American Sculptor, Photographer, and Painter
New York, New York
South Brunswick, New Jersey
Summary of George Segal
Using orthopedic bandages dipped in plaster, New York sculptor George Segal constructed some of the most haunting and memorable figurative art of the 20th century. Life-sized models based on his body and those of friends, family, and neighbors are seated at lunch counters, poised on street corners, or waiting in train stations. Like actors in a play that never starts, these figures inhabit three-dimensional environments that evoke everyday spaces. One can walk around them (which makes the effect all the more eerie) but they are lost in their own universe. It is impossible to warn them that the moment they are waiting for will never arrive. The most existential of the Pop artists, Segal gives us the opportunity to step outside the fast-paced consumer world in order to get a better look at how we function within it.
- Designed to treat broken bones, the bandage is not just a medium but a metaphor. Segal's plaster cast sculptures, literally the shells of people, can be read as poignant reminders of the human toll taken by World War II. Segal was from a family of Polish Jews, most of whom perished in the Holocaust. Despite this dimension of personal significance, the strength of his work lies in the universal significance of human gesture and expression, evident in Segal's public monuments to the Gay Rights movement and The Great Depression, as well as the Holocaust.
- While plaster casts of antique busts had existed for hundreds of years, Segal's practice of dipping bandages into plaster and applying them to a live model was quite new. As he put it, "For me to decide to make a cast of a human being broke all the rules of fine art."
- An avid museumgoer and film buff, Segal was a cultural sponge. The sources that informed him range from the mysterious wrapped bodies of mummies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the suspenseful film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s (such as Citizen Kane).
- Segal is the most existential of the Pop artists. While other Pop artists (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg and others) focused on logos, labels, advertisements, and other mass-produced products, Segal engages directly with the psychology of the consumer. His figures provide a window onto the human condition in a way that sets them apart from other Pop art inventions.
Biography of George Segal
George Segal was born in New York City on November 26, 1924 to Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father, who had come to America in 1922, would lose all his brothers at the hands of the Nazis. Segal's parents ran a kosher butcher shop in the Bronx, working long hours, and dreamt of a more prosperous life for their son.
Important Art by George Segal
This work is the first of Segal's sculptures incorporating bandages dipped in plaster, his signature medium. Man at a Table depicts a seated, life-sized figure based on the body of the artist himself. Segal wrapped his body parts in bandages and made casts which he then reassembled to make the figure. While less attention is given to specific context here than in later sculptures, Man at a Table is evidence of the key ideas he would explore for the rest of his career. First, there is the contrast between the real (the window, chair, and table are largely unmodified by the artist) environment, and the spectral presence that inhabits it. The use of the plaster bandage calls attention to the vulnerability of the body. Finally, there is the aura of anticipation. The figure, seated alone at an empty table, appears to be waiting for something. This suspense is part of the quiet drama of Segal's everyday scenes from the early 1960s.
By the mid-1960s Segal's figures and constructed environments had become more complex. Here, lit from above by a fluorescent lamp, are two figures at a realistic lunch counter. Familiar items such as coffee cups, sugar, napkin dispensers, and a coffee urn, set the stage. The objects are real; the white monochrome figures are not. They are arrested in motion, one seated and one working behind the counter. Diners, the quintessential symbol of middle-class America, had appeared in the work of numerous other artists. Where Segal goes further is in the medium itself - a life-sized restaging of the everyday event - and the mysterious, almost magical open-endedness of the moment he has chosen to capture. This could be anyone, in any diner, across the country. The theatrical aspects of the work are intensified by standing in the same space with it. In fact, this particular sculpture served as the backdrop for a 30-second promotional video in 2014 for the Walker Art Center, starring actor Danny Glover.
In a radical departure from his "banal subjects" (as he himself put it), and usual matte white figures, Segal debuted as a colorist in the mid-1960s. Inspired by a real costume party he attended, this work consists of six life-size figures. The "guests" include Superman, Pussy Galore (the James Bond character), Catwoman (from Batman), and Bottom (from William Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream.") The two figures relaxing on the floor are Cleopatra and Antony. While executed in the well-known plaster cast style Segal had established, these figures are painted in vivid monochrome red, yellow, blue, and black. Also in contrast to his earlier work is the absence of a setting that confines the figures to a specific space within the gallery. The figures look as if they might walk off at any moment.
Veering in the direction of the psychedelic, this piece interjects a note of levity into an otherwise serious body of work, taking the experience from gravitas to groove. In addition, the colors employed in this work were inspired by Native American folklore. Segal had recently read Black Elk Speaks, in which the Lakota Sioux leader names the four colors of the universe as black, yellow, red, and blue. Comparable to his late emergence as a photographer, this work is evidence of Segal's interest in a diverse array of sources, approaches, and media, as well as a capacity for playfulness.