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George Segal; Sculptor Created Tableaux of Ghostly Plaster Figures

TIMES ART CRITIC

George Segal, the prolific sculptor who turned a New Jersey chicken coop into a studio where he made white plaster effigies of men and women in urban settings that became identified with the Pop art movement, died of cancer Friday at his home in South Brunswick, N.J. He was 75.

“I wanted to take sculpture off its pedestal,” the artist once said of the signature work he began to make about 1960. Like Los Angeles sculptor Edward Kienholz, but in a less politically charged and more enigmatic way, Segal created figurative tableaux in which ghostly sculptures interacted with three-dimensional environments.

“What Segal managed to do was focus our attention on feelings of solitude and alienation,” said Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern and contemporary art and vice president for educational programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “The plaster casting method took such a long time that the artificiality of a sitter’s pose seemed to break down. It went beyond mere pose to the psychology of the gesture. There’s a kind of eternal quality to his work.”

Segal’s sculpture is found in the collections of more than 100 American museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, (“Seated Woman at the Window,” 1965) and Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (“Sunbathers on Rooftop,” 1963-67, and “Man in an Armchair,” 1967). His career was most recently surveyed in a 1997-98 traveling retrospective organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He received a National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton in 1999.

Segal was born in New York City on Nov. 26, 1924. His parents ran a kosher butcher shop in the Bronx, and an unpretentious working-class ethos was later to be a familiar ingredient in his art. As a 17-year-old student, he embarked on a two-year foundation art course at Cooper Union, followed by a variety of part-time studies at Rutgers University, but he was slow in coming to a distinct direction in his work. Segal studied education as well as art, and for several years taught English in New Jersey high schools.

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After World War II, New York was rapidly becoming the center of the international art world, and Segal was enthralled with the gestural paintings of the Abstract Expressionists. He began to work seriously as a painter in 1953, although abstraction was never part of his artistic vocabulary, and he had his first exhibition in 1956 at New York’s Hansa Gallery. Unable to survive on the meager sales of his work, he continued to operate the chicken farm he had bought in 1949 in New Brunswick until 1958. Then he turned the chicken coop into a studio.

Segal was friendly with several younger artists loosely affiliated with Rutgers, including Allan Kaprow and George Brecht, who were experimenting with assemblage sculpture and live-action art that came to be called Happenings. Invigorated by the inventive, nothing-to-lose spirit of the time, he switched from painting to sculpture and began to make roughly finished statues from chicken wire, burlap and plaster.

In 1961, Segal started to cast his sculptures from live models, protecting the hair and skin with cream and wrapping the body in bandages soaked in plaster of Paris. He began with a mundane human situation in mind--his father standing outside the butcher shop window, a couple sunning themselves on an urban rooftop, a man changing the title on a movie theater marquee--and then chose suitable models. The person was dressed in appropriate costume, a specific pose was chosen and the plaster cast, formed in sections, was completed. Segal would build the environmental, stage-like set and position the figure in place, creating a generalized Everyman or Everywoman poignantly caught in the unheroic act of being human.

With the plaster figures in a tableau setting, Segal’s signature style was born. He was 37.

In addition to compositions familiar from his own experience and family history, such as “The Farm Worker” (1962-63), Segal made sculptures that reinterpreted classic subjects in Western art. “Woman Standing in a Bathtub” (1964), for instance, recalled bathers prominent in Degas sculptures and Bonnard paintings. His ghostly white figures, which often feel isolated and alone in their modern settings, have also frequently been compared with the paintings of American artist Edward Hopper.

Segal’s work was immediately embraced as part of the Pop movement in the 1960s, largely because they recorded the banality of modern life. Yet, the emotional engagement of his subjects never fit easily into the Pop genre.

From the early 1970s Segal’s technique began to change. He used the plaster cast as a mold in which to pour liquid plaster, resulting in more finely detailed figures. Some were painted. Others were cast in bronze.

By the late 1970s Segal began to receive public commissions for sculptures, many of which made pointed political statements. These works include “In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State: Abraham and Isaac” (1978) at Princeton University, and “Gay Liberation” (1980) in New York’s Greenwich Village. Perhaps the most controversial is a tableau of dead and dying figures, “The Holocaust” (1982), commissioned for San Francisco’s Lincoln Park.

Segal is survived by his wife, Helen Steinberg; daughter, Rena Segal; son, Jeffrey Segal; and brother, Morris.


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