Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on October 16, 2008 with permission of the The George Segal Gallery, Montclair State University. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalog from which it is excerpted, please contact the George Segal Gallery, Montclair State University directly through either this phone number or web address:
George Segal: Modernist Humanist
by Donald Kuspit
In 1963, when George Segal made Cinema (Ill. 1) -- the work which brought him instant fame (he was one year short of his fortieth birthday) -- John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Martin Luther King led the March on Washington, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, the first American troops were deployed in Vietnam, and the so-called "counterculture" began to flex its adversarial muscles. A Marcel Duchamp retrospective was held in Pasadena, the exhibition titled "Towards a New Abstraction" was held in Los Angeles, and Andy Warhol produced his "Disaster Series." Jackson Pollock had been dead for seven years, Pop Art had officially come into existence five years earlier, Allan Kaprow's 18 Happenings in 6 Parts was four years old, Clement Greenberg's influential Art and Culture was two years old, and so was "The Art of Assemblage" exhibition in New York's Museum of Modern Art. And Minimalism was on the horizon; Donald Judd's essay "Specific Objects" was published two years later. In the midst of all these incommensurate developments, suggestive of an art scene seriously at odds with itself -- how can one reconcile Duchamp, abstraction, happenings, Minimalism, Pop Art, and an increasingly narcissistic art world in which works of art were becoming advertisements for the artist's grandiose self, to adapt Norman Mailer's felicitous phrase, with the larger American world that was in social and political upheaval -- George Segal had the experience that led him to Cinema. It is an against-the-modernist grain work -- an index of Segal's temerity and independence. At the same time, it is the defining work of sixties art, not only because it brings together -- indeed, seamlessly integrates, with a kind of epigrammatic succinctness and bold clarity -- all its contradictory modernist strands, but because it achieves a social relevance and human significance that none of them can match. It is a major artistic triumph -- Segal's benchmark work -- as well as a profound statement about the human condition in America and more broadly in modernity.
Here is Segal's account of his eureka moment of creative vision.
"The reality of everyday life is organized around the "here" of my body and the "now" of my present," write Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. "What is 'here and now' presented to me in everyday life is the realissimum of my consciousness." (5) George Segal repeatedly engages the here and now of the human body -- the reality of its physical presence, unconsciously felt despite the clothing that hides it -- and as such is a realist, as he acknowledges. Like all of Segal's public figures, the figure in Cinema conveys a sense of what Max Scheler called "lived bodiliness," however much the aliveness of its body seems muted by its plain clothes. The mundane figure has an everyday ego, but depends on the strength of its body ego to help it do its job in the mundane world. The body ego is the ground of every other ego, as Freud wrote, and Segal's figure is deeply rooted in that ground, which it why it has a certain heroic presence: the strength of character necessary to survive the daily grind. It is evident in such works as Rush Hour, 1983/95 (Ill.2) and Street Crossing, 1992 (Ill.3): the figures are not worn down by life -- they seem sturdy, even vigorous and self-sufficient, with a certain unwearying determination, suggesting that they will endure despite the passage of time, implicit in their movement.
Lived dailiness as well as lived bodiliness -- everyday social/public life and private bodily/emotional life -- constitute the reality of Segal's memorable figures. In some works, such as Nude on Couch (on her back), 1985, the privately lived body is exposed. Clothes are cast off as beside the erotic point. The figure is literally in touch with her body ego. More frequently, the clothed body appears. But sometimes its nakedness is suggested, particularly in the case of women, proverbially more in touch with their bodies than men. Thus, in Rush Hour, the full breast of one of the women presses through her coat, suggesting her private reality -- and the fullness of her being. She is no longer just another person rushing to work -- a sort of animated robot moving briskly along -- but unexpectedly vital: an organic body pressing for expression, her breast emotionally communicative as her clothing and silence -- and Segal's crowd figures are intensely silent, never communicating even when they intimately know each other and have lived together for a long time, as Appalachian Farm Couple, 1991 have -- are not. One is suddenly intimate with the passing woman, however unaware of us she continues to be, despite the fact that we have been drawn into the crowd -- we also rush along with the figures -- however unwittingly, as participant observers of the sculpture. Segal's acute awareness of the "underlying" reality of the body, threatening to break through the boundary of clothing that separates secretive private from every day public existence, confirms his awareness of human complexity. One senses the animal body beneath the social façade of his figures, an ironical reminder of Aristotle's idea that human beings are social animals. Segal invariably evokes the unknown private person inhabiting a body while describing known public/social reality, which is more readily observed.
Segal's figures bridge the difference between being and behaving, making their reality unusually consummate. Hard working members of the middle class -- even if they are sometimes out of work, as in Depression Breadline, 1991 (Ill.4) -- their intense materiality lifts them out of their class identity: they indisputably exist whatever their collective situation. They are doubly real, unique individuals and collective phenomena at once. Reduced to anonymity in the crowd, they nonetheless hold their own in it. They are transient details of mass society with whom we instantly identify, recognizing our intimate selves in them.
Segal's figures are Gordian knots: they exist at a social remove even as they are familiar neighbors. The tension that binds the social and personal poles of their existence makes them uncanny and mythical. The more conscious we become of them, the more they seem to be fantasies or hallucinations -- dream figures materialized. The oddly surreal character of Segal's realism -- for all its Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) qualities, it has a certain affinity to magic realism -- is generally ignored, but without it his figures would lose their allegorical import. Each is what Courbet called a "real allegory," to refer to Courbet's The Painter's Studio: A Real Allegory Summing up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist, 1854 -55. Segal's sculptures also sum up his relationship with his human subjects and his view of the contradictions in society, while condensing the history of realism since Courbet -- realism as an art that deals with what is "both real and existing... objects visible and tangible," as Courbet said, and thus objects that have a socially particular or commonplace as well as material existence, but also objects that "take on an aura of the fantastic because [they] are presented with unexpectedly exaggerated and detailed forthrightness."(6)
In Segal's case, the textural surface of the sculpture is presented in such unusually rich detail -- which nonetheless seems matter-of-fact rather than overstated -- that it takes on a fantastic life of its own. It is an autonomous display of what Didier Anzieu famously described as the skin ego -- the body ego's primitive substratum, as he argues, building on Freud's view of the skin as the body's most sensitive part, and as such the "original" and "general" sense organ, registering sensations arising from the inside of the body as well as generated by the outside world -- summing up Segal's vision of human suffering. It concentrates in itself all the hidden distress -- the latent anxiety -- in Segal's bodies. It is as though the surface of his figures, ostensibly clothing and human skin, epitomizes the excruciating character of their lives. The pain of existence is embodied in Segal's surface-its irregularity and roughness, the result of the casting process (Segal never smoothes it; he eschews the refinement and polish of marble), makes it seem blighted, even bizarrely mutilated, as though the figures were flayed alive -- damaged and flayed by society and life, without realizing it. The skin ego, the boundary between the body ego and the external world, is the site where all of Segal's intuitive understanding of the tragic depths becomes manifest. It is the huge area where unconscious feeling and conscious perception converge, giving it an emotional eloquence and expressive power all its own.
In Memory of May 4, 1970-Kent State, Abraham and Isaac, 1978 (Ill.5) makes the realistic-allegorical point magically clear. The work reflects the sixties view-and Segal's seasoned view, based on growing up during the Depression -- that "the political is the personal" (and vice versa). The kneeling Isaac submits to society, represented by his father Abraham, poised to kill Isaac in obedience to the will and authority of God, his spiritual father. The miracle of God's mercy has not occurred, as it suddenly does in the Biblical narrative, suggesting Segal's suspicion -- not to say skepticism and distrust -- of authority. And its willfulness, not to say arbitrariness: God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son -- his only child -- and then, at the last moment, stayed Abraham's hand, as though God had suddenly changed his mind. The command to sacrifice Isaac was a test of Abraham's faith -- or is it (blind) obedience? -- but God may have been asserting his tyrannical power and toying with Abraham and Isaac, as though their lives were of no great consequence, certainly compared to his own. But there was no stay of execution -- let alone divine intervention -- at Kent State. Segal seems to show the moment of suspense when it might happen, but it didn't happen. The higher authority of the state of Ohio sanctioned the Kent State University massacre of students. Instead of being another unfortunate historical event, it becomes universally meaningful by reason of its "biblification."
Represented in Biblical terms, and thus "realized" more completely, its tragic import becomes self-evident. Segal's work is a "real allegory" and "magically real" by reason of its association with the all too human Biblical story. The story of a crucial moment in the history of civilization and in American political and social history fuses through the Biblical story, indicating its timelessness, universality, and archetypal truthfulness. He uses the Biblical story to memorialize the historical story, and the historical story to illustrate the Biblical story. Segal does so with existential subtlety: he doesn't depict the violence that occurred at Kent State, but rather conveys the pregnant, uncertain moment -- ironically the moment of the greatest drama -- before the Ohio National Guard soldiers opened fire on the students, killing four of them and wounding others. The students were slaughtered like animals, rather than animals sacrificed instead of human beings, as eventually occurred in the Biblical story: relenting, as though suffering a pang of conscience, God told Abraham to substitute an animal for his son. God initially wanted human blood, but settled for animal blood -- a change in attitude that held out the promise of non-violent relations between human beings. Segal's work is a damning criticism of militarism and the abuse of political power, unseen yet giving the orders behind the scene, and as such obscene and more insidiously barbaric, brutal, immoral, and violent than the soldiers who obeyed its orders.
The Biblical reference suggests Segal's Jewish humanism and existentialism. His figures are the Myrmidons of his Jewish sensibility: they convey the consciousness of the eternal in the present that is the core of the Jewish worldview. The sacrifice of the sons by the fathers, more broadly, the problematic relationship between the generations, is a perennial human issue. Mythologized existential truth and contemporary social history meet in Segal's monument to the students slaughtered by soldiers in the name of the state in an attempt to preserve order and stifle protest against the Vietnam War. The students questioned, quarreled with, and refused to mindlessly submit to the God of the State -- just as Jews have had their doubts about the higher authority of a wrathful God -- and lost. Even the sanctuary of higher learning that is the university is not safe from the powers that be. The higher can be brought low by raw power. The irrepressible nakedness of Segal's figures reflects the naked social truth of social repression.
Segal brings all his profound realism -- a psychological as well as social realism -- to bear on shallow abstraction. Abstraction was the conformist establishment art -- the institutionally correct avant-garde art -- when he began his career and Segal was non-conformist and anti-establishment, in part because of the otherness his Jewishness conferred on him. As Max Horkheimer writes, Jews are outsiders because they have a "basic common experience... that no degree of conformism was enough to make one's position as a member of society secure."(7) Segal accepted his outsiderness; the fact that he preferred to live and work on a quiet farm in New Jersey rather than in the bustling art metropolis of New York suggests as much.
But the "long [Jewish] experience of the tenacity of social alienation" gave Segal the independence, freedom, and critical consciousness that allowed him to go his own creative and revolutionary way, as many other Jews did (among them Einstein, Freud, and Marx). Segal is a revolutionary, however ironically counter-revolutionary his realism looks, that is, however much it runs counter to the avant-gardism that climaxed in abstraction. Segal sensed that the avant-garde revolution was over -- that abstraction had seen better days. It had run its course, and the time was ripe for a renewal of realism, and the humanistic existentialism it implies, however garbed in references to traditional religious narratives (the same vehicle such artists as Dürer and Rembrandt used to convey their humanistic outlook). Segal is the key figure in the return to the "all too human" that the modernist devotees of abstraction dismissed as beside the point of pure art -- art stripped of all humanistic import and symbolism -- in defiance of the fact that the "human aesthetic," as Edward O. Wilson calls it, has been basic to art since antiquity.
"I introduced a lot of realism into my work," Segal writes in his account of the making of Cinema, "as a correction to certain excesses I noticed in abstract painting of the fifties. I considered it a healthy restorative to references that had become increasingly pale and tenuous -- divorced from life experiences."(8) Life experiences are human experiences, and human experiences are concrete rather than abstract -- as concrete as the figure in Cinema. And yet, as Segal's emphasis on formal qualities and radiant light indicate -- whatever the expressive qualities universally associated with them, and the social associations of modern fluorescent light (an artificial, purer light than the natural light traditional art represents) -- he was not entirely adverse to abstraction. He subsumed it in his realism, that is, adapted it to make an experiential point. Segal assimilated abstraction, dialectically using it to intensify what deconstructionists call "reality effect."
One might say he de-essentialized abstraction by re-existentializing it. He reminds us that what Clement Greenberg called the "formal facts" of pure art are not as pure as they look, but are distilled from "impure" content, which leaves its mark on them. Unless it does -- and it only does when the content is deeply experienced (which is the way Segal experienced the content that became Cinema) -- the formal facts will lack affective resonance. The artistic result is invariably shallow, like the "post-painterly abstraction" that Greenberg regarded as the next "advance" in abstract art -- rather than its dead-end. The formal facts exist in the vacuum of the medium, rather than, as, they do in Segal's realism -- which presented itself as the alternative to post-painterly abstraction -- details enriching a life experience that finds fulfillment in art. I am arguing that while Segal used realism to criticize the experiential emptiness of pure abstraction, he does not deny its importance in the history of art. By the sixties it was a fait accompli, and the dominant mode of art-making, and as such had to be engaged. But for Segal it was clearly not the whole story of making modern art: the experience of modern life -- of the modern human being -- had to be artistically mediated, if one was to have a consummately modern art.
As Segal understood it (correctly, in my opinion), the over-all problem of modern art is the reconciliation and integration of abstraction, conceived as a profound spiritual expression conveyed by purely formal means, and realism, which conveys the physical and human facts of the modern social world -- the vulgar life-world that abstraction repudiates by way of its formal sublimity, supposedly making it superior to any art with a representational purpose. The issue is to end the unhealthy separation of transcendental experience, rooted in the idealistic pursuit of formal purity (a kind of visual asceticism), and real life experience, mediated by empathic identification -- the kind of extraordinary, unexpected experience, jolting him into consciousness of other human beings, that Segal had while en route from New York City to his home in New Jersey -- that has existed since the beginning of modern art. It is the difference between using form as an aesthetic springboard to transcendental withdrawal from life and making the meaning latent in life manifest by transfiguring its content through mimetic attunement.
The growing separation of abstract form and realistic representation that began in the 19th century, climaxing with their tragic split early in the 20th century, was first acknowledged by Kandinsky. Despite his assertion that abstraction and realism could have the same "inner necessity," he elevated the former at the expense of the latter. His ideas are responsible for the disparagement of realism and the dominance of abstraction that Segal encountered in art school. "Figurative artists who were born during the 1920s had more difficult experiences during the late 1940s and 1950s," Roberta Tarbell notes. "They were either castigated or ignored for their interest in an illusionistic third dimension, representation of any sort, and the subject of the human figure. George Segal, for example, was frustrated in his art classes at New York University in 1948 and 1949 because his teachers tried to jolt him out of his admiration for the German Expressionists and to increase his appreciation for complete abstraction."(9)
Abstraction, not realism, had become the testing ground of artistic greatness, and more authentically and fundamentally artistic than realism. The use of formal facts as a means to the end of mastering the social facts, more broadly, the details of reality -- conveying what Harry Stack Sullivan and D. W. Winnicott call its not-me character (the indisputable givenness that confirms its separateness) while suggesting that there is something of me in it, if not inherently (it became intimate while remaining alien) -- became secondary to the compositional mastery of the formal facts in an autonomous construction that existed as an aesthetic end in itself. Where the "purely artistic" or abstract (spiritual/trans-social) element and the "objective" or realistic/representational (material/social) element were once "always present in art" in "an ever-varying balancing act," "today" -- already in 1912, when Kandinsky wrote this -- the "ultimate ideal" of their "absolute equilibrium" is "no longer... a goal to be pursued." It is "as if the spring supporting the pans of the scale has disappeared, and the two scale-pans intend to lead a separate existence as self-sufficient entities, independent of each other. In this splitting up of the ideal scales, one... discerns 'anarchy.' Art has apparently put an end to the welcome complementation of the abstract by means of the objective and vice versa."(10) My argument is that Segal restores this complementation at a time no one else was convincingly able to do so. He gives the abstract and the realistic their due without turning them against each other, creating art that can be experienced as simultaneously abstract and realistic. Segal's sculptures are an ever-varying balancing act of the purely artistic and the socially objective, and as such restore the wholeness of art, and with that its affective or expressive health. His art ends a half century of internal strife that brought art to the verge of disintegration or "anarchy."
Segal makes it clear that Kandinsky was seriously mistaken about realism: it can be just as spiritual as abstraction, indeed, even more spiritual, because it is able to do something that abstraction cannot do: convey the inner necessity of modern life as well as of absolute art -- of the Zeitgeist as well as pure Geist. The innocently isolated human being in Cinema -- for me Segal's exemplary figure -- with his air of self- as well as social estrangement, giving him tragic poignancy, is the emblematic existential figure of modern times. He is tragic not because of his hubris, as he would have been had he lived in classical times, but because of his banality. He conveys the banal truth of modern life hidden behind Baudelaire's pretentious notion of "the heroism of modern life." He brings Giacometti's isolated figure, stretched thin in crumbling grandeur, down to social earth. Giacometti's figures rise towards the sun of abstraction even as it melts them -- they become more and more attenuated, suggesting their Icarian import, not to say their aborted humanness -- while Segal's figures are more convincingly human because they are fallen creatures. Nonetheless, there is something unwittingly sublime about the commonplace figure in Cinema: his head turns towards the light and his right hand points towards it, indeed, touches it. Even more telling, his crude plaster body -- the figure is cast from life, like all of Segal's figures -- is luminously white, even as it stands in shadow. It glows in the fluorescent twilight; however ghostly it may be, Segal's figure has a strong presence. It may belong in the underworld -- New York at 2:00 AM is a kind of underworld, and so is a darkened movie theater -- -as all dead spirits (lost souls?) do, but it aspires to the higher consciousness symbolized by light.
If "modern art is as abstract as the real relations between men," as Theodor Adorno famously wrote, (11) then abstract art can be used to show the abstract relations between real men -- the ultimate affective point of Segal's art. By picturing the indifference that prevails in the crowd -- the anonymous group (where people hardly feel tenderly toward each other) -- he conveys the abstractness of human relationships in the modern world. He shows the difficulty of achieving intimacy -- a significant relationship with a significant other, a vitalizing connection with a responsive other -- in administrative mass technological society. It must function abstractly if it is to function efficiently, whatever the human cost. It treats human beings as details in an abstract system, putting them in their social place and administering their lives -- even determining their humanness -- whatever the emotional consequences. Human beings are not as efficient as machines, and if they are treated like replaceable parts in a social machine, they will eventually break down, that is, they will no longer "work." Modern breakdown takes the form of becoming abstract to oneself and others.
As Segal intuitively realized, mass technological society deprives people of their humanity by implying that their existence is abstract. They become data rather than destinies. Such treatment grinds down their sense of self -- undermines their self-respect -- and climaxes in their indifference to the particularity -- indeed, uniqueness -- of their existence. Unconsciously compliant to this administrative view of them -- whatever illusion of agency and individuality they consciously have -- they lose faith in themselves. They become incapable of spontaneously experiencing life -- of having the kind of intense life experience that led Segal to create Cinema. It is an example of what Winnicott calls the "creative apperception [that] more than anything else... makes the individual feel that life is worth living"(12) -- and that makes the individual feel truly individual and particular rather than an anonymous specimen of mass society. Only creative apperception a kind of ecstatic awareness of the environment, charging an "outstanding" detail with collective and personal meaning, so that it seems the embodiment of an archetype as well as a projection of the perceiver's experience of life -- allows one to find "diamonds in the garbage" of daily life, to recall Segal's words. In creative apperception the feeling of being vitally human replaces the devitalizing feeling of anonymity -- the sense of abstractness, artificiality (depersonalization and derealization), and futility (masked by and immanent in indifference) that unconsciously prevails in the crowd. Paradoxically, Cinema documents Segal's creative apperception of modern despair and dehumanization -- but it does so in a peculiarly elated and humanizing way, suggesting that the figure's raised arm, and the sign inviting us to enter the make-believe or fairy-tale world of the movies, is, after all, full of hope, and as deceptive as the movies.
To use Winnicott's famous distinction, Segal's figures cannot help seeming like socially compliant False Selves and thus strangely unreal -- robots going about their routine business -- rather than spontaneously creative and organically real True Selves. (13) But Segal's group sculptures make it clear that their indifference to each other, however together they are, is inseparable from their reality. It is their compliance that makes them seem artificially human, and allows society as a whole-symbolized by the rush hour crowd-to be indifferent to their individuality. Abstractness confers anonymity, anonymity is the sign of compliance, and compliance is "proof" of artificially being. Anonymity, artificiality, and compliance, adding up to a feeling of the fakeness and unnaturalness of it all, bring with them an abstract attitude to life -- schizoid withdrawal from it, W. R. D. Fairbairn would say -- which eschews and suppresses spontaneity. Constant anxiety and emotional paralysis replace the joie de vivre and transformative energy of creative apperception.
Certainly Segal's figures aren't enjoying life and lack creative momentum, however briskly they move in a crowd. Segal reveals the diabolical relationship of crowd compliance and suppressed spontaneity -- the inarticulate personal spontaneity that nonetheless makes itself dialectically felt in the texture of his figures, however burdened by everyday compliance they invariably are. They are all mute compliance, but the oddly impulsive texture signals the spontaneity lurking in their bodies, like a genie waiting to be released from imprisonment. The paint adds to the intensity of the texture, making its fluid rawness emphatic, instead of refining it into slick regularity. The irrational texture, with its uncanny presence, suggests the "deviant" inner reality of the figures, for all their rationally compliant social appearance. They passively resist the impinging world, even as they actively obey its dictates. Segal's figures seem to illustrate Thoreau's view that the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation, but the texture suggests that their desperation is not entirely quiet. Its peculiarly unsettled, molten character -- its desperate restlessness -- suggests their explosive potential. But Segal's figures never "act out" their feelings-never rebel against their social condition and conventionality. They are conformist, however nonconformist their texture. The conspicuous lack of finish implies that their lives are not "finished," however stuck in a rut they may be. Perhaps this contradiction explains their inner aimlessness, however intent they are on going somewhere.
Segal's texture registers the trauma of suppressing spontaneity even as it expresses the spontaneity that has been suppressed. It was forfeited for the social security that conformity seems to bring with it, but it informs the expressionist -- at times abstract expressionist -- texture. It has a dynamic of its own, independent of the social dynamic that drives the figures. Segal's texture is a visceral modicum of skin-deep self-expression that undoes self-suppression -- tentatively -- without denying the social necessity that the figure as a whole embodies. The crude texture implies that it is possible to elude the control of social reason that reduces the self to an instrument without threatening its rule. To play on Freud's idea of Civilization and Its Discontents, their clothing shows that the figures have been socialized, but their skin conveys the discontent resulting from the suppression of their innate spontaneity -- or, as Freud would say, their instincts (libido and aggression) -- even as it acknowledges it, implying that they are more alive than their zombie-like movement suggests they are. Self-suppression -- falseness to oneself -- is the root of social compliance, but the self-expression built into in the texture of Segal's figures shows that they remain true to themselves despite themselves, and even if they don't realize it. The skin of Segal's figures is a sort of expressive breathing space in their otherwise rationally stifled daily existence.
There is no escaping this paradoxical self-dialectic in modernity: it reflects the tension between instrumental reason and creative apperception. Such spontaneous apperception -- creating into the environment, as Winnicott puts it -- is irreconcilable with instrumental reason, which takes the form of the movie marquee -- a mechanical device -- in Cinema. It seems to dominate the human figure with which it is juxtaposed, but the figure isn't completely submissive to it, however much he serves it. Movies come and go-like people in a crowd -- and he attends to them all with mindless indifference. A product of instrumental reason at its most seductive, they're all the same to him, whatever they're called. His banality reflects the banality of the movies -- he himself is a movie star: Cinema is a kind of movie set, and he is an actor in Segal's silent movie. Can seeing a movie be a creative apperception, the way a work of art embodies a creative apperception? Can movies, aimed at a mass audience, as all popular culture is, and mirroring its collective concerns, convey profound life experience the way a work of art, aimed at and focused on the individual, can? That's the question that Cinema -- all of Segal's works -- raises, especially because they invite comparison with the movies.
Segal's realism does not aim at popularity -- not even artworld popularity -- but at depth. His unnerving realism is at odds with the banal realism of popular movies. Segal's sculptural installations are not family entertainment nor are they facilely cathartic. They hold our tensions in suspense rather than discharge them vicariously. They don't have a happy ending-they have no ending, which makes them all the more disconcerting. Movies distract people from their urgent existences, so that they unthinkingly comply with the demands of instrumental reason -- movies are the opium of the masses, manipulating their consciousness into uncritical conformity. In sharp contrast, Segal's sculptural installations confront people with the gift of insight into their lives. Only the most humanly realistic and aesthetically original art -- art that integrates abstraction and representation without denying the tension between them, and individual existence and social behavior without denying their differences -- can make such a gift.
Apart from Edward Hopper, I can't think of any other American artist who makes the everydayness of alienation -- the peculiarly dehumanizing effect of modernity -- transparently clear. Hopper came into his own during the Depression, and, as noted, Segal grew up during the Depression; his figures may belong to post-Depression affluent American society, but they don't seem particularly affluent, and they remain marked by the Depression. This gives them their existential aura: they embody the "structure of the highest impersonality" -- the sociologist Georg Simmel's famous expression (14) -- which is modern society, but also what Winnicott calls the "unthinkable anxiety" that comes from the "break in life's continuity" caused by their inability to relate and attune to each other, (15) as the numerous crowd scenes show. A Chance Meeting, 2000 (Ill.6) -- a casual encounter -- is not a serious let alone enduring relationship. Transience haunts all of Segal's figures -- they are passing fancies to each other, and, no doubt, to us. We are strangers to ourselves, just as the distraught figures in front of Graffiti Wall, 2000 (Ill.7) are strangers to each other.
Modern relationships are "reserved," or at best mechanical, as Simmel suggests. (16) Segal shows the strangeness of it all -- of the modern individual and the modern society in which he lives and works, framing and shaping every aspect of his existence, from the space he inhabits and the clothes he wears to his feelings and thoughts -- as no other twentieth century artist does. But he also shows something else: however much they are social objects, his figures remain subjects with an inner life. They look like demoralized machines going through the motions, but they seem oddly introspective -- in search of their feelings and thoughts. They brood, however rote their behavior. One figure in Graffiti Wall rests his head on his hand, a position that has symbolized melancholy from Dürer's Melencolia I, 1514 through Rodin's Thinker, 1880. Their inner life has not been completely compromised by instrumental reason -- their feelings have not been objectified in a closed system of standard functions -- but endures under the veneer of their everydayness. Street Crossing, 1992 implies as much: the figures form a lonely crowd, but each goes his or her own way, their at-oddness and self-absorption, as well as their different faces, bodies, and clothes conveying the individuality hidden by their commonplaceness. As I have said, Segal's figures are uniquely double, an uncanny fusion of public and private identities -- social and psychological reality.
Describing modern life, the sociologists Peter Berger, Brigette Berger, and Hansfried Kellner note "the development of a certain anonymity and impersonality in social relationships, a heightened demand for rational planning and reflectiveness in everyday life, a rising sense of separation between one's social identity and a segregated sphere of individual consciousness, and the replacement of synthetic-intuitive by more abstract modes of thought and perception, largely as a result of administrative demands to separate means from ends and of the componential nature both of actual machinery and of bureaucratic mechanisms (which include interchangeable parts)."(17) Other theorists have noted "the waning of affect, the dissolution of the sense of separate selfhood, the loss of any sense of the real, and the saturation by images and simulacra detached from all grounding outside themselves" in postmodernity, regarded as a climactic extension of modernity.(18) The sociologist Anthony Giddens regards such psychosocial phenomena as the consequence of "modernity's 'wholesale reflexivity' -- which is turned not only on all traditions but even on the nature of reflection itself, resulting in the dissolving of anchored vantage points and a universal 'institutionalization of doubt'."(19) The unhappy result of such universal doubt is the corrosive anomie that Durkheim famously described.
Nonetheless, however full of self-doubt Segal's figures seem, and however much they symbolize modern anomie by way of their anonymity, and however banal and "abstracted" they look -- however modern, postmodern, timelessly contemporary they are -- they have distinctive personalities and are grounded in themselves. They are concentrated and self-contained, however part of the passing crowd. Affect has not waned in them; it makes itself felt through their muteness. They seem to be holding themselves in reserve, as though waiting for something important to happen to them, even if they know it never will. Thus their inner reality contradicts and counteracts their outer reality, as I have emphasized. They are not as interchangeable as they look at first glance, however interchangeable they may be -- one face among many, but just another face -- in the administrative society. Their reserve acknowledges their small place in society, but it also shields their inner life. We may be instruments functioning rationally in society, but we have our own bit of irrationality. We are easily replaceable, but -- more important I think from Segal's point of view -- we have our own irreplaceable selves, if we would only realize it. Segal's figures may look like simulacra, but they are strangely real to themselves and banally real to society.
Early in this essay I remarked that Segal "seamlessly integrates" the "contradictory modernist strands" of art evident in the sixties -- "Duchamp [ianism], abstraction, happenings, Minimalism, Pop Art." I want to conclude by showing how they enrich his realism, giving it an expressive power and depth that conventional descriptive realism lacks. They confirm that his is a modernist as well as humanist realism, as formally intricate and unusual as it is cognitively complex and insightful -- as aesthetically remarkable as it is humanly profound. For Segal modernist innovations are instruments of existential insight rather than artistic ends in themselves. They code modern life experience, conveying its "shocking" meaning through their "novel" character. Endlessly "revolutionary" and "different," they convey the so-called "permanent revolution" that is modernity. Shockingly different from traditional art, they convey the shocking difference of modernity.
But Segal uses the artistically novel art forms of his day -- contemporary versions of the so-called "shock of the new" that modernist art supposedly conveys -- to reveal the eternal shock of the human. The shockingly new becomes the stage on which the shockingly human is performed. Segal also uses modernist styles to transcend his American subject matter in the act of mediating it. His broadly based modernism makes his art more than a latter-day provincial American Social Realism or Social Scene art, even an updated species of Urban Regionalism. Picasso's Chair, 1973 (Ill.8) alone makes it clear that his art is deeply indebted to modernism; Segal in fact made some Cubist type works, using three-dimensional collage elements. Picasso, who mastered an extraordinary range of styles, sometimes emphasizing one at the expense of the other, sometimes combining them -- he could be uncannily realistic and absurdly abstract -- and always using them to suit his expressive purposes, is Segal's model.
Segal also has Picasso's great art historical knowledge, as his Portrait of Meyer Schapiro, 1977 Ill. 9) implies. It is a homage to an influential art historian, who famously connected Romanesque and modernist aesthetics, arguing that the latter was an abstract version of the former -- a distillation of its formal principles if not its religious subject matter. Like Schapiro, Segal reconciles apparent opposites -- many opposites, as his multidimensional sculptural installations make clear. He made coherent sense of an incoherent art scene, reconciling its different styles in singular Gesammtkunstwerken. Perhaps even more crucially for understanding Segal, Schapiro supported expressively "primitive" Abstract Expressionism when it was experienced as chaotic and absurd, just as he argued for the aesthetic virtues of "primitive" Romanesque art when it was thought to have none compared to sophisticated Gothic art. Kandinsky was the first Abstract Expressionist, and Kandinsky was the leader of the abstract wing -- Der Blaue Reiter group -- of German Expressionism. Die Brücke was the figurative wing. Taken together, they offer a vision of a "new human reality": the unconscious (Kandinsky's "inner necessity"), with all its extremes of feeling (conveyed through textural gesture and intense color, both uprooted from objects and idealized as ends in themselves, that is, "non-objective sensations" and as such "pure"); and socially and self-alienated people, such as those who appear in Kirchner's street crowds, that is, human beings "distorted," deracinated, and isolated by modernity. Segal never lost the "admiration for the German Expressionists" -- both the abstract and figurative German Expressionists, I would argue -- that he had as a student. However more realistic, the figures in Segal's Walk Don't Walk, 1976 (Ill. 10) belong in a Kirchner street scene. His figures are gesturally intense -- fraught with unconscious feeling, slowly but surely emerging into consciousness (onto their surface, in the form of texture, as I have argued); and morbidly modern, that is, rootless (like wandering Jews?), as their often peripatetic character suggests, and depressed, as the blackness of many of them implies. They don't know whether to walk or not walk, to refer to that work again, and even when they walk it is not clear where they are walking to. Even when Segal shows them at home in an intimate space, they seem inwardly homeless and physically isolated. Certainly his crowds do not form a community. They are haunted by meaninglessness even as their unconscious agitates against it.
Segal's sculptural installations not only synthesize the contradictory styles of the sixties, but, more basically, Expression and Construction, the "primary contradiction" of modern art as Adorno argues. They are Expressionistic Constructions. They have a Duchampian aspect: found -- readymade -- human beings, inanimate objects, and junk materials, are not deceptively "assisted" into inexpressive art that can revert back to non-art with the blink of an ironical eye, as they are in Duchamp, but transmuted into immutable expressive art. They are given an abstract dimension by way of the often monochromatic appearance that turns them into three-dimensional color field paintings as well as through their eccentrically expressionistic surfaces. The barren environments in which the figures often appear has a stripped- down- minimalist look. Their "populist" familiarity suggests a certain affinity with Pop Art. But it is a Pop [ular] Art stripped of its commercialism -- its celebration of Capitalist success, however supposedly ironic. Warhol's name-brand products are the aristocrats of the Capitalist market and Lichtenstein's comic strips are the most successful modern art-along with the movies from which they have been said to derive. A comic strip unfolds like a movie, scene after scene sequentially framed. Segal's stage sets can also be read as slices of life projected by a voyeuristic movie camera, making the framed scenes all the more "moving" if also strangely artificial (however materially concrete, like Segal's figures). But Pop Art's supposedly demotic manner looks farcical next to Segal's. His everyday figures are serious with life rather than superficial commodities in a Capitalist fantasy world. Finally, Segal's tableaus look like frozen happenings. The earliest happenings took place at Segal's farm. Segal was apparently a participant, along with Allan Kaprow and Lucas Samaras, whom he worked with at Rutgers. I also think that Segal's figures embody what Christopher Lasch called the narcissistic American society that emerged in the sixties. Their disconnectedness and indifference to others -- they are self-absorbed to the extent of being unresponsive to others figures -- gives them the look of what Samaras calls "narcissistic hermits" (hermetic narcissism?). Standing Woman Looking Into Mirror, 1996 (Ill. 11) makes the narcissistic point clearly.
Is the work a realistic homage to Picasso's abstract Girl before the Mirror, 1932? As Two Hands over Breast, 1978 (Ill. 12) confirms, Segal is preoccupied with woman as the mysterious other who transcends her alienation by way of her narcissism -- which confirms it. Her curved, full body is erotically exciting: an oasis in the desert of the banal environment -- the straight and narrow space -- in which she is set. Her flesh is the revolt of life against the flatness of abstract painting-abstraction that falls emotionally as well as physically flat. Pure planar construction is a backdrop for the body in Segal's art. Nonetheless, Segal's figures, naked or clothed, male and female, have something abstract about them, apart from their abstracted air: ostensibly separate, they are also subtly distorted replicas of each other, confirming that are members of a mass society. It is as though seeing each other through the distorting mirror of their own narcissism confirms their mass identity.
But sometimes they are joyous: Segal's Dancers, 1971(Ill. 13) may be narcissists, each reflecting the self-love of the other, but they also form a harmonious community -- an alternative to mass society. The Dancers is another homage to a great modernist artist; it is a realistic transformation of an abstract masterpiece, Matisse's primitivist Dance. Again and again we see Segal paying his respects to the great modernist masters, climactically in Portrait of Sidney Janis with Mondrian's Composition of 1933, 1967 (Ill.14) a tribute to Mondrian and his dealer, who was also Segal's dealer and supporter. Like Picasso's Painter and Woman Knitting, 1931 an illustration of Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece, it suggests the paradoxical relationship of realistic figure and abstract art. They are inseparable -- in uncanny, mysterious, unconscious connection -- however clearly different their appearance and meaning. Segal conveys something similar in John Chamberlain Working, 1965 -67 (Ill.15) -- a fellow sculptor, realistically represented, working with found material (automobile metal) in an abstract expressionist manner. The "accidents" of abstract gesture leave their humanizing mark on the figures of Janis and Chamberlain, without disturbing their reality, just as the knitting woman retains her human reality despite being unraveled -- dehumanized -- into an abstraction by Picasso's painter.
Segal's sculptural installations are a living expressionistic theater set in an artificially constructed social environment whose abstractness infects the actors. More pointedly, Segal's Expressionist Constructions are a mystery street theater in which the figures ritualistically perform the tragedy of their lives without realizing it until it is too late to change their lives and themselves. The street is a mysterious theater in Segal's art -- a theater full of intriguing people full of unfathomable mystery, making them more poignantly human and meaningful than they would ever be if we saw them on an actual street. They would then be part of the same anonymous crowd in which we all live our daily lives in mass society, going about the rituals of dailiness without understanding their formative effect on us. They would then be so much passing garbage rather they diamonds in the rough, as they are in Segal's art, to refer to his remarks about Cinema. They would be nominally rather than profoundly human-incidentally rather than remarkably human -- things rather than bodies. Segal deeply humanizes his models by giving them artistic resonance. Literally recast by him, his figures seem like refugees from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. They become a chorus from a Greek tragedy transposed to a modern world.
Segal's portrait drawings have a special place in his oeuvre. They lift the individual out of the anonymity of the crowd, focusing on the face without the distraction of the environment. We are looking at a very particular person, not some passerby: black and white, at once intricately nuanced and forceful, the face standing out, its wrinkles adding to its drama and intimacy. We are close up, very close up, and experience the face's power. Segal captures the memorable expression that epitomizes the person's character: Jim's seriousness, Abba Eban's optimism, Helen's recessiveness, Marisol's morbidness, Miles's intensity, Sophie's assertiveness in defiance of death. Death haunts these portraits. They are old friends, and they look old, and will die, however holding their own in the present that is the portrait. Indeed, they make their being felt despite the presence of the nothingness of death, lurking in the background darkness in one portrait of Helen, Segal's wife, and surrounding Gary and informing Jim's face and the face of the Man Wearing Hat. But the brim of his hat is a streak of light. Miles's face is almost encompassed by shadow, but it emanates light -- dazzling light. Light falls on the faces, sometimes partially, sometimes fully, always suggesting "enlightenment" about life, giving it meaning. It has been said that if an artist is not to repeat himself as he ages he must deal with death, and Segal does so by showing that life courageously endures even as death closes in.
(1) Hannah Arendt, "Introduction," Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers: A Trilogy (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964), vi.
(2) Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage, 1964), 319 -21.
(3) Heinz Kohut, "Self Psychology and the Sciences of Man," Self Psychology and the Humanities: Reflections on a New Psychoanalytic Approach (New York and London: Norton, 1985), 86.
(4) Quoted in Dore Ashton, ed., Twentieth-Century Artists on Art (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 215 -16.
(5) Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York and London: Doubleday, 1967), 22.
(6) H. H. Arnason, History of Modern Art (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004; 5th ed.), 261.
(7) Quoted in Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), 6.
(8) Ashton, 215.
(9) Roberta K. Tarbell, "Sculpture, 1941-1980," The Figurative Tradition and the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980), 155.
(10) Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 242.
(11) T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 45.
(12) D. W. Winnicott, "Creativity and Its Origins," Playing and Reality (New York: Methuen, 1982), 65.
(13) D. W. Winnicott, "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self," The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment (London: Hogarth Press, 1965).
(14) Georg Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life," The Sociology of Georg Simmel (New York: Free Press, 1950), 413.
(15) Winnicott, Playing and Reality, 97.
(16) Simmel, "The Stranger," ibid., 405.
(17) Louis A. Sass, Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 371.
(18) Ibid., 372.
(19) Ibid., 371-72.
About the exhibition
George Segal: Modernist Humanist is being exhibited at at the George Segal Gallery September 9 through December 11, 2008.
The work of George Segal has been in the public eye for over 40 years. When he burst on the sculpture scene with his first plaster castings, he drew public attention that lasted throughout the rest of his career. Along with other artists of his era, he attracted enormous international attention to the creativity of American artists of the 1960s and 1970s.
The retrospective, curated by internationally renowed art critic Donald Kuspt will examine from a pschoanalytical perspective Segal's career in three phases: the early years as a painter, the pioneering sculptor, and the years of future mastery. Dr. Kuspit will show Segal's development, tracing his emerging art as a dialectic between pure form and existential emotion.
Many of the works in this exhibition have been out of the public eye for more than 25 years.
(above: George Segal, The Dancers, 1971, SF.0748, bronze, AP, 70 x 108 x 72 1/2 inches, courtesy of the George and Helen Segal Foundation/licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)
To view the checklist for the exhibition please click here.
A 65 page full color catalog with 16 color plates and 9 illustrations is available for purchase at the George Segal Gallery. The catalog is published in conjunction with the exhibition, George Segal: Modernist Humanist, organized by the George Segal Gallery of Montclair State University.
Foreword and Acknowledgments
To view the catalog Foreword and Acknowledgments for the exhibition please click here.
About the Gallery
In spring of 2006 a new main gallery space was completed and inaugurated as The George Segal Gallery. The George Segal Gallery was born out of the generosity of the George and Helen Segal Foundation and Montclair State's commitment to the arts. A labor of love for both, it is the only George Segal art gallery in the world, and will remain a part of the legacy of this artist.
Architecturally, the Segal Gallery is state of the art and conforms to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and museum-approved standards. It comprises 3,130 square feet of exhibition space and 3,300 square feet of storages, offices, seminar room and prep room. The facility is climate controlled with lights and nuclear window shades that block natural light. The Gallery also includes a dual pre-action fire suppression system, wood floors, UV-filtered track lighting, and movable transparent exhibition walls.
The address of the Gallery is George Segal Gallery, Montclair State University, 1 Normal Ave., Montclair, NJ 07042. For hours and admission fees please see the Gellery's website.
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Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. M. Teresa Rodriguez, Director of the George Segal Gallery, Montclair State University, for her assistance concerning permission granted to Resource Library on October 11, 2008 for republishing of the above essay.
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