PRINT November 1964

An Interview with George Segal

HG: What cause you to move from painting into sculpture?

G.S.: My dissatisfaction with all the modes of painting that I had been taught that couldn’t express the quality of my own experience.

HG: Had you done or thought of sculpture previously?

G.S.: In 1958 I had a combined sculpture and painting show. I had a history of painting life-size figures. I simply made three life-size figures out of wire, plaster and burlap, one sitting, one standing and one lying. They looked to me as if they had stepped out of my paintings.

HG: Is there much visual connection between those three pieces and your present work?

G.S.: Yes. One of the figures was sitting on a real broken chair, on a pedestal made from an old chicken crate. They were white. To me they seemed an important part of the show. The most important reaction was my own. I went on painting. I don’t think I fully realized then the implications of the sculpture as formal solutions to what I wanted to express.

HG: Do you see any connection between Allen Kaprow’s, Jim Dine’s, Claes Oldenburg’s and Bob Whitman’s happenings and your ideas about sculpture?

G.S.: Yes, very much. Kaprow and I have a ten year history of friendship and a history of great detailed, involved, analytical, esthetic discussion. They were passionate, we used to rant and rave.

HG: How about a visual connection?

G.S.: I left a path of my own dissatisfaction in my painting, alternately accepting and rejecting expressionism, geometric structure, figuration, transformation—and the decision to enter literal space was determined by strong urges for total experience. I could never quite paint abstractly because I felt I was too young, too sensual to deal with what I thought was a splinter of the human experience, no matter how high the level of its metaphysics. Much talk preceded the first appearance of happenings, talk about the urge to put contemporary experience into it—the litter of the streets—domesticity in your own household—the actual look of the landscape. None of these were accepted or legitimate concerns of art in the New York atmosphere. Once these concerns became clear the huge problem was how to give them form. Many solutions are possible—among them happenings. I suppose the nature of the solution is dictated by the individual temperament of the artist, none really right or wrong but necessary to each one.

HG: Do you feel that there was a cohesiveness about the Hansa Gallery group and its relationship to the Hofmann School?

G.S.: For me the Hansa represented an embryo that hinted at most of the major directions in New York contemporary art. It’s probably a great tribute to Hofmann that he spawned a group of individuals so willing to work passionately in so many different directions.

HG: Do you feel the environmental nature of your sculpture is misunderstood?

G.S.: Possibly. Yes. Many people seem so shocked by seeing a realistic white plaster figure that they tend psychologically to focus only on the figures. What interests me is a series of shocks and encounters that a person can have moving through space around several objects placed in careful relationship. I just finished working on a Gas Station piece. The man who posed really runs the Gas Station on the highway near my house. He’s taking one step forward with an oil can in his hand. My private irony is if I took away the oil can and turned his fingers up tie could be St. John the Baptist in coveralls. He’s behind a huge glass window and you see him through glass and a pyramid of red oil cans. As you move around the glass you encounter him from the rear and see a black rack of seven black tires suspended several inches above his head. This sudden catching of fright doesn’t happen until you move into the right position and then you know him differently.

HG: Therefore, as with traditional sculpture, your work is impossible to photograph adequately.

G.S.: Not impossible. I think it requires a different approach. Since there is no definitive view, the photographer can enter the work and, more than usual, trust his emotional reactions to fragments or aspects of the work. If I set up a situation well enough there can be many emotional encounters on many levels. And this offers the choice to the traveller of extracting as much or as little as he wishes.

HG: You talk of realistic white plaster figures?

G.S.: The look of these figures is both accidental and planned. I usually know generally what emotional stance I’d like to have in the finished figure and I ask the model to stand or sit in a certain way. That model though is a human being with a great deal of mystery and totality locked up in the figure. In spite of my technique certain truths of bone structure are revealed and so are long time basic attitudes of response on the part of the model. If you have to sit still for an hour you fall into yourself and it is impossible to hide, no matter the stance. I just finished casting three people seated calmly on bus seats with only slightly different poses and they come out three different, readable personalities.

HG: Does the whiteness of the plaster disturb or intrigue you? Have you considered color, paint in the figure itself?

G.S.: The whiteness intrigues me; for all its special connotations of disembodied spirit, inseparable from the fleshy corporeal details of the figure. Color itself interests me a great deal. In the total compositions I use the built in color of the real objects and increasingly I’m concerned with color as light rather than color as paint.

HG: Did your trip to Europe or seeing your work in Paris give you any insight or ideas?

G.S.: Yes. Mostly my experience as a tourist encountering a few staggeringly great things I knew about but had never seen before. I was working on my Gas Station before I went to Europe and had the piece saturated with dazzlingly colored advertising signs. After encountering the space in Chartres and being staggered by the austerity of the late Titian in Venice, I came home restless and ended by tearing all the signs from the Gas Station, replacing them with elements that are absolutely necessary and intensely expressive—there was a ruthless quality of pruning away the inessential.

HG: Did your European experience give you an idea about being an American artist?

G.S.: It was after my first trip to Europe this summer that I made a certain peace with myself about being an American artist. I made a sculpture in Paris and had incredible difficulties getting the simplest hand tools and materials that are cheap and common here. Parisian landscape is so different in the human sense that American responses become almost impossible. I discovered that many of the emotional attitudes that provoke my work are encased in the ugly expanses of glass, chrome, brick of home (of America).

HG: Are there compositional considerations that underly your work?

G.S.: The rules of composition are pretty fluid and arbitrary until they’re linked with a quality of how you understand the world. I read an article in Life Magazine describing the DNA molecule. It seems you have to cut through a slimy visceral mess, the kind that delighted Soutine, to get to a small bloody fragment that you put under an electron microscope. Amazingly a pure geometric helix is revealed. The ooze is undeniable—so is the geometry. Weaving together aspects, organic and geometric, keeps occurring to me because I suspect a natural truth that contains many seeming contradictions. Once you begin to deal with the everchanging aspects of three-dimensional encounters the number of formal solutions is countless. The largest problem lies in the emotional choice of the most moving or the most revelatory series of experiences. The peculiar shape and qualities of the actual empty air surrounding the volumes becomes an important part of the expressiveness of the whole piece. The distance between two figures or between a figure and another object becomes crucial. My pieces often don’t end at their physical boundaries.