? If you are in a classroom and having trouble imagining its size, it is 70 inches in diameter. Have the class roughly measure out and represent that space.
- Look closely at the surface of the sphere. What does it remind you of? What words would you use to describe it?
- How does this object make you feel? Consider the size, material, and texture. What effect do you think the artist was intending to have?
- Dr. Peter C. Marzio, director of the MFAH when it commissioned this artwork, commented that Jim Love viewed the garden as a “giant surrealist landscape”. Does the large sense of scale of Love’s sculpture make the viewer feel like a child?
- Love’s other public artworks include giant steel jacks, a large bear, and a large steel airplane fitted with a handle. Do you think Can Johnny Come Out and Play? Is a representational work of art as well? Why or why not?
- Think about texture and the way it can reflect light. What are some of light’s effects upon, or surrounding, textural objects? Write down what you could do to a basic bronze form to convey multiple meanings through textural choices.
- Use the spherical shape and 70-inch diameter of Can Johnny Come Out and Play? to discuss mass, volume, circumference, and surface area. Do you find that the mathematical elements inherent in this work add to your appreciation?
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider