Progression of Art
Man at a Table
This work is the first of Segal's sculptures incorporating bandages dipped in plaster, his signature medium. Man at a Table depicts a seated, life-sized figure based on the body of the artist himself. Segal wrapped his body parts in bandages and made casts which he then reassembled to make the figure. While less attention is given to specific context here than in later sculptures, Man at a Table is evidence of the key ideas he would explore for the rest of his career. First, there is the contrast between the real (the window, chair, and table are largely unmodified by the artist) environment, and the spectral presence that inhabits it. The use of the plaster bandage calls attention to the vulnerability of the body. Finally, there is the aura of anticipation. The figure, seated alone at an empty table, appears to be waiting for something. This suspense is part of the quiet drama of Segal's everyday scenes from the early 1960s.
Plaster, wood, and glass - Collection Museum Abteiberg, Monchengladbach, West Germany
By the mid-1960s Segal's figures and constructed environments had become more complex. Here, lit from above by a fluorescent lamp, are two figures at a realistic lunch counter. Familiar items such as coffee cups, sugar, napkin dispensers, and a coffee urn, set the stage. The objects are real; the white monochrome figures are not. They are arrested in motion, one seated and one working behind the counter. Diners, the quintessential symbol of middle-class America, had appeared in the work of numerous other artists. Where Segal goes further is in the medium itself - a life-sized restaging of the everyday event - and the mysterious, almost magical open-endedness of the moment he has chosen to capture. This could be anyone, in any diner, across the country. The theatrical aspects of the work are intensified by standing in the same space with it. In fact, this particular sculpture served as the backdrop for a 30-second promotional video in 2014 for the Walker Art Center, starring actor Danny Glover.
Plaster, wood, chrome, laminated plastic, Masonite, fluorescent lamp, glass, paper - Collection of Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
The Costume Party
In a radical departure from his "banal subjects" (as he himself put it), and usual matte white figures, Segal debuted as a colorist in the mid-1960s. Inspired by a real costume party he attended, this work consists of six life-size figures. The "guests" include Superman, Pussy Galore (the James Bond character), Catwoman (from Batman), and Bottom (from William Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream.") The two figures relaxing on the floor are Cleopatra and Antony. While executed in the well-known plaster cast style Segal had established, these figures are painted in vivid monochrome red, yellow, blue, and black. Also in contrast to his earlier work is the absence of a setting that confines the figures to a specific space within the gallery. The figures look as if they might walk off at any moment.
Veering in the direction of the psychedelic, this piece interjects a note of levity into an otherwise serious body of work, taking the experience from gravitas to groove. In addition, the colors employed in this work were inspired by Native American folklore. Segal had recently read Black Elk Speaks, in which the Lakota Sioux leader names the four colors of the universe as black, yellow, red, and blue. Comparable to his late emergence as a photographer, this work is evidence of Segal's interest in a diverse array of sources, approaches, and media, as well as a capacity for playfulness.
Six figures, mixed media: painted plaster, wood, glass, photo, helmet, boots - Collection of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Gay Liberation, installed in 1992 in a park in Greenwich Village, commemorates a historic event that took place across the street in 1969. On June 28th of that year, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar frequented by homosexuals. This was nothing new. What happened next was, however. Angry activists gathered in protest, demanding the decriminalization of homosexuality. Now known as the Stonewall Riot, this was the beginning of the Gay Pride movement. Created to resemble the artist's familiar plaster figures while remaining protected from the elements, these figures were cast in bronze and painted with a white lacquer. The work, commissioned in 1979 encountered resistance from the left and right that prevented it from being installed until 1992. Some pointed to its lack of diversity (both couples are Caucasian). Some felt strongly that the work should have been offered to a gay artist (Segal was straight). Some found the very idea that a public park should include a monument to homosexuality offensive. Some claimed they were not offended by the idea, but that the couples were touching in an inappropriate way. Upon examining the sculpture itself, it is evident that touch is an essential part of Segal's humanitarian approach to this human rights issue. What was at stake in The Stonewall Riots was the freedom of same sex couples to co-exist publicly and enjoy the same protections under the law. A strong example of Segal's brilliance as a designer of memorials, this once controversial work is now one of the most revered monuments in New York City.
Bronze, steel, and white lacquer - Christopher Park, New York, New York
In this powerful memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, Segal employs his signature plaster cast style to evoke a concentration camp. The work was inspired by photographs taken at the end of World War II. Separated from us by a barbed wire fence, a standing man turns towards us, the viewers, and away from the heap of bodies on the ground behind him. Biblical references are present in the corpses, including one with arms outstretched like a crucified Christ, and a female figure holding a partially eaten apple (a la Eve). The standing figure is a visible manifestation of the psychic limbo in which the Holocaust survivor was caught, poised forever between the past and future and with the indelible memory of horror and loss. Segal's proposal was the winning submission for a competition for a memorial sculpture in San Francisco's Lincoln Park in 1981. While this model is made of plaster, the San Francisco sculpture is cast in bronze and painted white. It was one of Segal's first completed public commissions, and stimulated future commissions for monuments based on his plaster sculptures.
Plaster, wood, and wire - The Jewish Museum, New York
Depression Bread Line
Waiting, an overarching theme in Segal's work, is presented here with particular poignancy. Life-sized hunched and hatted men in old overcoats stand in single file beside a brick wall. Bread lines were a familiar sight during the Great Depression. The work shown here is a model for a memorial in honor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose economic policies helped lift the middle class out of poverty. Segal, who lived through this era, remembered listening with his parents to Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats" on the radio. Along with two other sculptures, entitled Fireside Chat and Appalachian Farm Couple, this sculpture was installed in 1997 in Washington, D.C. Segal's choice of an unassuming moment in everyday life maintains a connection with his earliest plaster sculptures, and is emblematic of the personal intimacy with which he portrayed historic moments. Each figure here was cast from someone he knew: four friends, and the artist himself.
Plaster, wood, metal, and acrylic paint - Collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas
Hispanic Wedding Dress Display, Newark, New Jersey
While the impact of photography and photojournalism was always evident in Segal's sculptures, near the end of his career he became an active photographer. The overall achievement of Segal's photographs was to reinforce his aesthetic as a lens through which to look at the world, one that transcended medium. This photograph is part of the series of urban views of New York and New Jersey entitled Sequence: New York/New Jersey 1990-1993. In Hispanic Wedding Dress Display, Newark, New Jersey, Segal captured the shop window display of a wedding gown. In this ordinary city sight there is a kinship with the artist's earlier work: the mannequin designed for a constructed environment is a "ready-made" version of one of Segal's own sculptures. The image brings us full circle, reinforcing the ideas in his plaster figures, and demonstrating that the artist's style transcends a particular style or medium. Segal's art is a way of seeing, not just making.
Gelatin silver print - Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York