George Segal

views updated May 21 2018

George Segal

American sculptor George Segal (born 1924) placed cast human figures in settings and furnishings drawn from the environment of his home in southern New Jersey.

George Segal was born on November 26, 1924, in New York City. He attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. In 1940 his family moved to South Brunswick, New Jersey, where his father, who had previously worked as a butcher, operated a chicken farm. Segal attended art classes at Cooper Union in New York in 1941-1942. From 1942 to 1946 he studied literature, psychology, history, and philosophy in evening classes at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Before receiving his B.S. degree in art education from New York University in 1949, he took classes at the Pratt Institute of Design in New York. While attending New York University, Segal studied collage with the sculptor Tony Smith and also took classes with the painter William Baziotes.

The 1950s were difficult years for Segal financially, but he continued painting and developed important friendships with other artists who were in the New York area. He operated a chicken farm across the road from his parents' from 1949 to 1958, but, faced with bankruptcy, he began teaching in various public schools in New Jersey from 1957 to 1964. In 1961 he entered the Master of Fine Arts program at Rutgers University and received his degree in 1963.

Segal's earliest exhibited works were paintings. Unlike the work of most artists in New York in the late 1940s and 1950s, Segal's paintings were representational and frequently included human figures in an interior environment. By the time of his third one-man exhibition at the Hansa Gallery in New York in 1958, Segal's paintings were life-size in scale, intensely colored, and mainly represented figures painted with heavy, expressive brush strokes. The problem of resolving the conflict between the two-dimensional, formal space of abstract painting and his interest in depicting three-dimensional figures led Segal, in 1959, to exhibit plaster figures placed in front of his paintings. These three-dimensional sculptures could exist in real space, while the flat canvases served to form an environmental setting created by flat areas of color. These tentative sculptures were made of wood and plaster, materials familiar to Segal from his construction activities on his farm.

His Future is Cast

In the summer of 1961 a student in an art class Segal was teaching brought him some bandages used to set broken bones. When these plaster-impregnated strips are wet and molded in place they harden into a cast. He began experimenting by making plaster casts of his body and assembled the parts into a sculpture of a seated figure. The full sculpture, Man Sitting at a Table, included a real chair and a table to which a window had been nailed. The mullions of the window form a grid through which the viewer looks, as if into an illusionary painted canvas. The incorporation of an environmental setting for the figure grew partly from his combining of painted settings with his first sculptures two years earlier, but the idea is also related to parallel artistic concepts that were then being developed by a number of Segal's contemporaries.

Allan Kaprow, whom Segal met in 1953, organized Happenings—partially improvised, non-narrative dramatic performances. His first Happening was held on Segal's farm. Kaprow was one of a number of artists exploring the integration of multi-sensory experience within an environment that often depended on random or improvisational techniques. The composer John Cage was a major influence on the artists who participated in this avant-garde circle that included Robert Rauschenburg, Red Grooms, Kaprow, and some of the performers who formed the Fluxus Group. In encompassing human figures, and on at least one occasion sound, and an environmental milieu, Segal's sculpture has some affinity to approaches being explored by these artists. Segal's work is distinguished by his emphasis upon formal values, his use of familiar settings and objects, and his use of such traditional themes as figures at a table, female nudes, and even on a few occasions religious subjects.

Segal generally made his sculptures by molding cloth strips dipped in hydrostone, an industrial plaster, over the person serving as his model. The surfaces of the sculpture were manipulated freely by the artist as he worked with the strips of plaster-soaked cloth. Sometimes he used these casts of the figure as a negative mold into which he poured plaster in order to produce a positive cast, but he generally preferred the greater artistic activity involved in working with the exterior surface of the initial cast. On rare occasions these sculptures were then cast in bronze and painted with a white finish. Segal at times painted the surface of his sculptures, first in The Costume Party (1965), and more frequently in the mid-1970s—Couple on Black Bed (1976), Red Girl in Blanket (1975), and Magenta Girl on Green Door (1977), for example—but most of his sculptures are white. The whiteness separates their reality as expressive of the artist's intuition and feelings from that of the colored environment in which Segal places them, while their naturalism provides a bridge between the real world and the artist's personal vision. For Segal, the primary colors that he sometimes used are meant to communicate psychological states and thus can be used arbitrarily with no immediate reference to the actual appearance of the subject.

Segal's sculptures of the 1960s were often mundane in subject, such as Woman Painting Her Fingernails (1962), and were cast from personal friends and neighbors. A large number of sculptures, beginning with his first cast work discussed earlier, incorporate windows. Windows remind one of the definition of illusionistic painting as a mirror or a window through which one has a view of the visible world. In many of Segal's works the presence of an actual window (with a real three-dimensional space) clarifies the nature of the space as concrete, not an illusion.

An Art Movement

A considerable number of Segal's sculptures of the 1960s and 1970s have the theme of transit—for example, Man on a Bicycle (1962, Moderna Museet, Stockholm), The Bus Driver (1962, Museum of Modern Art, New York), The Bus Riders (1962, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.), The Gas Station (1963-1964, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), The Truck (1966, Art Institute of Chicago), and To All Gates (1971, Des Moines Art Center, Iowa). These and a number of other works of figures in a doorway, such as Woman in a Doorway I (1964, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) or other sculptures where the theme is even more obvious, an example being Bas-Relief: Girl with Clock (1972), all relate to the theme of passage or the transitory nature of temporal existence.

Segal's concern with the timeless and universal within the context of modern life includes sculptures showing figures involved in their work, making love, eating, or located in settings characteristic of contemporary American culture. His accomplishment is in having found a compelling way to synthesize modern sensibility and artistic approaches with these enduring philosophical and artistic issues.

Segal is best known for his sculptures, but in 1994 he returned to painting, often exploring depth and space in these works. Works of this period are drawn with charcoal on house paint, in shades of gray, black and white. He also applies stucco layers for texture.

In 1995 Segal wrapped Israeli statesman Abba Eban's body in plaster-impregnated bandages in the first step in the making of the cast that was to become Portrait of Abba Eban. The sculpture shows a seated, life-size Eban (covered in the dark acrylic paint) in front of a black, wooden wall with a map of Israel silkscreened on it. Eban asked Segal to make the sculpture for the Abba Eban Center for the Diplomacy of Israel, a part of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Segal was commissioned to produce three bronzes for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, dedicated in 1997: The Fireside Chat, The Rural Couple, and The Breadline. Encompassing over seven acres, the FDR Memorial is situated between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and creates a park-like sequence of four outdoor galleries, each depicting a term in office.

Segal has long pursued a personal interest in interpreting the Bible through his work. Five tableaux—all drawn from the Book of Genesis—were seen together for the first time in early 1997 in a museum setting at the Skirball Cultural Center and Museum. The institution emphasizes art related to the Jewish experience.

Further Reading

For a major comprehensive study of Segal's work see George Segal by Jan Van der Marck (revised edition, 1979), which has many illustrations, a list of exhibitions, and a useful bibliography. For a briefer treatment that includes commentaries by Segal see George Segal: Sculptures, by Martin Friedman and Graham W. J. Beal, catalogue of an exhibition held at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota; San Francisco; and New York in 1978-1979. The photographs of Segal's working method are especially useful. Also see the Modern Masters Series (v.5, p. 123-125) (1983). For more recent work see articles in Art News magazine or use one of the many search engines, such as AltaVista, to find listing on the WWW of galleries, dealers and museums currently exhibiting the artist's works. Segal was also featured on the Arts & Entertainment television network's program Biography, and additional information is available from their web page ( □

Segal, George

views updated May 29 2018

SEGAL, George

(b. 26 November 1924 in New York City; d. 9 June 2000 in South Brunswick, New Jersey), sculptor and painter who placed plaster casts made from live models within real environments.

Segal was the younger son of Jacob Segal, a butcher and chicken farmer, and Sophie Gerstenfeld Segal. He attended Public School 70 in the Bronx and Stuyvesant High School, a public school with competitive entrance exams, in Manhattan. There he majored in art and graduated in 1940. That year Segal moved with his family to South Brunswick, New Jersey, to the family chicken farm. In 1949 Segal bought the chicken farm across the road and ran it until 1958, thereafter continuing to maintain his home and studio in that location. In 1946 he married Helen Steinberg; they had two children.

In 1956 Segal was given his first one-person show at the Hansa Gallery in New York, and in 1962 he was included in the New Realists show of mainly pop artists at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, where he exhibited often after 1965. He taught English at Jamesburg High School (1957–1958) and a summer adult painting class in New Brunswick (1961). From 1961 to 1964 he taught at Roosevelt Junior High School. Segal studied at Rutgers University from 1962 to 1963, when he received an M.F.A. He taught at Hunter College in New York City in 1964. That year long articles on him and his work appeared in ArtNews, ArtForum, and Art International. In 1968 he was given his first solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. For the 1968–1969 academic year he was appointed lecturer in sculpture at Princeton University. In 1970 he received an honorary doctorate from Rutgers University.

Segal's first venture in direct casting with white plaster was Man Sitting at a Table (1961), made from his own body. He explained that we are "left with a white and somewhat abstracted surface—showing … little distinguishing detail to identify it as a portrait of a particular man—the figure became a generalized sign for a person." One motivation for this kind of art, the first example of which was presented on his farm in 1958, was his experience of the avant-garde artist Allen Kaprow's Happenings (a form of theater without plots and without character development, in which people perform a number of unrelated actions). Critics referred to his early sculptural assemblages as "frozen happenings."

Segal's skill in building chicken coops quickly transferred to skill in constructing his assemblages. Although his work in this vein had no direct precedent, he felt indebted to European sculptors of the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, among them Auguste Rodin, Medardo Rosso, Germaine Richier, and Alberto Giacometti. The settings encompassing his plaster figures suggested small-town American life from the 1940s through the 1960s, the kind of life he experienced in and about South Brunswick. One would not find, for example, a setting suggestive of a modernistic Manhattan skyscraper. His models were typically his neighbors and friends.

Segal's Gas Station (1963), measuring eight feet high by twenty-two feet wide by five feet deep, was his largest assemblage of the 1960s. It contained real-life objects—cans of motor oil, a wall clock, a Coca-Cola dispensing machine, and cases for Coca-Cola cans—and two white plaster figures. The figure striding and carrying an oilcan was cast from a man who operated a gas station about a mile from the artist's home. The other figure, sitting lethargically on an empty upturned Coca-Cola case, derived from the artist's sculptor friend Gary Kuehn, who was not the loafer he appeared to be. Bus Driver (1962), with its figure encased tightly in the front steering section of a bus, was inspired directly by a ride Segal caught on the last bus from New York City at 1:00 a.m. The driver, portly and pompous, was cast from Segal's brother-in-law, whom Segal characterized as being "a kind of moral, dogmatic, convinced guy, sure of where he is going." The pieces for the bus came from a junkyard and were put together with the cast of the driver in such a way as to convey "a massive strong man surrounded by massive strong machinery and yet basically a very unheroic man trapped by forces larger than himself that he couldn't control and least of all understand."

Segal's simple material, white plaster, lent itself to a wide variety of settings. His own mother, shown hacking off the head of a chicken, posed for Butcher Shop (1965). The words "kosher meat" in Hebrew letters, part of the assemblage, stood in for the artist's father, who had operated a kosher meat store in the Bronx. The rectilinearity of the table, the glassless windows, and the purposefulness of the woman's gesture suggest something akin to a religious rite. Other tableaux had to do with ordinary acts of everyday life—people sitting at a diner counter, a woman fastening her bra, and so on.

Although Segal is best known as a sculptor, in the 1960s he worked in oil and in pastels, producing vigorously handled paintings mostly of female nudes or parts of their torsos. Especially noteworthy is the Nude Behind Shower Curtains (1963), with its adroit combination of flesh tones with violets for the curtains, blue for the tub, and tans for the bathroom wall. In Upside Down Man (1960), the male figure (a departure from Segal's usual choice of female nude) is set beside an imposing large round table; the motif anticipates the upside-down figures of the German neoexpressionist Georg Baselitz.

After the 1960s, as Segal's reputation spread, he received important national as well as international commissions. The former included The Steelmakers for the Federal Plaza Mall in Youngstown, Ohio, and Three Figures on Four Park Benches for the Justice Center in Cleveland. The latter included the Sacrifice of Isaac for the Tel Aviv (Israel) Foundation for Literature and Art. Without changing his format, Segal broadened his basic idea by sometimes coloring all or parts of a figure. One example is the blue that pervades his portrait of the art historian Meyer Schapiro (1977). He also sometimes made political statements, as with In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State: Abraham and Isaac (1978), which expressed his dissatisfaction with U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Segal died at his New Jersey home of cancer at the age of seventy-five.

Segal sometimes is grouped with the pop artists, who produced art based on the commonplace objects of modern twentieth-century life (like the soup cans of Andy Warhol and the comic-strip characters of Roy Lichtenstein), but he fits neatly into no category, except for the general one of assemblage. His ghostlike figures in real settings of the 1960s suggest the alienation of the modern human being. The critic Lawrence Alloway wrote that "a pathos emanates" from the work, but Segal himself argued that he was "try[ing] to capture the subject's gravity and dignity.… I'm dependent on the sitter's human spirit."

See Jan Van Der Marck, George Segal (1979), for excellent illustrations and long discussions of individual works. The author sometimes makes exaggerated claims for the artist. A reliable and informative text containing statements by the artist and critics is Phyllis Tuchman, George Segal (1983). Useful for photographs showing step-by-step casting of a plaster sculpture is Sam Hunter, George Segal (1989). Valuable for its illustrations of Segal's little-known paintings is Marco Livingstone, George Segal Retrospective: Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings (1997). An obituary is in Who's Who in American Art (2002–2002).

Abraham A. Davidson

Segal, George

views updated May 08 2018


SEGAL, GEORGE (1924–2000), U.S. sculptor and painter. Best known for his stark, plaster sculptural figures placed in real environments, Segal was born in the Bronx to immigrant parents from Eastern Europe. He studied at various schools, including Cooper Union (1941–42); Rutgers University (1942–46; 1961–63); and New York University (1948–49), where Larry *Rivers was a classmate. Initially Segal painted the human form in a gestural, colorful fashion influenced by Abstract Expressionism, but by 1958 he discovered that sculpture was a more effective way for him to convey his interest in the psychology of the figure. Early experimentations were made from burlap, wire, and plaster and executed in a rough, expressive manner akin to his painterly work, but beginning in the summer of 1961 Segal was casting live models from medical bandages saturated with plaster to capture pose and mood. Butcher Shop (1965, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto), an homage to his father – a kosher butcher in the Bronx during the Great Depression who died six months before the conception of the piece – presents a plaster cast of Segal's mother slaughtering a plaster chicken behind a glass window labeled "Kosher Butcher" in Hebrew. Her impressionist rendering betrays the artist's touch, a technique especially vivid in work completed before 1971 when Segal kept his casts hollow. Indeed, in 1971 Segal began to reproduce negatives of the interior of casts rather than piecing together molds of his models' bodies, thereby creating more lifelike, smoothly rendered, and detailed sculptures.

Segal executed many public commissions, notably In Memory of May 4, 1970: Kent StateAbraham and Isaac (1978), cast in bronze as an allegory in commemoration of the four students killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University when they were protesting the Vietnam War. After the controversial sculpture was rejected by Kent State it was subsequently erected at Princeton University in November 1978. The Holocaust (1983), commissioned by the city of San Francisco, overlooks Lincoln Park. The memorial shows several corpses lying on the ground with a lone living figure standing behind a barbed wire fence. The plaster model of the tableau is on display at New York's Jewish Museum.


M. Friedman and G.W.J. Beal, George Segal: Sculptures (1978); J. van der Marck, George Segal (1979); P. Tuchman, George Segal (1983); S. Hunter and D. Hawthorne, George Segal (1989).

[Samantha Baskind (2nd ed.)]

Segal, George

views updated May 18 2018


SEGAL, GEORGE (1934– ), U.S. actor. Born in New York, Segal graduated from Columbia University in 1955. He began his career on the off-Broadway stage. He moved on to television and Broadway, appearing in the plays Gideon (1961); Rattle of a Simple Man (1963); and Art (1998).

He made his film debut in 1961 in The Young Doctors. Segal's stardom was assured with two performances in successive films, King Rat (1965) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), the latter winning him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Segal has starred in more than 50 motion pictures, including The Quiller Memorandum (1966); The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967); Bye Bye Braverman (1968); No Way to Treat a Lady (1968); Loving (1970); Where's Poppa? (1970); The Owl and the Pussycat (1970); Born to Win (1971); The Hot Rock (1972); A Touch of Class (1973); Blume in Love (1973); California Split (1974); The Black Bird (1975); Fun with Dick and Jane (1977); The Last Married Couple in America (1980); Look Who's Talking (1989); For the Boys (1991); Me, Myself and I (1992); Flirting with Disaster (1996); The Cable Guy (1996); and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996).

In addition to his roles in dozens of tv movies, Segal starred in the tv crime series Murphy's Law (1988–89) and the sitcom Just Shoot Me (1997–2003).

[Jonathan Licht /

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]

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George Segal