New York

George Segal

Sidney Janis Gallery

Speaking of self-parody, of whom would you least expect it? Maybe GEORGE SEGAL doesn’t immediately come to mind, but he’s been carrying around a lot of angst all these years—heir apparent to Hopper’s alienation and despair, purveyor of the elegiac and the tragic in the Judeo-Christian tradition. No wonder he needed a break.

It’s not really Segal’s fault that he’s wedded to the white elephant of art bathos. And it’s not really the fault of critics like Robert Pincus-Witten, who, echoed by many others, quite rightly noted the Hopper connection and the religious affiliations. In a way, Segal is a victim of his own modesty. He offers simply a slice of life, almost randomly picked, with little or no authorial intrusions. The sticky wicket is this: isolate a figure or figures, with or without a piece of their habitat, wipe the smiles off their faces, and you’ve automatically got an affecting picture of anomie. Even his lovely fragments and masterly color rely on this sure-fire effect of decontextualization. When you see a number of pieces, like the new Blue Girl on Park Bench or Woman in Front of Corrugated Wall (surely no further description is needed) whether you’re moved or not, the suspicion is that they are too easy.

So, if you’re Segal, what do you do? You have a little fun at your own expense and, while you’re at it, at the expense of the establishment. The Hustle: The Four Hand Pass is a sculpture and environment cum video, and it undercuts Segal’s facility and reputation at every turn. The video is an explanation and demonstration by Sidney Janis of the popular dance of a few seasons back; the sculpture is a cast of him and his partner, and the setting is cheap disco-decadent. Back-and-forth cuts from the statues to their real-life counterparts, immobilized in mid-step for a few moments before they begin to swing, comment on unavoidable heroicizing. Janis conspicuously and repeatedly smooths down his hair. Everything works against the dignity of the factured figures: the fake paneling, reflecting color wheel and revolving mirrored ball; the plastic plant in the corner; even the music’s “get-down” refrain—“it’s enough, it’s enough, it’s enough.” Ironically, Segal intones, this is no “drug-induced trance.”

Segal’s presence in the film, sermonizing and belaboring the obvious in this well-meaning way, is a mockery of the preachy interpretations to which his own accomplishments are open. Of course, to label any item in a gallery The Hustle and then feature your dealer in it takes nerve, or a good-natured dealer, or, more likely, a measure of secure success not everybody enjoys. To subtitle it The Four Hand Pass, is to suggest that it takes two to hustle as well as tango. Artist and dealer? Dealer and buyer? Artist, dealer, audience, and critic? How do you tell the dancers from the dance?

In a 1975 review, Pincus-Witten felt obliged (or relieved) to mention the “witticism” of a Segal rendition of Picasso; unfortunately, adjectives like “honest” and “earnest” made it sound far from entertaining. You may never see a version of The Gay Cavaliers in Segal’s work, but on the basis of this installation it’s clear he’s not just a stolid poet. He’s a stolid poet with a lot of good humor.

Jeanne Silverthorne