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Monday, February 27, 2012

George Segal

George Segal, 1991, among the cast figures
for his Depression Bread Line.
Artists long ago learned the knack of seeing everyday objects and situations, then capturing them on paper or canvas for the ages following to ponder and enjoy. We have a much better understanding of seventeenth century life, for instance, as a result of Dutch, French, and later English still-life painting. And American, nineteenth century genre painting gives us a nostalgic view of everyday life in this country a century or more ago. In the 20th century, the elevation of the mundane, everyday symbols of our fast-paced cultural existence took on a much more blatantly hard edged tone with the advent of Pop Art in the early 1960s. Though most often associated with painting, Pop sculpture such as that of Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and others may have been even more effective in underlining, capturing, and preserving that which we were at the time. And with all due respect to the others, by far the most powerful sculptural statements in Pop Art belong to a chicken farmer from New Jersey by the name of George Segal...the guy with the plaster bandages, not the actor by the same name.

Depression Bread Line, 1991, George Segal, FDR Memorial, Washington, DC.
Segal modeled himself as the fourth figure in the line.
Segal came out of New York City (the Bronx). He was born in 1924. And much of his art is New York City born and bred. The chicken farm came when he was fifteen and his Jewish parents moved to rural New Jersey (when there still was such a thing). He studied art, art education, and architecture at Cooper Union, Rutgers, Pratt Institute, and NYU, all during the war and for several years afterwards. But when he married in 1946, he gave up painting in favor of what he knew best--chicken farming. He bought his own just down the road from that of his parents. And though he began teaching high school art in 1955, he continued in the business...the chicken business that is...until 1958 when sales of his paintings springing from his first one-man show in 1956, began to earn him a decent living as an artist.

The Holocaust, 1984, George Segal, Lincoln Park, San Francisco
But Abstract Expressionism never was his thing. In 1958, an art "happening" organized by fellow New York artist Allan Kaprow got Segal started doing sculpture. He used those things which he knew best...wood, chicken wire, burlap, and plaster in fabricating life-size human figures which he began installing in starkly realistic urban settings often jerked from real life with a chain saw or cutting torch. In 1961, technology came along and made his life easier with the invention of plaster-impregnated gauze bandages intended for doctors in making plaster casts. Segal began using them to make molds of real people which he then took apart and cast in plaster parts, rejoining them into ghostly white images often reflecting the surreal loneliness of American urban life. Later, he dispensed with the castings and began using the molds themselves to capture the essence of his figures minus the more delicate details. These were no less effective in rendering the eerie feeling on alienation of his earlier work. 

Street Crossing, 1992, George Segal, Montclair State University.
What appears to be plaster is really painted bronze.
Yearly solo shows followed all through the 60's and 70's as museums snapped up his work like the golden nuggets of corn on his chicken farm. He used friends and family for his models. A particularly personal piece depicted a slice of the Bronx kosher butcher shop his parents once owned, peopled by his ghostly, lifelike figures. His groupings often took on overtly political messages. His Holocaust Group is especially heart rending. For the FDR Memorial in Washington, he cast his plaster figures in bronze, including a life-size self-portrait standing with others in a Depression Bread Line (top two photos). In later years, Segal's work diversified, as he and it began to shrug off the "Pop" label. And though he never again taught high school, several colleges and universities, and countless students were the beneficiaries of his experience, insights, and technical prowess. A 1998 traveling retrospective of his life's work and a National Medal of Arts in 1999 forever cemented his place in the art history books as not just one of the top Pop Art icons of all time, but one of America's most important sculptors. He died in 2002 at the age of 75.
Circus Acrobats, 1981, George Segal

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