By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The damnedest things happen in (early) middle age. At first it's only a little scary; you see a few crow's-feet, you wake up a bit stiff, you agree with a Wall Street Journal editorial. Next thing you know, you've got metastasizing gray and you're muttering about "standards" and, worse yet, quoting Hilton Kramer.
The occasion for this crisis is Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art's show featuring the plaster-of-Paris sculpture of George Segal. Nothing can be counted on to lure collectors and muzzle critics like a fossilized, once-upon-a-time radical, and so Segal, who died last summer at the age of 75, is the latest '60s Pop art star to be dubbed a classic and put on the road. In a foreword to the show's catalog, Ted Pillsbury, the former Kimbell director-turned-art merchant, opines that Segal's work "one day may rank alongside [that] of the most gifted second-generation abstractionists such as Alfred Leslie or even Richard Diebenkorn." Financial interests aside, this praise comes from a man once shortlisted to run the Metropolitan Museum of Art. PBS has even gotten into the act; just last week, the local public television station rebroadcast George Segal, a documentary featuring the reactionary Kramer and others holding forth on the profundity of Segal's art.
Segal has long been viewed with disdain in the hipper regions of the art world, in part because he never adopted the glib, ironic approach that characterizes so much contemporary art. The rap on George was always that he was too messy, too full of emotion, an abstract expressionist disguised in minimalist clothing. Such criticisms have always seemed to me bass-ackwards; when Segal's work fails, it is precisely because he doesn't emote. The work tended to be a lot like the late artist himself: detached, cerebral, reserved and above all melancholy. Whether seated at a bus stop or in a café, standing before a bathroom mirror or seated in a chair, Segal's plaster figures--modeled from real people--did not judge American culture. Instead, they went silently through existence exactly as we will all go out of it, alone and lost in contemplation.
You don't need a foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel to be overwhelmed by sadness, even dread, walking among the isolated, ghostlike spectres in Pillsbury and Peters' newly renovated atrium. And then, just as the depression begins to settle in, it lifts, banished by a jolt of life in the form of three charcoal drawings: magnificent, masterful, vibrant and full of affection. The drawings are oversized, photo-realistic images of people close to Segal, based on photographs the artist took himself in the last decade of his life. In the recent PBS documentary, Kramer described their effect perfectly. "You walk into a room and you encounter images like that for the first time, and you feel a response in your nervous system even before you've formulated what you think about [them]. And that's a pretty good test, I think, of an artist's success."
They also help tie together the themes presented in Pillsbury and Peters' show, George Segal and the Nobility of Everyday Life. The exhibition, which sadly runs for only two more weeks, presents a good cross section of the artist's wide-ranging oeuvre. Absent those stunning charcoal drawings, it would be easy to forget that Segal was trained as a painter and in a very specific post-war intellectual milieu. Like so many Eastern European Jews, Segal's father fled ahead of the Nazis, who wiped out what remained of his family back in Poland. Segal père settled in New York, working 18-hour days as a butcher. He wanted his son to be a chicken farmer, but young George had other ideas. Raised in a city chock-full of European intellectuals, George Segal decided that he, too, wanted to live the "life of the mind." Specifically, he wanted to paint. After the war, Segal earned a degree in art education; throughout the early '50s, he farmed chickens, worked odd teaching jobs and, in his spare time, painted. It was the heyday of abstract expressionism, and Segal's early experiments on canvas, none of which are on view in this show, were very much ab-ex derived.
Segal's work is not particularly nostalgic. Still, to wander through Pillsbury and Peters' exhibition is to pine for the simpler time in which Segal came of age, a time when there was an orthodoxy against which to rebel. Back then, to follow others--specifically, the abstract expressionists--was, as Segal recalls in his PBS documentary, to be "condemned as second-rate derivative." Through classes and through artists' cooperatives Segal met other artists, including Allan Kaprow, who got him a job teaching art at Rutgers; together, a small band of Rutgers-based brethren stayed up into the wee hours, fomenting artistic revolution. Today Kaprow is best known as the "father of happenings," staged events that often resembled recess at the funny farm and would today be enshrined at museums as performance art.
Though Segal rejected much of Kaprow's artistic theory, he does credit Kaprow with coaxing him beyond the two-dimensional picture frame. Thus Segal began to experiment with sculpture, appending plaster to canvas, perching plaster figures atop chicken coops rather than pedestals. With the innocent, impish glee of a teen-ager rolling another's house, he began to cast figures from real life--an infraction that now seems impossibly quaint. His breakthrough came in the early '60s, when someone brought him a box of plaster bandages used to set broken arms. Segal fell in love with the medium. He could soak the bandages in water, rub them and wrap them around the torsos of his models; when the stuff dried, Segal could chisel or pry it off and reassemble the pieces. Voilà: a cast of an entire human form.