John Safer’s life as a sculptor started at Trader Vic’s. The restaurant. The one where, in the ’50s, the time in question, Rat-Packer wannabes lounged decadently in rattan chairs and sipped mai tais and Singapore slings from tall faux-bamboo glasses. Safer had gone to dinner with his first wife and a few friends to do the same. Drifting momentarily from the table talk, Safer plucked the swizzle stick from his cocktail and thrust it into the candle flame. The plastic turned soft and malleable; Safer twisted it into a parabolic curve. It was simple move, but, like an overeager kid, he was pleased with his creation. So was his wife. It was his first work; his artistic career was born.
Sort of. In those days, Safer was something of a dilettante. He had already drifted in and out of jobs in the theater, television, and real estate development. He had spent four years on active duty in World War II, and even chosen to extend his hitch by a year, but never tried to make a career of the military. He had also finished law schoolHarvard, no lessbut never bothered to enter private legal practice. He had tried to pursue photography, but shunted it aside when he realized he didn’t have the eye to make it big. It seemed no more plausible then that sculpture would hold Safer’s short attention span. But it did.
Today, at 75, Safer is a major American sculptor, a man whose abstract geometrical forms reside in public spaces and private collections across the country, including many here in his hometown of Washington.
He didn’t slide smoothly into a career as an artist, though; that would have been far too tidy. No, Safer became a master of the banking universe, too. He got into banking when he was well into middle age and rose quickly to bigwig status: Three times his bank was bought out by a competitor and became a bigger bank. Every time, Safer came out on top. Ultimately, he was named chairman of the board of NationsBank, D.C.
Many bankers “collect” artmore aware of its price than its value, as Oscar Wilde would saybut Safer is a banker who makes art. His sleek, modernist houseperched four stories and a cliff above the Potomac Riverepitomizes his uncommon career mix. It’s a tycoon’s trophy residence, right down to its elevator, outdoor hot tub, and separate turret apartment fit for a butler. But his aerie doubles as a vitrine for his art collectionor rather, the collection of his art.
Safer’s sculptureswhich range from 1 foot to 25 feet highare not fanciful or warm or fuzzy. Graceful, perhaps; swooping, certainly. And they are resolutely mathematical; you can practically see the calculus at work as his forms lean and twist and taper into the sky. His surfaces are hard and shinyusually bronze, steel, or Plexiglasand their ridges are smooth and perfectly polished. They take on largely masculine expressions and, like Safer himself, they ooze with rationalism. But they can be difficult to process.
Safer’s longtime friend, Washington attorney Arthur Mason, uses a World War II anecdote to explain how Safer sees. “GIs were taught aircraft identification, so you’d know whether a plane veering toward you was a friend or foe,” Mason says. “The system was called ‘WEFT,’ because you were supposed to gauge the plane by its wings, engine, fuselage, and tail. But for most people it became, ‘Wrong every fucking time,’ because you simply can’t identify aircraft that way. So instead, you had to look at the plane by its total configuration.”
Such is the hard-to-grasp holism of Safer’s sculptures. His sculpture Swing, located at an Ohio country club, is a sharp, tilted oval meant to suggest Sam Snead’s swing. (When Safer played a round with Snead years ago, he says, all he saw when Snead swung was that oval.) A sculpture in front of Washington’s FitzGerald tennis centera pair of interconnected, upward-pointing crescentsis called Serve. The National Air and Space Museum commissioned Web of Space, which comprises a series of spokes that connect a small orb with a pair of downturned semicircles.
Maybe you see it. Maybe you don’t. But that’s Saferhe wants you to think past the pleasant curves. His earliest works were in Plexiglas, but once he started reading reviews that raved about the beauty of the material’s light-refracting properties, Safer switched to metal so viewers would forget about what his works were made of and focus instead on the ideas they were supposed to represent.
Safer is obsessed with the representation of things in motion; he likes to cook down ephemeral events in sculpture. As he stands talking at the sliding-glass window on the fourth floor of his house, he interrupts himself to point out a bird soaring outside. “A lot of my inspirations are things that fly,” he says. “I get overwhelmed by things like that bird. If I were to do a bird, it wouldn’t occur to me to sculpt a bird with a beak and feathers. The beauty I see is a line of motion or the line of a wing in flight.”
The cool rigor of Safer’s intellectual vision comes straight out of abstract expressionism. That was his era, and the general look of his works hasn’t changed a lot since then. While Safer has been highly successful at selling his works to prestigious institutions and collectorshis prices range from $10,000 to “the high six figures”he’s not exactly a household name beyond art insiders. It’s almost as if his works, his methods, and his persona are anachronistic in the postmodern age.
As a kid, he was obviously gifted, so Safer’s parents sent him to first grade earlywhich put him ahead academically but stunted him socially and athletically for years to come. (He graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School at 14.) Today, about the only thing Safer says about his childhood is that his mothera pretty good artist herself”greatly discouraged” him from art. His parents thought him clumsy and believed he lacked artistic aptitude.
But mother and father didn’t manage to extinguish young John’s artistic impulses entirely. In Europe shortly after the war, Safer made his way to Florence, implored security guards to open up a closed museum for him, and proceeded to spend “one of the great moments of my life” in the presence of Michelangelo’s sculptures.
His passion, however, lay latent for years, until his encounter with the gooey swizzle stick. After that night in Trader Vic’s, Safer began fiddling around in his basement, then converted an underused garage into a makeshift studio. Ultimately, he moved into a studio in Kensington, Md., where he has worked for the past 20 years.
All that time, though, he stuck to the business of finance. His income from banking was as lovely as his art, but money alone could not motivate him. He simply liked being both a high-rising banker and hard-core artist more than he ever could have enjoyed either vocation on its own. “I never thought of myself as being one or the other,” Safer says. “People in my business life were aware of my artistic pursuits, and they may have regarded it as a little unusual. But they didn’t seem to mind.”
There was one banking colleague who took Safer’s gifts to heart, however: Albert Gornto Jr., then chairman of the now defunct Sovran Bank. In the early 1990s, Gornto met Safer across a boardroom table following a big merger between their two banks. Gornto, it turned out, needed an artist. Sovran’s headquarters had opened in Norfolk in 1968 with a reflecting pool gracing its spacious front plaza. As the building’s unofficial Medici, Gornto wanted to place a sculpture on the plaza, but couldn’t find an artist who suited his tastesuntil he saw Safer’s work and
commissioned the sculpture that stands on the plaza today. “It sounds a little bit like nepotism,” Safer concedes. “And to some extent, I suppose
it was.” But the commission had the rare effect
of merging his disparate passions in bankable art. CP