George Segal (1924-2000): American Still Life
|February 5, 2012||Posted by admin under Uncategorized|
The first time I came face to face with a George Segal sculpture, I was entranced. It wasn’t the materials used, nor was it the pose the “plaster people” had been positioned in. No, my fascination that day in the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, was with the feeling of hollow shells. Understand, I am not a fan of the morbid, nor do I seek out images of death, destruction and loss. However, to stand before a George Segal sculpture was for me, very much like standing in a funeral parlor – looking at once living, now deceased individuals. Difference being, Segal’s sculptures were not lying, arms crossed in a pillow of silk. The sculptures were rather, riding on an imaginary bus.
Bus Riders, (1962) Plaster, cotton gauze, leather, vinyl, steel and wood
70 x 42 3/8 x 90 3/4 in. (177.8 x 107.6 x 230.4 cm)
In the documentary George Segal: American Still Life, a young Mike Wallace (filming a segment on “Pop Art” for 60 Minutes) stands in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and asks a young George Segal why his “Bus Driver” is an anonymous figure. With his gravely voice, Segal slyly replies, “Well… it’s not a real bus”. The image of the man with his hands on the wheel was part of a memory Segal had about riding a bus. Seemingly simple stuff – unassuming some might say, yet very complex – much like the artist himself.
George Segal: American Still Life
Life and Times
He was born the son of a father who, after losing brothers in war-torn Poland, immigrated to the US and became a chicken farmer. Encouraged to study science in school, Segal surprised everyone by instead majoring in art. After graduation, being an artist wasn’t enough to pay the bills and so, in order to support his family, Segal became a chicken farmer, like his father. It was a vocation he detested, and he often referred to it as, “A legal form of slavery.” (These feelings are echoed in an early painting featuring a man with a dead chicken hanging around his neck). He also taught school and it was during that time that a student (the wife of a Johnson & Johnson employee) gave Segal several boxes of a new kind of plaster-impregnated surgical bandage. What happened next (along with many other turning points and reflections) is recalled by both Segal and his wife Helen in George Segal: American Still Life.
Photograph of George Segal’s sculpture Street Crossing (1992) in permanent installation at Montclair State University.
The film, produced and directed by Amber Edwards of NJN Public Television, weaves together scenes of Segal at work casting a model in his studio with commentary from critics, historians, art dealers, and fellow artists. There is also rare archival footage of the Pop Art scene of the 1960s combined with Segal’s own comments on the time in which he became one of America’s best-known artists. A fascinating aspect of the movie is the glimpse inside Segal’s barn, which the artist transformed from chicken coops into a private 6000 square foot museum with his favorite pieces arranged as he wished. The look inside is even more special knowing that the place is no longer accessible (it was closed upon Segal’s death in 2000).
George Segal’s powerful works of art can be found in the collections of major museums world-wide and his public sculptures are increasingly popular tourist attractions. From the expressive FDR Memorial in Washington DC, and the haunting Holocaust Memorial in San Francisco to the approachable Commuters in New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, people look at and respond to Segal’s intensely human creations every single day. His contribution to the arts was acknowledged by President and Mrs, Clinton in 1999 when they presented Segal with the National Medal of Arts.
Watching the film George Segal: American Still Life, you will learn about the man’s life, his vision and his ability to evoke emotion and provoke controversy. You will also discover that there was more – much more – to Segal than the white plaster people for which he is so well known. Colorful sculpture, and masterful drawings are among his life’s work. Determined to stand out from the non-representational Abstract Expressionists of his time, Segal helped to usher in the Pop Art movement of the 1960s… with an added touch of humanity. When asked by Mike Wallace in 1966, whether or not he hoped to become a classic, Segal simply replied, “I’m just trying to be a human being.”
George Segal: Street Scenes
This publication recounts the urban themes prevalent in Segal’s sculptures over his 40-year career. George Segal: Street Scenes is published concurrently with an exhibition at Wisconsin’s Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. It includes essays by MMoCA curator Jane Simon and Director Emeritus of the Walker Art Center, Martin Friedman – a close friend and colleague of the artist.
George Segal: American Still Life is a compelling look at a deeply human man. Not only does it offer a look at the artist himself, it also acts as a lively primer on the history of American Art in the second half of this century. With analysis by critics and historians like Barbara Ross, Hilton Kramer, Sam Hunter and Pierre Restany, the hour-long documentary examines how various art movements and theories shaped Segal’s own development. This film is a must-see for anyone interested in art history.
A glorious tribute to a glorious man.
George Segal (Modern Masters Series, Vol. 5)
With more than 100 illustrations – approximately 48 in full color – this innovative series offers a fresh look at the most creative and influential artists of the postwar era. Modern Masters form a perfect reference set for home, school, or library. Each handsomely designed volume presents:
- A thorough survey of the artist’s life and work
- Statements by the artist
- An illustrated chapter on technique
- Lists of exhibitions and public collections
- Annotated bibliography
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