John Henry Complexus 2007 Painted steel
John Henry, Complexus, 2007
Painted steel

John Henry


John Henry (1943 – 2022, Lexington, Kentucky) is acclaimed for his vibrant, monumental sculptures. Although recognized for his floating beams energized with monochromatic, primary colors, Henry’s practice began with expressionist painting. Many of the themes of Henry’s painting practice, such as bold lines of color and a sense of “heroic individualism” that he observed from Abstract Expressionist artists, manifested in his subsequent sculptural style. But the experiences that were likely most influential on Henry’s distinctive sculptural style were his studies and projects in Chicago.

Beginning in 1967, Henry began his studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). While the name might not denote artistic relevance, IIT had a strong focus in art, craft, and technology rooted in the influence of Germany’s Bauhaus. The Bauhaus (1919-1933), founded by architect Walter Gropius, was an art school that emphasized the importance of unifying fine art, craft, and industrial design. Students were encouraged to design for mass production and function, while rooted in their individual artistic aesthetics. When the school was closed in 1933 due to pressure from the Nazi government, its current director, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, fled to Chicago, chaperoning the Bauhaus’s avant-garde philosophy to the United States.
While the core principles of the Bauhaus remained, Mies van der Rohe adapted his teachings at the “New Bauhaus” (IIT) to optimize Chicago’s urban individuality. Mies’ teachings were specifically grounded in his belief that architecture should express the era in which it was designed with use of materials from that era. For Chicago, steel was the obvious choice – the city’s steel production was robust, the material was structurally solid, and the use of the material as an exterior frame, rather than a hidden interior element, was aesthetically revolutionary. Through the influence of Mies and the “New Bauhaus,” Chicago became iconic for its steel and glass structures – influencing generations of artists to follow, including John Henry.
When John Henry’s sculpture career began in the mid-1960s in Chicago, he was immersed in a group of young North American sculptors inspired by the industrial flare of Mies van der Rohe’s designs. Bauhaus influence manifested in the massive scale, material (steel), and color scheme (primary colors – red, yellow, and blue) that many of the sculptors used. While Bauhaus philosophy is evident in the design aesthetic of Henry’s work, it is less so relevant in his sculptures’ function, which is to initialize participation in public sculpture – a far cry from the utilitarian function of Bauhaus design.
Chicago’s robust support for large-scale public sculpture, led by the influence of John Henry, attracted artists from across the country to the city, such as Mark di Suvero, who founded Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, NY. Through their collaborative efforts to establish Chicago’s premier large-scale sculpture galleries, Walter Kelly Gallery and ConStruct, along with their mutual intention to initialize public participation in sculpture, this group of Chicago artists came to define the place of large-scale, public sculpture in the United States landscape.

Complexus was created by Henry in 2007 as a dynamic expression of monumentality activated by human engagement. Standing 70-feet-tall, Complexus was completed in Henry’s signature style: a grand statement of mass and color constructed with refined, geometric forms. While the sculpture is composed of basic shapes, Henry orients them in a complicated puzzle of floating and leaning pieces, creating a visual paradox – the sculpture appears both grounded as a large steel structure, yet also airy, as pieces float amongst the background of the sky.

Henry’s large-scale sculptures have made their mark on landscapes across the United States. All of his sculptures are designed and constructed in his studio in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

On loan from the City of Sarasota

‘Complexus’ Installation Timelapse
Digital video
Duration: 4 minutes
Produced by Makshu Productions

John Henry’s iconic 70-foot steel sculpture, Complexus, relocated from the Sarasota bayfront to Sarasota Art Museum in early January 2021. Ringling College of Art and Design alumni, Christina and Karim Maksoud, documented the installation of the sculpture on the Great Lawn from January 12-14, 2021.