New York

George Segal

Sidney Janis Gallery

For the past few years George Segal has been painting his plaster figures with colors that are highly unreal, but the effect is hardly garish. The paint deadens the sculpture, intentionally so. To me Segal’s work is a reflection and a critique of reification, passivity, vacuity. Too often in the white sculpture Segal allowed each attribute (or non-attribute) to be subsumed by its corollary: reification lapsed to a stoicism, passivity to a godly indifference, vacuity to a serenity. This was due, in part, to the white material: as if the sculpture blanched in time, like Greek statuary, to the purity of masterwork. Perhaps this was not accidental: much of the work was and is relief and fragments, the latter imbued with an aura of the ruine romantique. No doubt one was asked to see a parallel, a degraded life/art and a pure (of course former) life/art, and to read both an irony and an encomium there. (Such a parallel is obvious in a work commissioned and rejected by Kent State to “commemorate” the student slayings: the title is In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State: Abraham and Isaac.)

This tendency is checked by color. On one wall Segal places pieces of a cast of a pregnant woman’s body. The gestures are anguished; the plaster is a scarred membrane; the paint is putrid. The effect dispels any notion of sculpture as the stuff of immortality. Elsewhere there are sculptural scenes; two show nude women in a doorway. In each the figure is painted solidly one unreal color and the ground another. The color is awful, arbitrary: through nudes, the figures are clad, cloyed, in an opacity that one feels is our own basilisk vision as men regard women, as we all regard convention (like the nude). The effect is to make absent what seems so present: human expression. These women do not seem to present alienation. Bereft of even that consciousness, they are just things in a thing-world, colors in context. The inflection of a contour, of a hip, is no more pronounced, no more sensuous or empathic, than a panel of the wall.

Hal Foster