Casting the Human Condition

A documentary on American artist George Segal will be screened Aug. 18 at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. “George Segal: American Still Life” uses interviews with family members and colleagues as well as archival footage of the late sculptor to tell his story.

Here’s what I wrote about Segal several years ago, when the Zimmerli Art Museum held a retrospective:

A ketchup bottle, a sugar container, a salt shaker and a crumpled napkin – these are simple objects of everyday life. Yet as George Segal (1924-2000) gazed upon them in the diners he loved to frequent, he found something profound to say about the human condition.

Segal, like J. Seward Johnson Jr., is well known for his lifelike bronze sculpture in public spaces: “The Restaurant” in Buffalo, N.Y., “In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State: Abraham and Isaac” at Princeton University, “The Holocaust” in San Francisco, “The Constructors” in Trenton and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., among others.

Acclaimed as one of the major sculptors of the 20th century, his international reputation was built on the human figures cast in white plaster, along with furniture and artifacts, comprising groupings of brooding figures enduring harsh realities.

The exhibit at the Zimmerli was a kind of coming home for Segal, who earned a master’s of fine arts from Rutgers University in 1963.

His body of work could be divided into periods based on color, starting with the vivid, fauvist colors of his early painting in the ’50s, moving on to his white-plaster sculptural work of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, to his brightly painted plaster pieces and, finally, his chiaroscuro pastels of the ’90s.


Born in the Bronx, George Segal moved to Davidson Mill Road in South Brunswick with his family when he was 15 years old, where his father was a chicken farmer. The artist later converted the chicken coops into a studio and continued to live and work there with his wife, Helen, until his death at age 75.

Those who knew him remember him as a down-to-earth person who never put on airs, despite his popularity. “He was a straight-forward nice person, essentially pleasant and likable,” said Jeffrey Wechsler, senior curator at the Zimmerli who met Segal during the inauguration of his installation, “Bus Shelter,” in 1997.

Dennis Cate, then director of the Zimmerli, got the idea for a traveling retrospective at the time. Segal was still alive when Mr. Wechsler first began organizing it. The collection of more than 90 works traveled to six museums in Japan and the State Hermitage Museum in Russia before coming to the Zimmerli. It ultimately returned to the Segal studio in South Brunswick, maintained by the George and Helen Segal Foundation.

One of the first paintings in the show, “Dead Chicken” (1957), was a tribute to his background. With bold strokes of yellow, red, white and gray against a black background, this chicken is falling flat on its face. Segal’s parents told him he was wasting his time, studying art at Pratt Institute and New York University. They thought he’d have a greater chance at success as a chicken farmer.

Like Edward Hopper, Segal portrays the poetry of everyday life. Combining color and composition with narrative, his work is not only visually appealing but embodies a profound emotional core.

As part of the New York School of painting in the 1950s, he worked in oil on canvas. Based on Abstract Expressionism, his art maintained realistic subject matter while employing freely brushed paint, including drips and smears. “Still Life on Green Table” and “Provincetown Interior,” 6-by-8 canvases from the 1950s, show the influence of Matisse, with carefully composed interiors in the colors of Provence, and open windows looking out on a bright world.



“Yet I found I couldn’t use those means to say what I want,” Segal wrote. “I was questioning the realities of space for myself. The way I was taught to refer to space…severely limited me. It became essential to try sculpture.”

In 1958 he made “The Legend of Lot” with a roughly cast plaster figure standing in front of a painting that serves as both background and an integral component of the composition. The crude figure looks like the first clay man to have risen up out of the Earth.

By 1963, Segal was casting figures in bronze, although plaster would remain a preferred medium. “There are some small, early bronzes, some painted white to look like plaster,” says Mr. Wechsler. “Most of the work he did in bronze was for the exterior public commissions.”

“Bas-Relief: Seated Woman” (1966) is a plaster slice of a woman sitting on half of a wooden chair with a slice of an aluminum radiator before her. Inspired by Degas, the cropping is a way of editing reality.

“By mounting sculptures on the wall, Segal greatly changed the observer’s perception and understanding of the subject matter,” writes Ms. Wechsler in the catalog. “A white plaster figure of a young woman seated on a chair and placed on the floor may be intriguing by virtue of its unnatural color and surface texture, but its placement replicates expected reality. A white plaster figure of a young woman seated on a chair set in profile within a box and mounted on a wall, however, offers entirely new opportunities for visual and emotional interpretation. While the figures in Segal’s environments have frequently elicited a sense of isolation and sober inner reflection, the isolation of the wall figures is physical, even unnaturally so. But their emotional strength flows from this distancing.”

All the while he was working in sculpture, Segal continued to paint and draw. Just as Manet, Pissaro, Renoir, Cassat and Whistler had used pastels, Segal did too. “The experience of using the pastel technique was also important for Segal because he was able to use it as a reliable medium for creating harmonious images, and following in the footsteps of Degas, explored its hidden creative potential,” writes Dr. Albert Kostenevitch, chief curator at the State Hermitage Museum. “It is a paradox that Segal himself belonged to the avant-garde movement…Segal relied on tradition and used it as a point of reference in his plastic compositions.”

Segal’s ultimate recognition and international fame was based on his environmental pieces – free-standing figures in a complex setting. Cast from live models, actual furniture and artifacts were incorporated. Although many associated Segal’s work with Pop Art – he called it “a great label for a serious movement that produced a lot of excellent work” – his work transcended the genre. Whereas Pop Art was ironic and self-celebratory, Segal asked profound questions of human ethics.



“Chance Meeting” is an environmental piece of three black-cloaked figures standing beneath the intersection of two one-way signs. Are they family members or random strangers on a street? Have they just discussed a profound fact of life…or the price of toilet paper at Wal-Mart? They appear to be locked in an existential gaze – or is it just the body language? While facing each other, they could simultaneously be worlds apart.

“A section of a torso, a hand crossing a breast, a thigh turning away – these irregular bits of figures might at first seem random samples of the human form, yet the narrow range of focus implied conveys a special aura of poignancy, even vulnerability,” says the wall plaque.

“Are they notations? Loving comments? Lyric statements? Glimpses?” Segal asked of these fragments. He compared them to leaves left on the floor.

“The fragments are the haiku of Segal’s visual poetry,” says Ms. Wechsler; they are emotionally charged explorations of the human body.

Just as the faces give us greater insight into strangers on a bus, the hands tell us of the grace and beauty of the soul from which they are disembodied. They evoke mystery, human frailty, a fleeting moment of time.

In “Bus Passengers” (1997), the all-white plaster people have ethnic variation. The passengers are in their own worlds, behind closed eyes. Looking at these close-eyed passengers, one has the revelation that people on the bus who close their eyes are not trying to catch up on precious sleep but to escape the cold bleak reality for their own private paradise.



This also appears to be the case in “Bus Stop” (1975): the mere shutting of an eye is enough to leave the dreary urban landscape, the pain of poverty and homelessness. Even the closed lips seem to seal out the grit and brutality of a grim world.

There’s actually a practical reason for this, explains Mr. Wechsler. Since Segal used live models – usually his friends and family – to wrap with bandages and plaster, they had to keep their eyes and lips sealed to prevent ingesting plaster. Rather than go back and fill in the details of the eyes, he used it as a motif for emotional distancing.

But Segal himself did anything but close his eyes and shut out the world. In “The Homeless” (1989), he shapes plaster to take the form of a human being under a blanket, keeping warm on a wintry night over a hot air vent – one of the great free pleasures of a cold city. Alongside her sits a man with a watch cap on his head, a bundle beside him.

During his “Rembrandt period” of the 1990s, Segal composed a series of pastels on paper that echo the old master in aesthetics and emotion, with deep shadows and dark moods. Said Segal’s friend, fellow artist Allan Kaprow: “George Segal’s reality is a tragic one in which the human and the artifact are alone and immobile, but as though consecrated to this state by some interior directive, to endure forever.”

The pastels focus on puckered skin, weary eyes, distrust, dying light. A figure looks out the window under an “exit” sign. The final piece of the show is a self-portrait from 1995, a pastel of a tired man in shadow, one eye wide open, penetrating the superficial, full of the insight that guided his life.

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