George Segal

This Segal retrospective, the first since a 1978–79 exhibit organized by the Walker Art Center, reveals how individualistic the artist’s approach to the Pop idiom was. Unlike Warhol, Oldenburg, and the Pop mainstream, which homed in on consumer-oriented irony, Segal was an intense critic of post-war alienation and depersonalization. His identification with those living on the fringes of society is palpable in the white plaster figures, presented in forlorn isolation or in groups, for which he is best known. These sculptural installations from the ’60s present as devastating a portrait of inner-city and industrial desolation as Edward Hopper's paintings from the ’30s, the Depression era during which Segal grew up. Unlike many of his peers, he allowed echoes of that time into his art.

Beyond those figures, the retrospective encompasses pre-Pop paintings and pastels and post-Pop bas-reliefs, sculptures, works on paper, and maquettes for public commissions. Segal’s links to European modernism are readily apparent in the exhibit; there are vestiges of Bonnard and Matisse in his rough yet intimate pastel sketches of nudes on colored paper from the late ’50s and early ’60s, some of them mere fragments of bodies, cropped like photo stills. His oil painting Red Courbet, 1959, despite its title, is a bed scene more likely to bring to mind Edvard Munch’s anxiety than Gustave Courbet’s realism. Reclining Woman, 1958, a sensuous mixed-media pastiche of glass, wood, plaster, and paint, highlights Segal’s obsession, throughout his career, with fusing sculpture and painting. This drive also surfaces in his bas-reliefs from the ’70s, made from fragments of his plaster body-casts, and reaches its apogee in Nature Morte no. 4, 1981, a plaster arrangement of painted apples on drapery.

Among the surprises in this retrospective are Segal’s 1970s sculptural collages recreating Cubist themes such as Picasso’s Chair, 1973, which features a muselike plaster model placing her hand on a collage (reminiscent of Schwitters’) of wooden furniture sections, object fragments, a pillow, and string. The show also includes Segal’s maquettes for commissioned public sculpture monuments such as The Holocaust, 1982, Depression Bread Line, 1991, and Appalachian Farm Couple 1936, 1978.

The large-scale pastel and charcoal portraits from the mid ’90s —studies of work gloves, braided bread, and apples, as well as portraits of Pierre Restany, Arnold Newman, and various friends and family members— mark a return to painting after a twenty-five-year break. Using a sfumato technique that Leonardo used, these penetrating works have a psychological intensity that recalls Rembrandt’s portraits or Chuck Close’s hyper-realist paintings. Likewise, there is a newer naturalism in Segal’s treatment of Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael, 1987, with its vertical rock as a centerpiece. Chinatown, 1994, a multimedia installation conceived entirely in black and white, uses as a backdrop two wall-sized photos of New York shop windows taken at night; one features statues of Buddha and other Asian deities, the other a display of fish on ice in front of a shop. In semidarkness, a solitary black figure cast in plaster sweeps the stagelike platform in front of them.

Segal’s sculpture environments no longer have the avant-gardist edge they once did, but the veracity of his social concerns—which pervades all the work—remains. He creates a bric-a-brac world of commonplace details and ordinary people, one that is strangely poetic in its estranged vision of the everyday.

John K. Grande