American sculptor George Segal (born 1924) placed cast human figures in settings and furnishings drawn from the environment of his home in southern New Jersey.
George Segal was born on November 26, 1924, in New York City. He attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. In 1940 his family moved to South Brunswick, New Jersey, where his father, who had previously worked as a butcher, operated a chicken farm. Segal attended art classes at Cooper Union in New York in 1941-1942. From 1942 to 1946 he studied literature, psychology, history, and philosophy in evening classes at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Before receiving his B.S. degree in art education from New York University in 1949, he took classes at the Pratt Institute of Design in New York. While attending New York University, Segal studied collage with the sculptor Tony Smith and also took classes with the painter William Baziotes.
The 1950s were difficult years for Segal financially, but he continued painting and developed important friendships with other artists who were in the New York area. He operated a chicken farm across the road from his parents' from 1949 to 1958, but, faced with bankruptcy, he began teaching in various public schools in New Jersey from 1957 to 1964. In 1961 he entered the Master of Fine Arts program at Rutgers University and received his degree in 1963.
Segal's earliest exhibited works were paintings. Unlike the work of most artists in New York in the late 1940s and 1950s, Segal's paintings were representational and frequently included human figures in an interior environment. By the time of his third one-man exhibition at the Hansa Gallery in New York in 1958, Segal's paintings were life-size in scale, intensely colored, and mainly represented figures painted with heavy, expressive brush strokes. The problem of resolving the conflict between the two-dimensional, formal space of abstract painting and his interest in depicting three-dimensional figures led Segal, in 1959, to exhibit plaster figures placed in front of his paintings. These three-dimensional sculptures could exist in real space, while the flat canvases served to form an environmental setting created by flat areas of color. These tentative sculptures were made of wood and plaster, materials familiar to Segal from his construction activities on his farm.
His Future is Cast
In the summer of 1961 a student in an art class Segal was teaching brought him some bandages used to set broken bones. When these plaster-impregnated strips are wet and molded in place they harden into a cast. He began experimenting by making plaster casts of his body and assembled the parts into a sculpture of a seated figure. The full sculpture, Man Sitting at a Table, included a real chair and a table to which a window had been nailed. The mullions of the window form a grid through which the viewer looks, as if into an illusionary painted canvas. The incorporation of an environmental setting for the figure grew partly from his combining of painted settings with his first sculptures two years earlier, but the idea is also related to parallel artistic concepts that were then being developed by a number of Segal's contemporaries.
Allan Kaprow, whom Segal met in 1953, organized Happenings—partially improvised, non-narrative dramatic performances. His first Happening was held on Segal's farm. Kaprow was one of a number of artists exploring the integration of multi-sensory experience within an environment that often depended on random or improvisational techniques. The composer John Cage was a major influence on the artists who participated in this avant-garde circle that included Robert Rauschenburg, Red Grooms, Kaprow, and some of the performers who formed the Fluxus Group. In encompassing human figures, and on at least one occasion sound, and an environmental milieu, Segal's sculpture has some affinity to approaches being explored by these artists. Segal's work is distinguished by his emphasis upon formal values, his use of familiar settings and objects, and his use of such traditional themes as figures at a table, female nudes, and even on a few occasions religious subjects.
Segal generally made his sculptures by molding cloth strips dipped in hydrostone, an industrial plaster, over the person serving as his model. The surfaces of the sculpture were manipulated freely by the artist as he worked with the strips of plaster-soaked cloth. Sometimes he used these casts of the figure as a negative mold into which he poured plaster in order to produce a positive cast, but he generally preferred the greater artistic activity involved in working with the exterior surface of the initial cast. On rare occasions these sculptures were then cast in bronze and painted with a white finish. Segal at times painted the surface of his sculptures, first in The Costume Party (1965), and more frequently in the mid-1970s—Couple on Black Bed (1976), Red Girl in Blanket (1975), and Magenta Girl on Green Door (1977), for example—but most of his sculptures are white. The whiteness separates their reality as expressive of the artist's intuition and feelings from that of the colored environment in which Segal places them, while their naturalism provides a bridge between the real world and the artist's personal vision. For Segal, the primary colors that he sometimes used are meant to communicate psychological states and thus can be used arbitrarily with no immediate reference to the actual appearance of the subject.
Segal's sculptures of the 1960s were often mundane in subject, such as Woman Painting Her Fingernails (1962), and were cast from personal friends and neighbors. A large number of sculptures, beginning with his first cast work discussed earlier, incorporate windows. Windows remind one of the definition of illusionistic painting as a mirror or a window through which one has a view of the visible world. In many of Segal's works the presence of an actual window (with a real three-dimensional space) clarifies the nature of the space as concrete, not an illusion.
An Art Movement
A considerable number of Segal's sculptures of the 1960s and 1970s have the theme of transit—for example, Man on a Bicycle (1962, Moderna Museet, Stockholm), The Bus Driver (1962, Museum of Modern Art, New York), The Bus Riders (1962, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.), The Gas Station (1963-1964, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), The Truck (1966, Art Institute of Chicago), and To All Gates (1971, Des Moines Art Center, Iowa). These and a number of other works of figures in a doorway, such as Woman in a Doorway I (1964, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) or other sculptures where the theme is even more obvious, an example being Bas-Relief: Girl with Clock (1972), all relate to the theme of passage or the transitory nature of temporal existence.
Segal's concern with the timeless and universal within the context of modern life includes sculptures showing figures involved in their work, making love, eating, or located in settings characteristic of contemporary American culture. His accomplishment is in having found a compelling way to synthesize modern sensibility and artistic approaches with these enduring philosophical and artistic issues.
Segal is best known for his sculptures, but in 1994 he returned to painting, often exploring depth and space in these works. Works of this period are drawn with charcoal on house paint, in shades of gray, black and white. He also applies stucco layers for texture.
In 1995 Segal wrapped Israeli statesman Abba Eban's body in plaster-impregnated bandages in the first step in the making of the cast that was to become Portrait of Abba Eban. The sculpture shows a seated, life-size Eban (covered in the dark acrylic paint) in front of a black, wooden wall with a map of Israel silkscreened on it. Eban asked Segal to make the sculpture for the Abba Eban Center for the Diplomacy of Israel, a part of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Segal was commissioned to produce three bronzes for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, dedicated in 1997: The Fireside Chat, The Rural Couple, and The Breadline. Encompassing over seven acres, the FDR Memorial is situated between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and creates a park-like sequence of four outdoor galleries, each depicting a term in office.
Segal has long pursued a personal interest in interpreting the Bible through his work. Five tableaux—all drawn from the Book of Genesis—were seen together for the first time in early 1997 in a museum setting at the Skirball Cultural Center and Museum. The institution emphasizes art related to the Jewish experience.
Further Reading on George Segal
For a major comprehensive study of Segal's work see George Segal by Jan Van der Marck (revised edition, 1979), which has many illustrations, a list of exhibitions, and a useful bibliography. For a briefer treatment that includes commentaries by Segal see George Segal: Sculptures, by Martin Friedman and Graham W. J. Beal, catalogue of an exhibition held at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota; San Francisco; and New York in 1978-1979. The photographs of Segal's working method are especially useful. Also see the Modern Masters Series (v.5, p. 123-125) (1983). For more recent work see articles in Art News magazine or use one of the many search engines, such as AltaVista, to find listing on the WWW of galleries, dealers and museums currently exhibiting the artist's works. Segal was also featured on the Arts & Entertainment television network's program Biography, and additional information is available from their web page (www.biography.com).