Few American sculptors of the twentieth-century were as familiar and admired as George Segal. His life-like and life-sized human figures, often cast in textured, unpainted, brilliant white plaster, are especially powerful expressions of existential angst and estrangement. To enhance their psychological effect and mood, the artist frequently situated these figures in brief narrative settings of colorful real-life objects. The result is an original and innovative art form that earned Segal numerous awards and medals as well as a prominent place in contemporary American sculpture.
Born in the Bronx, Segal grew up in New York City and first attended painting classes at the Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture in 1941. He later studied at Rutgers University, the Pratt Institute of Design in Brooklyn, and finally New York University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art education in 1949. His early paintings were executed in a style of gestural realism that was indebted to de Kooning’s aggressive brushwork and the Fauvist colors of Bonnard and Matisse. In 1958 Segal began to experiment with sculpture, building wood and chicken wire frameworks that he covered with burlap and plaster. Looking for a fresh way to represent reality, he combined these figures with pieces of furniture and other items in evocative assemblages suggesting everyday life. This creation of a new pictorial space avoided both the illusionism of traditional painting and the flat abstract expressionist space of the canvas surface. For the artist the result effectively fused painting and sculpture in a new and original form of expression.
In 1961 Segal seized on the idea of applying surgeon’s bandages and plaster to the human body to achieve unique sculptural forms. Using himself as a model he created a plaster cast of a sitting man, which he then placed in a chair before a table to which an old window frame had been nailed. The result, titled Man Sitting at a Table (1961; Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, Germany), resembled an actual human being occupying real space. At the same time, the figure’s rough unpainted plaster surface gave the form an abstract quality suggesting a kind of generalized sign for a person. When Segal exhibited this work at the Janis Gallery in New York in 1962 it was hailed as a groundbreaking innovation and proved a turning point in his career. As he began incorporating these plaster figures in assembled environments featuring gas stations, coffee shops, billboards and movie marquees, his work was seen as an integral part of the emerging Pop Art movement of the 1960s. Political and socio-critical stances distinguish some of his later works from Pop Art, such as The Execution (1967; Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada), a grim reminder of the brutality and excesses of the Vietnam War.
Beginning in the mid-1960s the artist began to paint an occasional sculptural figure in a monochromatic blue or red, a practice that he appears to have repeated more frequently during the 1970s. Segal began, too, to create fragments of the human body that he at times colored in various tones, some naturalistic some metallic. In the 1980s he also produced a series of still life sculptures that directly relate to the paintings of Cézanne and Morandi. Some of Segal’s most controversial works involved public memorials like In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State: Abraham and Isaac (1978; Princeton University, New Jersey) and The Holocaust (1982; Lincoln Park, San Francisco), both of which were later cast in bronze from the original plaster versions.
A number of retrospective exhibitions of George Segal’s works were held in Europe between 1971 and 1972. In 1996 the Fine Art Museum in Montreal organized a huge retrospective of Segal’s sculptures. The artist died after a long illness at his home in South Brunswick, New Jersey.
Examples of George Segal’s work can be found both in private and public collections throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Jewish Museum, New York; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Newark Museum, New Jersey; the Seattle Art Museum; the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam; the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich; the Kunsthaus, Zurich; the Art Museum of Atenaeum, Helsinki; the Museum Tamayo, Mexico City; the Centre National d’Art Contemporain, Paris; Israel Museum, Jerusalem; the Museum of Modern Art, Teheran; the Ho-Am Museum, Seoul; Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; and the Tokyo Central Museum.
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