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George Segal: photographs and sculpture.

George Segal photographs and sculpture

Looking carefully Photography is a mechanical-artistic medium. Photographic artists must be able to manipulate the equipment in such a way that it will do what they want done. At the same time there is much creativity involved as the picture is being taken and during processing in the darkroom. There are constant choices to be made by the photographer. What will be photographed? What angle is best? What lighting reveals the subject best? What kind of film should be used? How shall it be cropped and printed?

For George Segal, best known for his sculptures, photography became a tool to help him create environments for his white plaster figures. His interest in photography may have begun in 1960 when his friend Robert Frank made a film ("Sin of Jesus") on Segal's chicken farm in New Jersey. As the years passed, he began to carry a Nikon 35mm camera with him everywhere.

At first, Segal made both color and black-and-white photographs of his travels and exhibited them, but he soon realized that he preferred to work in black and white. He felt that he could control the composition, contrast and light better in black and white.

One winter day in 1985, when everything was closed, Segal took his camera down to the New Jersey shore. "Diner, Asbury Park, NJ" (centerspread) is a result of this trip. It is a beautiful abstract composition. The sharp lighting contrasts and the repetitive perspective view create a mood of simultaneous reality and unreality. Clarity and mystery exist in harmony. Notice the controlled feeling of intense blacks and crisp whites. Much of this clarity of contrast was done in the darkroom with the help of his friend Don Lokuta, who could intensify an area of black and soften an area of white as he developed and printed the film.

One can compose with light in a photograph much as Goya and Rembrandt used light in their etchings. In the prints of these European masters, Segal sees strong abstract patterns as well as more obvious realistic forms. The values in Segal's photographs range from bright whites to heavy darks and the quietly modulated tones between these extremes.

Segal also considered geometric design and structure as he shot his photographs. By shooting the "Diner" scene from front-and-center, he used perspective in a very direct manner. Notice how the leading edge of the counter in the foreground divides the interior space into two distinctive parts. This line of contrast is almost exactly in the center. There is a feeling of symmetrical as well as asymmetrical balance.

Comparing Over twenty years before Segal shot "Diner, Asbury Park, NJ," he created a sculpture with much the same emotional environment. The stark contrast of pure white figures with a brilliant red wall and shiny chrome fixtures bring together the real and the unreal in The Diner, 1964-66 (above).

To produce his sculptures, Segal used an unusual method. He wrapped his models with strips of cloth dipped in plaster. After the plaster dried, he removed it in sections and put it back together again into a full figure. In this "single-mold" method, the imprint of the body was on the inside of the plaster. Segal worked on the outside to create his own desired texture and form. (By the mid-1970s, Segal began using a new "double-mold" method--a casting of a cast--with the imprint of the body on the outside of the final mold.)

Although they are done in very different media, both the photograph and the sculpture reveal a minimalist spirit. What is left out seems to be as important as, possibly more important than, what is included. The unseen seems to haunt the space.

In the photograph, one is drawn deeply into the nocturnal environment by the psychology of perspective and repetition. The lonely deserted stools seem to pull one farther back into the space to the row of empty coffee pots and the tile grid on the back wall of the kitchen. In the sculpture, nostalgia permeates the lonely figure sitting on a high leather stool as the waitress pours another cup of coffee. Psychological tension charges the space between them.

In both works, there are shadows and reflections, an emphasis on black and white, isolated individuals who have turned their backs to the viewer, each lost in private thought within a mundane setting. Segal's figures seem always to be alone or in small groups. Their uneasy relationships with each other, or with objects and environments, suggest a merging of the real and the unreal. "The hunt is not for verisimilitude," Segal once stated, "not for naturalistic reproduction--it's a hunt for the spirit.

George Segal For many years, George Segal was a painter. Influenced by the energetic brushwork of Willem de Kooning and Hans Hoffman, he was also attracted to the intimacy and interior settings of Bonnard and Degas. While his abstract expressionist contemporaries were rejecting reality and emphasizing the flatness of the picture plane, Segal never lost his connection with the human figure. The size of his paintings grew until his powerful nudes were almost life size.

In 1958, the avant-garde art world was searching for a new horizon, a broader scope and fewer limits on visual expression. When one of Segal's students brought him some plaster-impregnated bandages used for medical casts, he found his new creative direction. He became his own first model as his wife wrapped him to make a casting from life.

In 1959, Segal exhibited three plaster figures with his paintings at the Hansa Gallery in New York. He hung the big paintings low so it would appear that the figures had come right out of the canvases. As Pop Art, Happenings and Performances made the headlines, Segal watched, listened and participated while keeping his creative individuality. It seems that he wanted the best of both artistic worlds. As a sculptor, he wanted to retain the artistic environmental control that he had as a painter. So, Segal determined the objects, space and setting in his sculptural works.

Segal realized that casting from life had not been acceptable in art and that he was breaking one of the few taboos left to art in the 1960s. Auguste Rodin had been accused of and denounced for making molds from the bodies of his models. Yet, Segal became best known for his plaster figure sculptures.

In 1980, Segal began exhibiting his photographs as well as his sculptures.

Suggested activities The following can be adapted for any grade level. ] Ask students where they eat when they eat

out. Suggest that they may be so familiar

with their favorite places that they have never

really thought of them as unique spaces.

Ask how they feel when they are there. Do

they feel like being loud and active or does

the place make them want to quietly disappear

into a corner? Do they feel happy or

lonely there? Does the space crowd them?

Do they feel separated or connected with

other people there? What do they think it is

about this unique space that makes them

have these feelings? George Segal has

made a photograph and a sculpture about

an eating place and the people in it. Ask

students how they think Segal made his

spaces unique. ] Segal's works involve interior space. A

diorama is a painted and constructed

three-dimensional scene. It may include objects

or figures set in front of a painted

background. Have students make dioramas of

their favorite eating places in a shoebox,

cereal box, cigar box or some other small

container. They may control the light and

mood of their dioramas with windows cut

into the ceiling (lid) or by adjusting the

angle of the diorama toward the external light

source. ] Segal's works convey a special mood. Ask

students how they think the people in his

photograph and sculpture feel. Have them

close their eyes and try to "feel" their favorite

eating places. What colors do they see?

What kind of shapes appear? Have them

open their eyes and try to transfer onto

paper the colors, shapes and spaces they felt

when their eyes were closed. Ask students

not to show objects or people that they

might have seen while they were there, but

to try to understand the feelings of their

inner eyes and communicate these in their

nonobjective pictures. ] Segal's works are emotionally charged with

contrast. Contrast can be found everywhere

in the environment: big and little, active

and still, dull and bright, light and dark,

real and unreal. What contrasts can

students observe in Segal's photograph and

sculpture? Have them make a figure of

modeling clay, and then choose a real

object (pencil, crayon, pen, leaf, coin, etc.) to

combine with the clay figure. Example: The

clay figure could carry a real pencil bigger

than itself. Discuss how this creates

contrasts of color, detail, value, size, mood and

shape. ] Segal's works are marked by repetition.

Repeated patterns of color, value and

shape can be found in the home, classroom

and public places. Have students

look for the repetition in Segal's photograph

and sculpture. What mood is set by

the rows of empty stools in the diner? Have

students look around the classroom for

repetition of colors, things, shapes, etc.,

and make cut-paper collages using repeated

patterns of color, value and shapes. Ask

them to create a mood with their abstract

repeated paper collage designs. ] Segal's cast sculpture relies on molds taken

from real models. Have students work

together, under the teacher's supervision, to

create face or arm molds by applying plaster

impregnated bandage material directly

to the face or body. Segal uses a moisturizing

cream between skin and the bandage

material. When the mold has dried, grease

the inside and line with clay or papier-mache

to form a cast. (See page 26, "Creating

lasting impressions," for more information

on casting from plaster molds.)

PHOTO : George Segal, The Diner, 1964-66. Plaster, wood, chrome, formica, masonite, flourescent

PHOTO : lamp, 102" x 108" x 87" (259 cm x 274 cm x 221 cm). Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

PHOTO : Portrait of George Segal, 1982. Courtesy Sidney Janis Gallery, New York.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Davis Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Nicely, H.T.
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1989
Previous Article:Creating lasting impressions.
Next Article:Artists in the schools.

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