Less than a Feeling
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."
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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.
Segal placed his doppelgangers in carefully constructed tableaux that mimicked everyday settings: diners, bus stations, at home. Many critics considered them three-dimensional, minimalist versions of Edward Hopper's gas stations and greasy spoons. Indeed, Segal's figures conveyed the same sense of foreboding and loneliness as Hopper's anonymous everymen. Segal imbued his sculptures with feeling by painting them in bright colors, by tinkering with the texture of his plaster, by painting backdrops.
Most of the figures on view at Pillsbury and Peters date from the '80s and '90s, after Segal had abandoned the one-step process of applying bandages and displaying the results in favor of a two-step double casting process, allowing him more control over his finish. Some of the most interesting pieces in the show are fragmentary torsos that recall classical Greek sculpture. The show also contains a number of wall constructions, homages to artists whose work greatly influenced Segal. Though far from original in conception, they are interesting for the insights they provide into Segal's mind. We see Segal's all-consuming curiosity as he examines form, here taking apart cubism and putting it back together, there examining Cézanne's still-lifes in three dimensions.
Unfortunately, the more topical and overtly biblical strains in Segal's work are not well-represented in this exhibition. The critic Barbara Rose has said that Segal's work is "more about ethics than aesthetics," and while this may be an overstatement, much of the work at Pillsbury and Peters can be said to be concerned with questions of everyday morality. We are, Segal seems to suggest, the sum total of our everyday actions and dilemmas, be they large or small. In capturing five-second snatches of life, Segal often seems to be engaged in an almost Rothkoesque quest, trying to distill some inner core of truths about human character.
For Segal, however, emotions are always more elusive than character. At best, his solitary doppelgangers have a sense of exuberance, or joy, or even the spooky aura of human shadows left on a sidewalk after an atomic flash. At worst, they read as attempts to imbue bathos with pathos. That box of plaster bandages looks like a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it enabled him to be au courant; the last four decades of art history have belonged to sculpture, and Segal's plaster folk have earned him a place in the annals of Pop. Still, looking at those charcoal drawings, one cannot help but wonder what might have been, absent the tyranny of the times.
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