New York

George Segal

Sidney Janis Gallery

For anyone familiar with George Segal’s plaster-peopled environments, there was more of the familiar in this year’s showing at the Sidney Janis Gallery. Though descended from the disorganized variety and excitement of the early Happenings, the new arrangements and neat variations of setting begin to look more and more trivial—and less than ever as if anything is really happening. I still find Segal’s plaster casts and cropped environments awkwardly achieved even at their most psychologically haunting or arresting. Earlier works often benefited from this very awkward element in the starkness and crudeness of both the figures’ positioning and accoutrements. The more recent pieces seem to suffer from the over-artfulness of their more intricate settings (Artist in His Studio; The Subway), in contrast to the deliberate artlessness of the posed figures. The more studied Segal becomes in his articulation of complex colored backgrounds, black-white compositioning, or effects like the flashing lights behind the fragment of a subway car, the more inhibited and controlled is one’s reaction to the total sculpture environment.

The mystery of incompletion and suggestion is absent from much of this recent work. On occasion the drastic cropping of these scenes lifted from everyday life, with their carefully selected details, is a successful foil to the blurred identity and psychological vacuity of the figures.Specificity,on the one hand, is played off against the out-of-focus identity of the characters on the other. The humanistic content is somehow voided of its humanism by this changing focus; the settings are only pieces in a vacuum, their figures frozen in a peculiar state of vacancy and unspecified suspension. It is when the motivation for this state is too explicitly provided and marked out with the more complex background in works like The Parking Garage (1968) that I find my attention least held, and I am least interested in the empty (but really over-dramatized) pathos of a garage attendant idly waiting to perform his duties.

For me, what is most redeeming about Segal’s combination of plaster bodies and literal furniture, doorways, shower stalls and subway cars, is the way that these objects, which are real and functional, but which are used as props or backdrops, are made to seem more unreal, more disembodied and disenfranchised by the life-sized but unlife-like plaster men and women. Self-Portrait with Head and Body (1968) is most explicit in this sense, where the replica of the artist stands over his incomplete sitting plaster model, placing the cast of her head on a hollow neck. Although the cast bodies are permanently fixed to these surrogate settings, they are never at ease within or around them. It is almost as if the figures were aware of being watched, and are either shy of, or closed off to such other presences. What undermines the works most often is that many of them have degenerated into mere tableaux, and the banality of the subject matter is unfortunately matched by the banality of the artistic conception.

Emily Wasserman