New York

George Segal

Sidney Janis Gallery

Nine years ago, in my first set of reviews for Artforum, I suggested that George Segal was “the wholly unanticipated heir of Edward Hopper.” More recently, Segal has moved from being our Hopper to our Rodin; his work recalls those French sculptors working with revived Baroque values at the end of the 19th century. The issues that have crystallized in Segal’s oeuvre illuminate not only his work, but also the current revival of figurative art generally, since they address the “content” of the nude, the meaning of the fragment, and the revalidation of academic genre.

Segal’s preoccupation with the female nude has led him—as it does almost all who address this subject deeply—to an awareness of a “decontentualization,” a virtual loss of meaning, that transposes this imagery into an abstract entity, a form without content. Despite the incident or activity depicted, the female nude tends to affect the viewer as timeless and/or placeless. This formal and psychic neutrality perpetuates an academic desirable; moreover, the successful realization of this aspiration in Segal’s work indicates that the activities the artist’s nudes engage in may reflect his nostalgia for the lost high genre of academic art, the historical tableau.

Even more elusive than these ideas is the notion that Segal’s plaster nudes attempt to postulate a Jewish historical sculpture—have always done so, in fact. A paradox: the bruised despair, the inward suffering engendered by an almost Calvinist fatalism, together with the social “unconnectedness” of Segal’s figures make up in Segal’s work specifically Jewish tableaux. The Kosher Butcher Shop, 1965, a memorial to his parents, is the most significant early example. This Jewish/Protestant dualism persists. Never particularly interested in the “fun” side of Judaism, Segal is drawn instead to expressions of the tragic or elegiac in his religious patrimony.

The Rock, among Segal’s more ambitious recent works, was executed after his return from Israel this year (where he brilliantly completed a commissioned work on the theme of Abraham and Isaac gently suggesting its covert incestuous content). The Rock presents a female nude sheltered beneath an enormous stone promontory, as if within a cave. Segal plans to cast the work in bronze, and hopes to include a small waterfall emerging from the uppermost rim of the rock. The scheme provokes numerous associations, including.the blossoming in the wasteland, and by extension, the affirmation of life in an allegory of life in death. Its very title infers the Palestinian locus, as in the Church of the Dome of the Rock. (This structure, incidentally, appears frequently in the realistic painting of Harold Bruder, whom I believe also shares with Segal the desire to reassert the viability of historical genre, but inflected in a way that can be understood as Jewish historicism.)

The search for Jewishness in Segal’s work, I believe, is a function as well of the new opulence, the voluptuous warmth and fructification incarnated by his more recent female figures. In certain, perhaps even undesirable ways the ideas of plenitude embodied within homeliness, or of high moral sentiment ineptly or unsuavely executed, are conventionally thought of as “Jewish” qualities, although they are by no means the exclusive property of one ethnic group. I cannot prove this, but I feel it adds immeasurably to my satisfaction with Segal’s newer work. If Matisse’s metaphor is the easy chair, then Segal’s is the home-cooked meal.

Segal’s general formal model is Rodin, although the specific antecedent for The Rock, say, is Albert Bartholomé’s Monument to the Dead at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (completed 1899), particularly the upper portion, in which an image of the aggrieved sculptor’s recently deceased wife is sheltered beneath the portal of the sepulcher, as is Segal’s nude beneath the overhanging rock.

Segal’s more recent relief fragments, too, recall the Baroque revival isms of the1890s. Just as Rodin, Dalou, and Chapu intensified the emotional content of their nude figures through concentrating on the fragment (after all, the Classical nude was known primarily through fragments), so too is the erotic content more pronounced in Segal’s fragments. Segal’s work with relief fragments was accompanied by an important shift in his methodology that took place around 1971. His early work seems brooding and inarticulate because the anatomical specifics of his figures are hidden within the larger plaster and burlap mass. The details are literally “under wraps,” so that one has only a comparatively generalized presentation of human form. In making relief fragments, Segal could cast from within the now opened portions of the once larger whole. He could present the viewer with the peculiarities that heretofore were only guessed at—the crease of flesh, the nipple, the fine folds of eye and mouth, and so on. Casting from inside the mold of the partial figure—revealing detail through fragmentation—allowed for a headier voluptuousness than before, despite the long focus on sexually inferent subject matter in the artist’s production.

The extraordinary growth in emotional and erotic content in Segal’s recent work is marked as well by a kind of honest witticism, of which the ambitious assemblage Picasso’s Chair is exemplary. Taking Picasso’s etching of 1933, The Model and Surrealist Sculpture, as his master plan, Segal has earnestly reconstructed the Surrealist assemblage, the metamorphosized and oneiric personage that Picasso in his etching had contrasted with the beautiful Classical nude. In so doing, Segal has tellingly preserved the terms of the original while transposing it into his own more prosaic yet equally convincing terms.

Robert Pincus-Witten