New York

George Segal

Sidney Janis Gallery

In this show of recent works, George Segal succeeds in capturing the vast dimensions of the human spirit. Segal’s long-standing interest in confronting directly life’s more unfathomable aspects proved to be his point of departure from Pop art. While the gas stations and stores that provide the settings for his earlier sculptures do seem to have a Pop flavor about them, the plaster-cast people who populate them have always been quite another matter. By touching upon realism in such an eerie way, they disturb the viewer’s sense of reality. Segal’s vision has always had a universal aim, that of probing the pathos of existence. In his recent wall reliefs, freestanding sculptures, and pastels, Segal offers some intensely compelling evidence of his mastery.

The wall-reliefs are among the most powerful Segal has done to date in this format. The relief format has served as a vehicle for focusing attention on the element of time in Segal’s work. Though often described as frozen, Segal’s sculptures actually have more of a slow-motion quality about them. The represented moment seems to be continually unfolding, not at any quick clip but with stately grace. This can be seen most clearly in Leon, 1989. The work shows the jacketed torso of an older, stocky man, standing in front of a section of a brick wall that incorporates a wooden door. The surface of the door is worn, the wall is marked up with chalk, and the man appears in a plainly introspective pose, with eyes closed and hands clasped. This figure emits a powerful psychic vitality. The tension between realistic details—the features of the face, the patterns of the jacket—and the impressionistic treatment of surfaces—over-painted plaster, decayed wood—lies at the source of that vitality. The fragments of wall and door act as signs of contemporary life, both of change and neglect.

In Helen Against Door, 1988, Segal creates an arresting statement about personal isolation. Here the figure is of an older woman, her hands folded one over the other, her torso at an angle to the door that at once seems both a form of support and an instrument of pressure. The sensation of weight is overwhelming, from the gravity of the figure’s pose to the heaviness of the atmosphere that is heightened by the dark-painted surface of the door.

Of the two free-standing sculptural ensembles-cum-tableaux shown here, The Italian Restaurant, 1988, is a reminder of the range of subjects from daily life that can inspire Segal. In this work, a man is shown sitting at a small table with a red tablecloth and a cup and saucer on it. Behind the man and table is a section of wall containing part of a painting. The painting is of the naked torsos of a man and a woman, and the gestures of these figures suggest a painting of the Expulsion. The presence of this theme serves to reiterate an aspect of Segal’s accomplishments that is too frequently neglected: the notion that art is not life. Art can and does reflect forms and aspects of life, but in Segal’s work, illusion is ultimately the source of revelation.

Ronny Cohen