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PRINT January 2009

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George Segal

I WAS TWICE A MODEL for the sculptor George Segal. In 1978, I posed as a man standing next to a hot dog stand. In 1991, I was a down-and-outer in a moody Depression breadline. Both were firsthand experiences of George’s literal shaping of bodies: Much more so than other artists characterized under the rubric of Pop, George was always deeply interested in human physicality (as evidenced in the current traveling survey of his work). But his literalism went far beyond mere description. Hot Dog Stand conveys detachment, noncommunication, and anonymity; Depression Bread Line projects the isolation and stasis of hard times, of economic crisis—a concern symptomatic of the present day.

The Hot Dog Stand, completed in 1978, was inspired by an actual stand that George came across while wandering through a suburban New Jersey mall. He was enthralled by the kiosk’s strange, glowing, Mondrianesque ceiling, made of translucent red, yellow, blue, and white plastic rectangles. For all his commitment to realism, George admired the utopian rigor of Mondrian’s art. He duplicated the stand in his studio and chose a young woman to pose as its attendant; all he needed was the right person to buy a hot dog from her. Because of the Mondrian association, George offered me the job: “It’s only appropriate that the director of the Walker Art Center be that person,” he said. Not only would the sculpture become a nod to the great De Stijl master, but, no less important, it would exemplify the way in which high art enters public consciousness. After all, he asked, wasn’t the museum-to-mall trickle-down process something that I, as a museum director, should be seriously concerned about?

Mindful of the honor of being asked to pose for George Segal, I turned up at his South Brunswick, New Jersey, studio a few weeks later, ready for replication as a work of art. The studio was a converted chicken house, left over from the days when George and his wife, Helen, owned a poultry business. George greeted me warmly and immediately put me to work. He handed me a beat-up leather jacket several sizes too large and a pair of outsize plaster-flecked shoes: I was to be an anonymous working-class man. Being cast by George, I soon learned, was at least a three-hour immersion in a world where time slows down, and in which the passive castee feels the brute inertia of objecthood. “Just assume a comfortable stance,” George said. Nor should I think too much about the character I was portraying, he added. This was not Method acting, after all. The figures in a Segal sculpture are characteristically relaxed. Facial expressions are passive; no overt drama, no histrionic gestures—just placidity.

Casting my body would be a three-stage process, George explained. My torso, my legs, and finally my head were to be wrapped in water-soaked, plaster-impregnated Johnson & Johnson bandages, normally used to set broken limbs. So began my evolution into a Segal effigy. George, assisted by Helen, worked rapidly, since the strips hardened as they dried. When my upper body, leather jacket and all, was completely covered, George slapped handfuls of wet Hydro-Stone industrial plaster on my chest, back, and arms, working over these areas with a sure hand. He manipulated the wet plaster as though he were finger painting three-dimensionally—building up a collar edge, emphasizing the folds of a jacket sleeve, and heightening divisions between shirt and jacket. I was getting quite warm. Once my carapace had hardened, George gently pried off its front and back sections. After a brief respite I resumed my standing pose; he cast my lower body and then my head.

Having my head encased in plaster was far from claustrophobic: It was, in fact, a near-mystical experience. In preparation, George had liberally slathered my face with Nivea cream, fully coating my eyelashes and eyebrows. After covering my face with cloth strips, he said, “Just take a breath and blow it out your nose quickly. That will make a couple of airholes so you can breathe.” He began applying wet plaster over the strips. The more he added, the more detached from the world I became. Sounds in the studio grew ever fainter. When at last George tapped me on the head to signal I was done, I was in no hurry to reenter the real world. Not only had I survived having my head cast, brows and lashes intact, but I also felt exhilarated—like being at a spa, I thought. I was slightly dismayed, however, when George showed me the cast, as my features—especially my nose—looked quite large. “No problem,” he said reassuringly as he turned the cast from side to side, admiring his handiwork. “That’s how they all look at first.” The cast of my face, like that of the rest of my body, would serve as a hollow mold into which George would pour liquid plaster. Once removed, the result would be a fairly detailed reproduction of myself.

When I returned to South Brunswick a few months later, I met my doppelgänger, rendered in white plaster from head to toe. His right hand lightly grasped a jacket lapel; his left one partly rested in a trouser pocket. The entire body was richly detailed, the result of the interior-casting method that Segal had employed since the early 1970s. These later figures, in their considerable descriptiveness, differed radically from the rough-surfaced, more generalized sculptures of the previous decade. A few months later, my double had become part of the completed Hot Dog Stand. Painted dark blue, almost black, he stood across the counter from the young vendor—still in a white plaster state. The multicolored light from the Mondrian ceiling was the tableau’s only illumination.

During a board meeting at the Walker that year, it was suggested that the museum acquire the sculpture for its collection. The more this discussion went on, the more uncomfortable I became. Encountering myself in the galleries every day would be disconcerting, I told them. Much as I appreciated the board’s interest in buying the piece, I added half-jokingly, they would have to choose between it and me. At that point, one of the board’s more waggish members solemnly intoned, “There are cheaper ways of getting rid of a director.” In 1979, Hot Dog Stand entered the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

A second call came from South Brunswick in 1990, when George invited me to pose as a figure in a breadline. This was to be one of three bronze sculptures he had been commissioned to make for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial on the banks of the Potomac River in Washington, DC. (The other two were of an elderly Appalachian couple and a man listening intently to a Roosevelt Fireside Chat on the radio.) What an offer—and in bronze, no less! Of course, I accepted. For this casting session, George was assisted by the photographer Donald Lokuta, with whom he had worked since 1984. Because George’s breadline was to be a wintertime piece, he outfitted his models (all friends) accordingly. I was provided an overcoat that had seen better days, a battered fedora, and scruffy shoes. When the plaster version of Depression Bread Line was finished in 1991, George painted its figures in tones of green acrylic pigment, the faces lighter than the rest of their bodies, the coats and shoes almost black.

On May 1, 1992, the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York opened an exhibition of these painted plasters. I was second in line, Lokuta was third, and George fourth. The others were Leon Bibel (first) and Daniel Burger (last), both friends of George. In his foreword to the catalogue, Segal reminisced about the origins of the piece. He mentioned as important sources the Depression-era images of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn, made under the aegis of the Farm Security Administration. After steeping himself in that imagery, George spoke with a number of people who had actually stood in breadlines. They were furious about what had befallen them. His line of ragged men captures some of that desperation. For all the historical specificity of this doleful scene, the vignette has a mythic, timeless character.

The bronze versions of George’s FDR sculptures were made a few years later at the Johnson Atelier in Mercerville, New Jersey, which the artist had used for more than twenty years. Unwilling to allow anyone else to patinate his bronzes, he invariably took on the job himself. They are green, like the plasters, but their tone is much darker and harsher. Over the matte black undercoat that had been applied to each bronze figure, the artist energetically brushed, splashed, and spattered a viscous chemical solution that, upon heating with a blowtorch, eventually approximated the patina of bronzes long exposed to weather.

On May 2, 1997, the Roosevelt Memorial was dedicated in West Potomac Park. A year or so afterward, I visited the site with George. The day was brisk and wintry, and the Depression Bread Line’s figures, in their shabby overcoats, looked appropriately dressed. I quickly spotted my slightly stooped alter ego. Once we got close to the breadline and could see it apart from its ponderous architectural setting, the sculpture took on a compelling intimacy. In it, my companions and I stand waiting outside the closed door of what could be a soup kitchen or, I mused, something more ominous. The figures’ complex, textured surfaces and irregular outlines, the traces of George’s hand-shaping process, vary dramatically under changing light conditions, suddenly becoming animated during brief periods of sunshine. Interdependent as the breadline figures are, each man looks inward, as though unconscious of the others.

“George Segal: Street Scenes” originated at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, WI; travels to the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Jan. 24–April 5; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO, May 9–Aug. 2; Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL, Sept. 8–Dec. 6.

Martin Friedman is director emeritus of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and a critic and art historian based in New York.