George Segal was born in 1924 in New York City and died from cancer in June, 2000, at the age of 75. During his long career, he became not only a very important Pop Artist, he also created a distinctive technique of making sculpture which influenced many younger artists who followed him.
While he was a young child his father ran a butcher shop in New York. In 1940, when George was 16, his family moved to New Jersey and began to operate a chicken farm. This proved to be a prosperous business for the family due to the wartime shortage of food.
In 1941, Segal entered Cooper Union in New York City, where he studied art. When his brother was drafted into the army in 1942, Segal returned to New Jersey to work on the family farm. He attended Rutgers University as a part-time student until 1946. He married Helen Steinberg and they had two children. Segal also attended the Pratt Institute and in 1950 graduated from New York University with a Bachelor of Science degree in art education. He then studied with Hans Hofmann, the abstract expressionist. Segal respected the work of the abstract expressionists, but felt a need to use representational figures in his work. This was apparent in his early drawings, paintings, and pastels, which were first exhibited in 1956.
During this time, Segal bought and ran a chicken farm near his parents' home. By 1958, Segal gave up chicken farming but kept the farm. To support his family, he taught high school art and English classes for the next six years. Segal became friendly with Allen Kaprow, the originator of the "happening," and Kaprow staged his first event on Segal's farm. Although Segal participated in many of Kaprow's events, he did not stay with performance art. Instead, he began to make sculptures of the human form, using plaster on armatures of wood, chicken wire, and burlap.
Unhappy with this process, in 1960, Segal tried using a material called "medical scrim", which physicians use for plaster casts. The material is much like the gauze that bandages are made from. In an early sculpture, his wife wrapped his body with the water and plaster-impregnated scrim. Segal and his wife both panicked as the plaster got hot as it hardened. They began quickly removing it, taking most of Segal's body hair off as a result. Needless to say, this was a painful and frightening experience, and it was clear that the technique needed refinement. He soon learned how to protect the body when using the medical scrim and plaster and how to cast the human figure in three sections: first, from the neck to the waist, then from the waist to the feet, and finally, the head. These parts were then assembled, with more plaster, to complete the sculpture. In this process the model can be nude or clothed- either way the sculpture takes the shape of the part that it dries around, including clothing.
When the sculpture was complete, and all the plaster had dried, or "cured", which is the technical term for the chemical process by which plaster hardens, the plaster maintained the outline of the body that it covered. You may want to think about it as a shell. Perhaps you are familiar with the soft shelled crabs found in late spring in the Eastern United States that must leave their shells each year in order to grow. The shell that is left behind resembles the crab at that stage of its growth. You may also be familiar with insects which grow by the same process. These lonely shells of humans resemble the shells left behind by these animals.
These stark white sculptures were then placed in everyday environments. These environments consisted of ready-mades or things commonly found around us or in stores. These made his sculptures seem even more life-like, as though these white, mummy-like shells of the models who posed for them to give a very strong sense of isolation, loneliness and alienation, which many people believe reflect the nature of contemporary life and relationships.
Segal began occasionally painting the white plaster sculptures in 1965. He used bright, vivid primary colors which he felt introduced an element of fantasy. At first these painted sculptures were very controversial with critics, who generally felt that the paint diminished the power of Segal's white sculpture. Over time though, the controversy subsided and these sculptures are now accepted as well as the unpainted plaster sculptures.
Segal's influence is seen in the work of the Photo-Realist sculptors, John de Andrea and Duane Hanson. Both artists use a refinement of Segal's technique to produce their work. Charles Ray, the Neo-pop artist, also uses a refinement of Segal's process, as well as a number of younger contemporary artists.
Segal continued to live and work on his farm in New Jersey with his wife, Helen, until his recent death.
Page author: C.A.