Zimmerli explores ‘Themes and Variations’ of George Segal’s work in new exhibition

george segal zimmerli

“Appalachian Farm Couple,” by George Segal.

George Segal (1924-2000) was raised and educated in New York, but received his MFA from Rutgers University and relocated in the 1940s to a South Brunswick farm, which remained his home and studio for the rest of his life.

Donna Gustafson — chief curator at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick and the organizer of the retrospective “George Segal: Themes and Variations,” which is currently being presented in the museum’s main exhibition space — emphasizes these biographical details not to be a booster, but to put Segal’s work in context. Like most famous artists of the 20th century, Segal is often understood as a citizen of the world. His sculpture, in particular, has been praised for its ability to speak to universal concerns.

That it does. But Segal was also a man of his moment and a product of the New York metro and urban and exurban New Jersey. Gustafson presents Segal as a Garden Stater, a bus rider, a thrower of Happenings at his family farm, an eater at (and appreciator of) roadside diners. We are reintroduced to an ordinary man with an extraordinary ability to translate the particulars of the world he saw around him into statements about alienation, disconnection and consciousness, articulate enough to resonate anywhere.

Though he was a painter, a photographer and a pastel sketch artist, Segal is best known for his sculptures: life-sized human figures made of plaster and paint and situated in familiar environments like street corners and bus stops. Because he used actual human beings to make his molds, he is often considered a realist, and an exemplar of the pivot away from the abstraction that dominated the 1950s and 1960s. His work is indeed figurative and comprehensible.

But it is not lifelike — and it isn’t meant to be. A viewer will never mistake a Segal sculpture for a real human being. Unlike the hyper-realist sculptors Marc Sijan and Duane Hanson, he never chases verisimilitude. Instead, he keeps one foot on the plane of visual metaphor. The thick plaster body casts he made have a heavy, melting quality to them; his slumped-shouldered subjects often seemed to be burdened by existence, the demands of the day, and the impersonal nature of the modern urban condition.

George Segal’s “Italian Restaurant.”

Some of Segal’s people, like the patient but expectant man who sits beside a round coffee table in “Italian Restaurant,” have been colored to create a distinction between their bodies and the clothes they’re wearing. Others are doused from their feet to their worried heads in industrial colors: charcoal, blue-gray, Nevelson black, oxidized green. A few of the statues have been left unpainted, and the rough texture of the plaster makes it look like frost has gathered on their quiescent faces.

But mainly, these people are strange to us because they’ve got their eyes shut. This is the residue of Segal’s process: No model is going to keep staring ahead when she is wrapped in plaster. Nevertheless, it imparts a curious stillness and inwardness to his outdoor scenarios. Segal’s characters are captured in public settings, but they’re lost in private concerns. Many of them are waiting, killing time in a crowd, or just out under the sun. Some may be dreaming.

In “Appalachian Farm Couple,” a frowning man in overalls stands in front of a black-stained barn door. Though he leans forward, he seems barely aware of his wife, who sits barefoot in a chair in front of him, with her hands in her lap and a weary expression on her face. They have been battered by the same storms, but it hasn’t brought them closer together. Like “Girl Holding Cat,” a winsome statue of a seated youth with an animal in her arms, the farm couple evokes the solemnity and balance of European sculpture in marble. Yet an Italian master would depict these people gazing back at the viewer. In a work by Segal, everybody is keeping the windows to their souls shuttered.

Though the typical Segal subject is active, the sculptor’s plaster renderings of human faces often resemble classical death masks. Segal’s commuters, riders and endurers of the slow tick of the clock are caught in a kind of half-life, sleepwalking through the common, mundane activities that devour the hours of their days. They take no comfort in the company of others. The urban penitents in the “Bus Stop Shelter” are clustered close together, and their winter coats and slickers (not to mention their hunched body language) suggest that they have found collective refuge from a downpour. Side to side, they are all pointed in different directions. They share space with their neighbors, but little else.

“Woman Under Scaffolding,” by George Segal.

The loose planks that hang over the “Woman Under Scaffolding” provide even less succor. They are intentionally rickety, poorly fastened to the tomb-like iron construction frame and, most of all, they’re way too close to her crown. She is coming through the pedestrian tunnel, but not fast enough to dispel a feeling of claustrophobia. Her sandaled steps are tentative, and her closed-lidded expression is unsure.

That these meditative statues are figures for post-industrial isolation and the loneliness of the crowd is so obvious that it barely needs repeating. Segal had something to say about the tenor of modern life, and it wasn’t pretty. But he also had observations to make about the specifics of our regional experience.

What Garden Stater hasn’t felt the oppressiveness and precarity of a walk under a hastily assembled scaffold that feels as though it is set to topple inward like a heap of pick-up sticks? Who among us hasn’t found herself huddled with strangers and dripping wet at a bus stop, careful not to catch the eyes of a fellow sufferer lest we be drawn into a conversation that deepens our discomfort? We have all known the feeling of queueing up for something we didn’t even want to come — a train, a car, a means of transit promising not deliverance but mere transfer to another state of being best endured via sleepwalk.

It is unlikely that Segal set out to be a local chronicler. These were the symbols Segal used because they were the ones in his vicinity. They have particular meaning to Garden Staters, who will immediately recognize his field of reference — one so pervasive that it influenced his still life sculptures. He crafted flowers and fruits according to tradition but also made plaster salt shakers, ketchup bottles and cylindrical sugar dispensers that will be familiar to anybody with a taste for highway dining.

George Segal’s “Woman in Blue.”

Gustafson reinforces this connection by surrounding Segal’s congregation with photographs and drawings that reinforce the sculptures’ moods and allusions, and large paintings from early in the artist’s career that mean well but don’t contribute much to the conversation. The photos, which underscore Segal’s not-so-subtle taste for Jerseyana, include a stark and remarkable shot of a miniature golf course in Asbury Park and a creepy, decrepit image of a mechanical fortune teller from the boardwalk in Keansburg.

The pastels, some of which feature the sculptor’s wife and muse Helen, aren’t quite as gripping, but they reiterate Segal’s interest in introspection and the mutable texture of the human face. The paintings are mostly big; unfortunately, there are too many of them. They suggest a budding fascination with proxemics (and an interest in classical and biblical storytelling) but do nothing that the sculptures don’t do, and it is hard not to wish they would get out of the way and make room for another assemblage or two.

These glimpses behind the scenes are occasionally interesting, but they never feel essential. George Segal had no trouble getting his ideas across. And we have no trouble recognizing him for the Jersey guy he was, and always will be.

The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick will present “George Segal: Themes and Variations” through July 31. Visit zimmerli.rutgers.edu.


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