PORTRAITS: SCULPTURE AND DRAWINGS
By Neil Tetkowski
April 11 - June 15, 2006
There is a paradox to consider. George Segal sculptures are not portraits in the traditional sense, yet they portray humanity. They take on a universal character in part because of the anonymous quality of the figures. The figures appear to be nobody in particular yet they are mysteriously all people at the same time. The enduring strength of the work is found in the unique presence of the human forms, which typically eclipse the individual and suggest qualities that all people have in common. Images of people are the central subjects in the work of George Segal. But we rarely think of this artist as one who made portraits, perhaps universal portraits, portraits of humanity, but individual portraits? At first glance, the sixteen drawings in this exhibition present a perplexing issue because they are, in contrast to the sculptures, specifically a likeness of the subject, i.e. a traditional portrait.
In the past, it just did not matter to me who had been on the inside, who the actual people were that had modeled under the skins of plaster that later became great works of Segal's art. In fact, the sculptures are actually based on negative spaces, like the human spaces in the lava of Pompeii. A boy is running, but there is no boy. Yet he is still running, running and running forever. Like Segal sculptures, I have been moved by the profound human essence that these ancient voids of space exude. It doesn't matter who that specific boy actually was, trapped in volcanic ash in 79 A.D..
My perspective began to change about a year ago when I had my first opportunity to visit the Segal Foundation in South Brunswick, New Jersey. I quickly learned a few important things about how Mr. Segal worked. First of all, I was interested to learn that Segal did not hire models. Apparently, he had to "feel" something for his model and preferred to work with someone he knew. There had to be a connection, "chemistry." So, like a shaman, the magic of this artist was to transform the singular into the collective, to assist the individual in a white costume to take on the collective spirit. Through Segal's plaster ritual, the artist's subject took on the universal power to represent all people, potentially a race of equals.
Upon entering the studio of George Segal one is surrounded by artwork. Room after room contains life size installations. Some works are specific sculptures that are very recognizable, well known artworks, such as the Depression Bread Line at the FDR Memorial. I knew that my friend and colleague Donald Lokuta had been one of the models for that famous group of five men that commemorate the Great Depression and symbolize the universal sorrow of hard luck and misfortune. What was news to me was to learn that the artist himself modeled for that sculpture, and the other three figures were dear friends of his as well. And that is how the first visit went. One after another, as I encountered each sculpture, I learned that each piece had a very specific story of who modeled. Those who had been closest to the artist were eager to share fond memories and inside jokes. The static plaster objects were a link to their common past, like memory boards or modern day snap shots.
These intimate moments were never intended to be carried into the public arena. And just as a well known actor finds it counterproductive to bring personal real-life problems onto the stage, I believe this artist intended to leave many details out of the artwork in order to make a stronger clearer and more powerful impact with his work. In everyday life, distractions are everywhere. In art it is not so. George Segal was a master editor of life presenting his feeling for life with basic forms, basic relationships and basic issues. Because of this underlying truth I have come to see the figures of George Segal as actors carefully choreographed within a minimalist environment.
So there you have it, a clean and easy rationale to explain away the portrait question. However, a rather important problem still looms. George Segal was not a simple person or one that made simple art. When considering his artwork in general and his drawings specifically, you need to bear this in mind. Before Segal was an artist, he was a chicken farmer, and before he was a sculptor he was making drawings and paintings. This is not a chicken and egg question. It is a fact. Drawing came first. And going way back, he dealt with many subjects. Like a loving dad, he drew his 6 year-old daughter, and like a Pop artist of the 60s, he drew ketchup bottles. George Segal was an artist of many moods, many interests and many ideas, and he always drew.
The drawings in this exhibition are all of specific people, most untitled by the artist, with the name of the person rendered in parenthesis. All of his subjects were friends, neighbors, and family. However, some of the artist's own family members insist that it does not matter who the subjects were in the drawings, ”they were just people“. Okay. But some are famous people such as Lucas Samaras, and Marisol who he knew well. He would go to the movies with Abba Eban the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel. They were friends.
When it comes to George Segal, I believe his relationships with the people in his personal life were something he considered sacred. By incorporating friends and family into his art, the artist/shaman immortalized his subjects. I doubt it was a conscious effort. But this way of working shows up like a repeated pattern. In the studio there were many drawings of hands, Clasped Hands, the same pair of hands. Drawn over and over, they are uniquely his wife Helen's hands. In this way, the drawings and the objects he made often embodied those he admired. Most of all, his art captured the spirit of those he cared for and loved most. George was always making drawings. As his health began to decline and the physical activities associated with making sculpture were getting more strenuous and fatiguing, photography and drawing became a natural outlet for his creativity. Most of the
drawings in this exhibition come from that time, 1998-1999.
When I was selecting the works for this show a large beautiful drawing of Willie Nelson caught my eye. I chose not to include that drawing since I imagined that the star quality of the personality could be a distraction from the exhibition. I include the story now because it tells of the funny and light-hearted side of the artist. George Segal did not know Willie Nelson. He just liked his music and I bet he admired him as well. Two of the major sculptures in this show are not titled after the models. One is, simply called Woman on a Bench, the other is called Seated Woman.. That is how it usually was. Throughout his career, most of Segal's major sculptures had generic titles (without the model's name) but the drawings more often than not were more specific. Sometimes a generic title like “Bob” referred to a specific person who's first name was indeed Bob.
Segal always did his art, his own way. What worked for a specific situation was what he went with. Is that a contradiction? Perhaps it is for some people, but not to George Segal. Does it matter that the woman on the bench is Susan Kutliroff, his niece or that the seated woman is the artist‘s wife? For most of the world it is not going to matter. It is information that will just get in the way. But for those in George's inner circle, they certainly delight in the likeness they see in the various sculptures of the "anonymous people." It is often their secret just who the specific individuals are.
Director of University Galleries