PRINT Summer 1967

George Segal as Realist

A PARTICULAR DETAIL OF George Segal’s life is familiar to students of contemporary art: that he lives in the country (North Brunswick, New Jersey) on a deactivated chicken farm. Armed with a degree in art education earned at the downtown campus of New York University, Segal quit the city and decided to give his life an economic focus by running a chicken farm while attempting to establish himself as an artist. The chickens have long since gone and their coop furnishes Segal with studio space. Being close to the Rutgers University campus Segal encountered one day a young faculty member, Allan Kaprow, through whom Segal was introduced, first hand, to the students and the teaching practice of Hans Hofmann (although Hofmann’s principles were then the current methodology and were as accessible outside the master’s studio as in it). Like many young artists of the immediate post-war generation emancipated by Abstract Expressionism, Segal’s painting at the time revealed a raw sense of color and paint manipulation, nonchalant drawing, an anchored composition and, somewhat unusually, a fundamental reliance on the imagery of the human figure. His models were Matisse and, in a less obvious way, Bonnard. In short, Segal wanted to be a great French painter.

Ten years ago, Segal had his first one-man show at the old Hansa Gallery. The exhibition was received indifferently. Here was still another young painter in the train of Matisse attempting to find himself: “He leads off with bright, primary colors which, for no explainable reason, become muddied . . . But here again there is a muddy corner as if all the problems of the painting had placed themselves in one, untidy heap.”1

Parker Tyler recognized hints of Bonnard’s light, Matisse’s drawing and flat Japanese patterns.26 In May 1957, at the time of his second exhibition, Tyler was still dubious of Segal’s “re-evocation of Bonnard’s solarization . . . One can fairly taste the palette-saturation.” He grudgingly admitted that Segal’s “gout for color and surface texture is already an accomplished thing.”3 Matisse and Bonnard were again cited, as well as Degas and Lautrec, in reference to Segal’s pastels.

In February, 1958, in connection with the third show, the reviews began to lose some of their reserve. John Ashbery saw Segal’s pictures as “unmorbid Expressionist paintings of nudes in country interiors . . . The figures are powerfully situated in space . . . the palette is sensuous and acrid (mauve-red-mahogany); the pigment juicy, worked up in a fine yet calculating frenzy; behind their surface turbulence these paintings have a cool detachment.”4

During 1958, Segal first realized the possibility of a sculptural rather than painterly solution and experimented with life- scale figures. Compared to his present technical command, these early attempts were impulsive and awkward. Three such sculptures were included in Segal’s fourth exhibition. Still not portraits or casts after his friends, they were “life-size figures [made] 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.”5

James Schuyler and Sidney Tillim were struck by this change in medium. Referring to the figures, Schuyler acknowledged that “Their effect is of a swiftly improvised immediacy, with the arrested movement of a Pompeian dog. Which is not as morbid as it sounds: rather, it is an expression of the urgency of their energy.”6

“The distance between Segal’s drawing and his sculpture,” wrote Tillim, “is less a measure of his competency than a comment on the function of technique in his style. His paintings falling somewhere between the two, only confirm an impression of a particularly knotty conflict between freedom and limitation that looks to physical means for a solution.” Not that Tillim was delighted by the tangible results of this dialectic. He found the three sculptured figures to be “outright grotesques, with parts of the armature visibly adding to the effect. Segal’s failure to come to grips with his medium implies the expediency that in varying degrees is responsible for the reckless excitement to which he too readily surrenders his ideas.”7

There can be little question that these first sculptural attempts were highly colored by the prevailing Abstract Expressionist modes, and that, for Segal, the messiness and rudimentary conception of his figures paralleled the battlefield into which the Abstract Expressionist painter had transformed his canvas.

In November, 1960, Segal exhibited at the Green Gallery. He continued to show both paintings and sculptures which James Beck took to be an amalgam of German Expressionism and Matisse.8 In Segal’s “interchangeable set of nudes”9 Tillim observed a derivation from Courbet.

During 1960–61 the second major crisis in Segal’s work occurred: the definitive break with painting (although he continued to draw in pastel) and, equally important, the switch from fictitious, figurative sculpture to the castings of identifiable people caught in simple, human gestures and placed in architectural indices and para-environments.

In the spring of 1962 a group of these eloquent figures were exhibited at the Green Gallery. The consternation they produced was great and they were widely misinterpreted. Recall that it was a moment of general disaffection with Abstract Expressionism although its fair and dark siblings, Pop art and reductive art, had not yet fully dawned upon public awareness. For this reason the shock elicited by Segal’s plaster effigies allied him, for better or worse, with the ascending Pop faction. Today, five years later, it is clearly evident that Segal’s figuration is in only the smallest degree symptomatic of the industrial and satirical chauvinism central to Pop ideology. The coincidental parallel between Segal’s own evolution as a realist and the development of a larger figurative movement tended to obscure the fact that Segal had always been a representational artist who was warm and responsive toward life where others were cold and lampooning. Unfamiliar with Segal’s development as an artist the public failed to take into account his evolution or the consistently humane impulses which initiated his sculptural work. Above all else, Segal is a lover and his work has always closely reflected his personal relationships. From the first, his sculpture has been cast from friends and acquaintances.

“I usually make sculptures of people I know very well,” Segal said recently, “in situations that I’ve known them in. And if that involves a luncheonette counter, places in the house or other places where I go: gas stations, bus stations, streets, farm buildings—this must all do with my experience. I live in this environment . . . It is a huge heap of art material for me . . . I remember my life with the objects and I also look at these objects ‘plastically’ (I suppose that is the term), ‘esthetically,’ for what these shapes are. And how people relate to these shapes and how they don’t relate in a human way, intrigues me . . . As long as there has been a very alive emotional experience between me and the person, or between me and the object, or both, only then do I incorporate it into my own work.”10

Allan Kaprow, a director, theorist and historian of the Happening movement, feelingly emphasized the nostalgic, even sentimental, impetus behind Segal’s sculptures, at a time when it was tempting to perceive them as theatrical stills from a Happening. “His works,” Kaprow wrote, “are, foremost, involvements with his friends with whom he has a specific relationship. By wrapping bandages dipped in wet plaster around the parts of their bodies, cutting off the hardened sections, then later reassembling them into the whole body, he ‘touches’ them and possesses them physically and psychically with a contact that would be possible in no other way. Both for him and for us he evokes their presence; they are almost real because they have substance and a name.”11 From this moment on Segal’s sculptural notion had achieved a certain fixity. Subsequent exhibitions tended to explore new poignant loci or technical procedures. In his most recent installation at the Janis Gallery Segal has introduced film elements into his units. In The Truck, for example, the image of a highway at night syncopated by passing traffic is projected onto the truck’s windshield through which the driver peers out. The conception is extremely real. Less veristic, perhaps, is The Restaurant in which a lonely female figure sips coffee. Onto the window is projected the shadows of fleeting persons as well as the close-up subliminal musings about which the figure has quietly been brooding. These sudden simple and large images reaffirm the link between Segal’s sculpture and his abandoned painting.

Since the early sixties a stockpile of Segal exegeses has been taking shape. Two appraisals put forth in 1964 stand out particularly. Kaprow’s Vital Mummies has already been referred to. Kaprow recalled the scandal surrounding the exhibition of Rodin’s L’Age d’airain at which time Rodin had been accused of casting from life, a practice common in 19th-century academic circles. Rodin was at pains to dismiss the charge as vehemently as Segal acknowledges the procedure. Kaprow reported on the crucial difference: “Like mummies . . . the inside of Segal’s figures remain true to life in reverse, a fairly exact impression of the skin and clothing of the model, while their outsides tend to be built up, transposed and impersonal, revealing the marks of the artist’s hand.”12 The subtle article concludes with an esthetic conceit: Kaprow postulates a situation in which the figures are real and the objects turned to plaster. Kaprow contends that the effect would be the same and the vision as profound. It seems to me that only the elements of the art-life dialectic central to Pop theory (disparaged by Kaprow as “the witty pun”) have been transposed.

Gene Swenson in another speculation of interest inquired “How can arrangements be made which enter experience so vividly that questions of art become irrelevant?” Taking issue with Segal’s celebrated Gas Station, Swenson hints at a solution to his own conundrum. “It is not that we should be able to use the oil or Coke machine; it is that the white plaster service station attendant and truck driver need to be able to use them. Otherwise their propriety and our sense of life are violated.”13

Segal’s work stimulated perplexing intellectual and perceptual problems. The source of the dilemma may have been a basic refusal on the critics’ part to acknowledge the hard-headed empirical naturalism of Segal’s work. Segal’s achievement above all else has been to replenish an ancient and honorable stream run dry in the mid-20th century. Perhaps the most difficult task for an artist in our time is that of being a realist without falling into anecdote or mere illustration. In terms of his accomplishment Segal is less a relation of Rosenquist, Warhol or Oldenburg than of Francis Bacon and Edward Hopper, artists whose work rejects tags and for whom each work stands or falls on intrinsic communicative merits.

Now that the Pop and Optical tendencies have grown seedy and that, ostensibly, the strongest work being produced today is of a reductive character, Segal’s art remains even more alienated than before. At least during Pop’s sway some affiliation between Duchamp’s Bottle Rack and Segal’s Everyman could be argued. To insist on it today seems to miss the point. Segal is, in an exalted sense, a realist and a stoic. His sober view of human existence differs little from the spectacle of isolation presented by Hopper. The sullen and fatigued appearance of Segal’s figures led me recently to describe them as “metaphors of a vast, inarticulate ordinariness” and to see in Segal “the wholly unanticipated heir of Edward Hopper.”14

Segal’s work falls completely outside the abstract mainstream of 20th-century art. His work is infinitely more profound and human than that of the general run of Pop artists with whom he has been affiliated. He rejects their uncanny ability to parody (even through straight-faced exterior imitation) continually new and topical issues. Segal occupies an isolated and tenuous position in modern art. What he does is harder.

Robert Pincus-Witten



1. B.G. (Barbara Guest). “George Segal,” exhibition review, Arts, March 1956, pp. 60–61.

2. P. T. (Parker Tyler). “George Segal,” exhibition review, Art News, March 1956, p. 58.

3. P. T. (Parker Tyler). “George Segal, ”exhibition review, Art News, May 1957, p. 12.

4. J. A. (John Ashbery). “George Segal,” exhibition review, Art News, February 1958, p. 11.

5. Henry Geldzahler. “An Interview with George Segal,” Artforum, November 1964, p. 26.

6. J. S. (James Schuyler). “George Segal,” exhibition review, Art News, February 1959, p. 16.

7. S. T. (Sidney Tillim). “George Segal,” exhibition review, Arts, February 1959, pp. 57–48.

8. J. H. B. (James H. Beck). “George Segal,” exhibition review, Art News, Nov ember 1960, p. 14.

9. S. T. (Sidney Tillim). “George Segal,” exhibition review, Arts, December 1960, p. 54.

10. Jean Dypréau, “Métamorphoses: L’école de New York,” Quadrum XVIII, 1965, p. 164.

11. Allan Kaprow, “Segal’s Vital Mummies,” Art News, February 1964, p. 33.

12. Ibid.

13. G. R. S. (Gene R. Swenson). “George Segal,” exhibition review, Art News, May 1964, p. 11.

14. Robert Pincus-Witten, “George Segal,” exhibition review, Artforum, December 1965, pp. 51–43. The present article is an altered version of a catalog essay which was included in Dine, Oldenburg, Segal: Painting, Sculpture (Art Gallery of Toronto, January 14–February 12, 1967 and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, February 24–March 26, 1967).