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George Segal Artworks

American Sculptor, Photographer, and Painter

George Segal Photo
Movement: Pop Art

Born: November 26, 1924 - New York, New York

Died: June 9, 2000 - South Brunswick, New Jersey

Artworks by George Segal

The below artworks are the most important by George Segal - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Man at a Table (1961)

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.

The Diner (1964-66)

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.

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The Costume Party (1965-72)

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.

Gay Liberation (1980)

Gay Liberation (1980)

Gay Liberation, installed in 1992 in a park in Greenwich Village, commemorates a historic event that took place across the street in 1969. On June 28th of that year, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar frequented by homosexuals. This was nothing new. What happened next was, however. Angry activists gathered in protest, demanding the decriminalization of homosexuality. Now known as the Stonewall Riot, this was the beginning of the Gay Pride movement. Created to resemble the artist's familiar plaster figures while remaining protected from the elements, these figures were cast in bronze and painted with a white lacquer. The work, commissioned in 1979 encountered resistance from the left and right that prevented it from being installed until 1992. Some pointed to its lack of diversity (both couples are Caucasian). Some felt strongly that the work should have been offered to a gay artist (Segal was straight). Some found the very idea that a public park should include a monument to homosexuality offensive. Some claimed they were not offended by the idea, but that the couples were touching in an inappropriate way. Upon examining the sculpture itself, it is evident that touch is an essential part of Segal's humanitarian approach to this human rights issue. What was at stake in The Stonewall Riots was the freedom of same sex couples to co-exist publicly and enjoy the same protections under the law. A strong example of Segal's brilliance as a designer of memorials, this once controversial work is now one of the most revered monuments in New York City.

The Holocaust (1982)

In this powerful memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, Segal employs his signature plaster cast style to evoke a concentration camp. The work was inspired by photographs taken at the end of World War II. Separated from us by a barbed wire fence, a standing man turns towards us, the viewers, and away from the heap of bodies on the ground behind him. Biblical references are present in the corpses, including one with arms outstretched like a crucified Christ, and a female figure holding a partially eaten apple (a la Eve). The standing figure is a visible manifestation of the psychic limbo in which the Holocaust survivor was caught, poised forever between the past and future and with the indelible memory of horror and loss. Segal's proposal was the winning submission for a competition for a memorial sculpture in San Francisco's Lincoln Park in 1981. While this model is made of plaster, the San Francisco sculpture is cast in bronze and painted white. It was one of Segal's first completed public commissions, and stimulated future commissions for monuments based on his plaster sculptures.

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Depression Bread Line (1991)

Waiting, an overarching theme in Segal's work, is presented here with particular poignancy. Life-sized hunched and hatted men in old overcoats stand in single file beside a brick wall. Bread lines were a familiar sight during the Great Depression. The work shown here is a model for a memorial in honor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose economic policies helped lift the middle class out of poverty. Segal, who lived through this era, remembered listening with his parents to Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats" on the radio. Along with two other sculptures, entitled Fireside Chat and Appalachian Farm Couple, this sculpture was installed in 1997 in Washington, D.C. Segal's choice of an unassuming moment in everyday life maintains a connection with his earliest plaster sculptures, and is emblematic of the personal intimacy with which he portrayed historic moments. Each figure here was cast from someone he knew: four friends, and the artist himself.

Hispanic Wedding Dress Display, Newark, New Jersey (1993)

While the impact of photography and photojournalism was always evident in Segal's sculptures, near the end of his career he became an active photographer. The overall achievement of Segal's photographs was to reinforce his aesthetic as a lens through which to look at the world, one that transcended medium. This photograph is part of the series of urban views of New York and New Jersey entitled Sequence: New York/New Jersey 1990-1993. In Hispanic Wedding Dress Display, Newark, New Jersey, Segal captured the shop window display of a wedding gown. In this ordinary city sight there is a kinship with the artist's earlier work: the mannequin designed for a constructed environment is a "ready-made" version of one of Segal's own sculptures. The image brings us full circle, reinforcing the ideas in his plaster figures, and demonstrating that the artist's style transcends a particular style or medium. Segal's art is a way of seeing, not just making.

Related Artists and Major Works

Merzpicture 46A. The Skittle Picture (1921)

Merzpicture 46A. The Skittle Picture (1921)

Movement: Dada (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Kurt Schwitters (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

This is an early example of assemblage in which two and three dimensional objects are combined. The word "Merz," which Schwitters used to describe his art practice as well as his individual pieces, is a nonsensical word, like Dada, that Schwitters culled from the word "commerz", the meaning of which he described as follows: "In the war, things were in terrible turmoil. What I had learned at the academy was of no use to me.... Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz". In his Merzpictures, which have been called "psychological collages," he arranged found objects - usually detritus - in simple compositions that transformed trash into beautiful works of art. Whether the materials were string, a ticket stub, or a chess piece, Schwitters considered them to be equal with any traditional art material. Merz, however, is not ideological, dogmatic, hostile, or political as is much of Dada art.

Essex (1960)

Movement: Abstract Expressionism (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: John Chamberlain (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Essex is a wall relief reminiscent of an inflated abstract painting and typifies much of Chamberlain's freestanding sculptures. The artist spontaneously crafted these pieces with car parts found in junkyards, assembling them through chance intuition. Additional colors were then applied to reinforce the palette of common auto paints and emphasize the broken surfaces that bulged out from the wall and captured light on their reflective surfaces. The sharply cut pieces of steel Chamberlain used were fitted to bring out linear rhythms much like the actions made by painters' brushes. Similar to sculptor David Smith, Chamberlain's spontaneous methods and work resembled three-dimensional versions of Abstract Expressionistic paintings, which justified his inclusion in the group.

The Woman Eating (1971)

Movement: Photorealism (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Duane Hanson

This sculpture is a life-size woman seated at a cafeteria table, plainly dressed, with her bags and packages by her side. The woman is dressed in actual clothes and her belongs, also, are real objects. Overweight, not particularly attractive, Hanson's statue goes against the grain of artists beautifying the female form. Likely to fool the eye, it is only when the viewer gets up close to the work that the tiniest of brush strokes reveal the work's artificiality. Hanson's statues are usually located in the refined spaces of art museums and galleries, which renders imagery of ordinary folk into fine art. Hanson admitted to presenting a social message via his sculptures, expressing a sense of the resignation, emptiness and loneliness of suburban existence. Here, there is an aspect of pathos to the solitary woman eating alone, especially if we consider that within a museum she becomes an object of study and inadvertent stares. As with Chuck Close, Hanson focuses on human beings as his subject matter, rather than the reflective glass and chrome of other Photorealists. Hanson makes his viewers question who is worthy of being an artistic subject; what is the viewer's social relation to the statue/person and any other association between the strange presence and us.

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