Rena Segal

George Segal’s Roots

Parental Resistance

Bristol-Myers Squibb Exhibit

In Search of George Segal

Illustrations in Print Version

Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plettwas published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 25, 1998. All rights reserved.

George Segal’s Finely Sculpted World

When George Segal opens a show on his home ground

this week, he promises an event suffused with family feeling. The

show not only features two artist members of the Segal family, but

encompasses minutely observed images of other family members with

ties that radiate outward from the present day to decades and


and continents past.

Segal is New Jersey’s most prominent living artist, revered for


sculptures of ordinary people in environments that evoke the nobility

of everyday life. His home is in rural North Brunswick, the area where

he has lived since his parents left the Bronx and bought a chicken

farm here in 1940. On a rainy, wintry morning here, horse farms, tree

farms, and truck farms still dominate the scene. The landscape seems

remarkably unchanged, saved from development by its swampy makeup.

Now in his mid-70s, Segal is thoughtful, soft-spoken, and less rotund

than in years past. His wife Helen greets us at the door of the home

the couple built in the early 1950s. His daughter Rena, an artist

who now lives and maintains her studio in nearby Somerset, is slight

in stature, and bears a striking resemblance to her mother. Everyone

is dressed casually, in slacks and sweaters suitable for working.

With Rena, we hurry across the rainswept yard to Segal’s studio,


from poultry barns he built with his own hands some 50 years ago.

Here in the studio, drawings, photographs, and books mingle freely.

Segal’s sculptured figures — a mute but sentient presence —

stand patiently nearby, hollow forms of the legions of friends,


and family members who have served as his models over decades.

George and Rena Segal’s shared art exhibition, "Father and


opens at the Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb on Route 206 on Sunday,

March 1, with a reception from 3 to 5 p.m. The show remains on view

to April 12.

In a departure from the lifesize sculptures for which he is


famous, George Segal will exhibit six monumental portraits in pastel

on paper. Hearkening back to his early years as painter and abstract

expressionist, these late-career pastels reveal the artist’s abiding

interest in line, mood, and the craft of the old masters. None of

the subjects depicted in these larger-than-life portrait subjects

is under 70 years of age. They are his late mother Sophie, his wife

Helen, his sister-in-law, Millie, and an artist and former neighbor,

Leon. Segal also shows nine gritty black-and-white photographic


including one of daughter Rena, and three pencil studies.

Rena Segal’s works feature landscapes in acrylic and pastel, all made

over the past three years. Four are large acrylic paintings on linen

of landscape scenes of Farrington Lake. In their proximity to pure

abstraction, Rena’s acrylic studies claim great swaths of space. With

animated brushwork that seems to dance off the linen moorings, these

paintings sing with unexpected color harmonies. Ten smaller landscapes

in pastel and oil stick on paper offer concentrated studies of



George Segal’s one-person exhibitions have numbered over 150


the world. A major retrospective, which originated at the Montreal

Museum of Fine Arts in September, opened at the Hirshhorn Museum in

Washington, D.C., on February 19, and remains on view there to May

17. From Washington the show travels to the Jewish Museum in New York

(June 14 to October 4), the site of Segal’s first significant notice

as part of a 1957 group show curated by Meyer Shapiro. The final site

for the retrospective is the Miami Art Museum (December 17 to March

7, 1999). A new career-long catalog by guest curator Marco Livingstone

accompanies the show.

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Rena Segal

Rena Segal was born, raised, and schooled in New Jersey,

and earned her BFA at Montclair State College and her MFA from Rutgers

University. Her one-person exhibitions include a 1989 painting show

at the New Jersey State Museum, and shows at Ocean County College,

Johnson & Johnson World Headquarters in New Brunswick, and the


Building in Stamford, Connecticut,

An amiable and down-to-earth man, Segal is someone you might run into

in New Brunswick or New York, at the museum, the theater, or the


This favorite adopted son of some 50 years is still the quintessential

New Yorker, becoming animated when talking of philosophy and art


Yet his speech is careful and considered. He says the idea for a


exhibition was his own, sparked by a request from Bristol-Myers Squibb

curator Pamela Sherin, an old friend and a model for Segal’s work

for over 25 years.

"My daughter, Rena, has been stubborn and dogged in her drive

to make her own paintings," says Segal. "And the great


is that it’s difficult for her being my daughter."

Rena completes his thought: "A little difficult! I knew at 16

that I wanted to be an artist. I was in high school and I was taking

an art history course and they combined art history with studio, so

that whatever movement you were studying you did a painting related

to the movement. And when I did that course, that’s when I knew.

"I was realistic," Rena continues. "I knew I’d have to

have another job and support myself while I did what I did until I

could do what I wanted to do full time. I knew that. I’m doing my

own work full time now, but I’ve worked as a teacher of children ages

2 to high school."

But now it’s the father’s turn. "But Rena’s lucky. She didn’t

have to shovel chicken manure!"

Rekindling images of chickens, we check our surroundings, but that

special henhouse odor has been completely banished from the place,

along with the last chickens, sold in 1958.

Understanding the 20-year encounter with poultry, the career path,

the passions, and politics of George Segal is to understand the


his parents made, each independently, from Poland to the Bronx to

central New Jersey, over the first half of this century.

Segal was raised a Conservative Jew, as was his father before him.

Jacob Segal was one of seven brothers raised in Southern Poland. His

mother, Sophie Gerstenfeld Segal grew up in a village 300 miles

south of Warsaw, and 70 miles west of Kiev on land that was


Russian or Polish.

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George Segal’s Roots

Born in New York in 1924, one of two brothers, and


during the Depression, Segal’s father ran a kosher butcher shop in

the Bronx. "My father was the only one of all those brothers who

was annoyed and irritated enough to leave his home in Southern Poland

to come to America. Years later, I was invited to the Soviet Union

to lecture on my art and I realized that, if my father had stayed,

if the Germans hadn’t killed me, the Russians would have sent me to

the Gulag. I owe my father a great deal," says Segal. All of his

father’s brothers and their families were killed by the Nazis in the


"The Butcher Shop," one of Segal’s most acclaimed works, is

a loving re-creation of the Segals’ shop, on 174th Street, near the

Bronx Concourse, during the 1930s and ’40s. In 1965, six months after

his father died, the sculptor memorialized his father in the sculpture

that shows his mother, Sophie, with a knife raised, ready to dress

a chicken carcass.

Sophie also worked in the butcher shop while her sons were growing

up "at the expense of her own dreams," says Segal


"My father was getting up at 2 a.m. so he could get to the meat

market to buy his supplies to sell. My father had never had the time

or the energy to enter into the mental life of his children."

His older brother, Morris, lives nearby in New Jersey, and the pair

still see each other regularly.

When Segal’s parents bought a chicken farm in New Jersey in 1940,

they let him stay behind in New York where he finished Stuyvesant

High and attended Cooper Union School of Art. But his education was

cut short after his brother was drafted and his family called on him

to help raise poultry. Segal met his future wife, Helen Steinberg,

the daughter of a neighboring farmer, in 1940 when he parents bought

the farm. The couple married in 1946, and over the next three years

Segal continued his studies in art education at Pratt and at N.Y.U.,

where he not only earned his degree but met the students and faculty

who were to become important colleagues.

In 1949, George and Helen bought their own 11-acre farm across the

road from his father and devoted their time to making a success of

it out of financial necessity. "My father made me a gift of 700

laying hens, and Helen and I went into the chicken business,"

he recalls. The couple worked 14-hour days, seven days a week. They

built their own house and the extensive poultry barns, low cinderblock

structures with natural light along the roofline, and simple shed

roofs, which now comprise his vast art studio. Their son Jeffrey was

born in 1950; and daughter Rena, was born in 1953.

In 1953 Segal met Allan Kaprow, a rambunctious artist who was to


an important ally, who introduced him to his newly-founded New York

artists’ cooperative, the Hansa Gallery. It was during a Hansa Gallery

picnic on the Segal farm in 1958 that Kaprow staged the first


Segal became part of a generation that made art a crucial component

of the American scene. But he was no stranger to ordinary struggles

and ordinary issues. From the mid-1950s to 1960s Segal taught adult

art at Highland Park Community Center; English at Jamesburg High


industrial arts at Piscataway High School; and art at Roosevelt Junior

High. His artistic breakthrough to direct-cast sculpture came out

of an adult education class, forging a special tie to his adopted

home state that was and is also home to the nation’s leading



In 1961 he asked his students to bring "unlikely" artmaking

materials to his class. A student who was the wife of a chemist at

Johnson & Johnson labs in New Brunswick brought along that company’s

recently perfected gauze bandages for setting of fractures. (Later,

when J&J introduced its state-of-the-art plaster-impregnated bandages,

they became Segal’s material of choice.) For the former painter, it

was a revelation.

"I was my own first model," he told a Newsweek reporter.


wrapped myself in the bandages and my wife put on the plaster. I had

a hell of a time getting the pieces off and reassembled. But it


became `Man at a Table.’ I had found my medium." The 1961 "Man

at a Table," which comprises the white plaster form of a rotund

Segal seated before an oilcloth-covered table, an old salvage


window at his side, has pride of place in his 1998 retrospective.

Yet in 1961, with financial security an ever-pressing

concern, Segal enrolled in the graduate program at Rutgers’ Mason

Gross School of the Arts. "I got a master’s degree in 1963, but

then I sold out a New York sculpture show and didn’t have to teach

at all," he told one interviewer with glee. "A dream come

true! Later I taught at Princeton for a year, but with demands for

shows all over the world, I couldn’t go back to teaching


Top Of Page
Parental Resistance

Coming as he did from a working-class family from the Bronx, the


to become an artist was itself unprecedented. As it turns out, his

daughter Rena encountered a different but comparable parental


"When my generation started, there was no history — except

perhaps Ben Shahn — of any American fine artist able to sell


to support himself or herself," says Segal. As a student at Cooper

Union he signed up for fine arts, but, to allay his parents’ concerns,

he told his father he was enrolled in a commercial arts program. His

parents’ doubts persisted into his adulthood.

"My parents stated flatly, `You’ll never make a living at it.

And you’re responsible, you have a wife and two children,’" Segal

recalls today, his voice taking on the anxious timbre of his immigrant

parents. "And when I first started selling, I think it was my

mother who said, `Well, how long will it last?’"

Segal says the recent, belated publication of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s

"Shadows on the Hudson," stories that were serialized 40 years

ago in the Jewish Daily Forward, rekindled vivid memories of his



"I remember my mother talking incessantly about it because the

book is about a cast of characters — some rich, some poor, some

intellectual, some religious, some hedonist, and their experiences

living in New York on the upper West Side. I could recognize from

his description the streets of New York, but also the interiors of

the heads of the characters.

"Singer would write putting himself inside their head and talking

as if he were they. It was uncanny. It was a list of all the beliefs

and theories and doubts of everybody I’ve met. It was the packed


life of everybody I have known in my family," he says.

In the 1980s he made numerous drawings of his mother, who died in

1985. "When I drew my mother, she was aging, losing her memory,

suffering from an amazing variety of physical ailments, bemoaning

her fate of wanting to be a writer, an artist, a sculptor. She aspired

to all that stuff. And was blocked by the severity of her own


These drawings of Sophie, featured in the exhibit, show the elderly

woman looking out at the viewer with vital intensity. Dwarfed by


glasses, her skin is pulled tightly over bone in a mass of wrinkled

line experience.

"I find it absurd to place abstract painting in direct conflict

with figuration," says Segal. "I think the ability to pull

all threads of our experience together is the one that makes most

sense to me. And if I’m interested in portraits, I’m intensely


in what’s the real nature of the person whom I’m drawing. I want a

revelation of what’s inside that person as well as he or she looks


How does Segal bring such depth of expression to his subjects who

are strangers to most of the work’s viewers? He says a portrait of

a family member, such as his wife, "Helen in the Restaurant,"

that is part of the show, is unlike any other portraiture.

"Helen’s a special case," says Segal. "We’re been married

over 50 years. We’ve been working partners all of that time. I’ve

made maybe two dozen sculptures of her and I’ve lost track of how

many drawings. So that I can pick up a `fleeting’ aspect of Helen

and it’ll be valid. It’s a very special case. You could say I feel

a need to be specific if I’m hunting for generic."

Present in the show only obliquely is the Segals’ son, Jeffrey, who

is developmentally disabled and lives at a residential school in South

Jersey where he maintains close ties with the family. Segal


that his son’s intellectual limitations have profoundly affected the

family. However, his sister recalls the fun of their life as


"From where I’m sitting it was like growing up with a normal older

brother," says Rena. "We did all the stuff that my friends

did with their older brothers. We went into the city, we experienced

all these things, we weren’t shut out, we were able to participate.

Aside from his handicap, we had a great time as children. My brother

and I did all the brother-sister things and we still do. We go out,

go to the movies. He’s great company."

Top Of Page
Bristol-Myers Squibb Exhibit

Sam Hunter, Princeton art history professor emeritus and author of

the 1989 monograph on Segal, notes in his introduction to the


Squibb catalog that Segal’s monumental portrait drawings are the


of the artist’s prolonged exploration both of the old masters,


Caravaggio and Rembrandt, and contemporary reality which Segal comes

to by way of his camera.

The parallel is reinforced by Segal’s works in progress mounted on

the studio walls, multicolored pastels, dominated by reds and blacks,

of animal carcasses, taking the viewer back both to Segal’s own


Butcher Shop" of 1965 and Rembrandt’s shocking painting, "The

Slaughtered Ox" of 1655. Segal’s new series of pastels go on


at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, beginning March 5.

In his "Father and Daughter" essay, Hunter also coins the

expression "family rite" to characterize the art presence

within the Segal household.

For Rena, he writes, "the collaborative spirit of her father’s

workspace sowed the seed at an early age of the idea of art as a


rite." At age 10 she often accompanied her sculptor father on

scavenging missions to the Englishtown flea market and Rosie’s


in New Brunswick, collecting the staples of Segal’s environmental

sculpture ensembles — broken-down chairs, window frames, and doors

that became the haunting settings for his static figures.

When Rena and Jeffrey were young, chickens still


on the family farm. In 1958, they were displaced for art. "Rena’s

mother and I danced in celebration the day we sold our last 1,000

chickens," says Segal, still relishing the memory. "In the

face of the gloom of all our fellow farmers. Everybody was mourning

the end of that era. It was a national slump. Very simply, farmers

like my father had been subsidized during World War II because America

needed to feed the world. Agriculture began to recover at the end

of the Korean War. We were driven out of it. Our favorite phrase was

`creeping bankruptcy.’ And we managed to hang on to the farm."

Rena notes that when her father won the commission for a Holocaust

Memorial sculpture for San Francisco, there was a new resurgence of

interest in the stories of Holocaust survivors.

"In the early ’80s, the new interest was already there, because

the parents who were survivors had never said anything to their


and then all of a sudden they felt it was time they knew," she

recalls. Now, says Segal, "survivors of pogroms and death camps

are at this point deep into their 70s and 80s, so I suppose the


of mortality has a lot to do with the resurgence in interest."

"The Holocaust," Segal’s 1982 multifigured sculpture won the

San Francisco competition to create a Holocaust memorial. The


bronze is installed in the city. The plaster original, previously

exhibited at the New Jersey State Museum, part of the permanent


of the Jewish Museum, New York, is included in the 1998 retrospective


Rena learned of the pogroms from her grandmother Sophie. "I was

always told, ever since I was little my grandmother would tell me

stories. She didn’t hide that information, ever."

Being part of an artmaking family was indeed a "family rite."

"It was nice to participate to find the objects," says Rena.

"You got an appreciation of old furniture and the doors and the

windows crept into my work years later. You remember looking out of

something, playing in a barn. When I wanted to become a painter I

went back to that subject matter that I was familiar with and that

meant something. I couldn’t paint things that didn’t mean anything

to me."

"When Rena and her older brother were young, we couldn’t find

or afford baby-sitters," says Segal. "We’d take both kids

to New York to see the gallery shows on 57th street, and we had to

bribe them — `One more gallery, and then the Central Park Zoo.’

They were inevitably welcomed into our whole area of interests."

"We also went to performances in those early days — Allan

Kaprow’s, Jim Dine’s," continues Rena. "It was a fun time.

We didn’t realize it was art work, but later we knew. But at the time,

it was great to participate. You weren’t shut away, you weren’t told

this is an adult thing, kids can’t come. We were always welcomed at

openings, performances, happenings."

"When the Happenings were out on the farm my brother participated

but I didn’t. I watched. At Allan Kaprow’s we were told we could write

any kind of word or draw anything we wanted on the wall, and I thought

this was great. Whatever we had to say was valid."

This does not mean, however, that Segal applauded his daughter’s



"I think what’s true today is that the success of a few people

in my generation inspired an enormous explosion of art students


in fine art fully expecting to be rich and famous within three years

of graduation."

Rena concurs that competition, in recent decades, has become tough.

"In the 1980s, it felt as if artists were equivalent to rock stars

— they’d shoot up and come down. When I was trying to find


in the ’80s, it felt as if you had to package yourself. I never


in that. I just said, `this is who I am and that’s that.’"

"When Rena announced she wanted to be an artist, I was not very

happy, since I know how rare it is for any artist to achieve


or even being able to sell anything," says George Segal. "I’ve

been very lucky. But Rena had no idea of the extreme extremity of

competition. She’s been determined and she’s stuck to it. I’m ruefully

welcoming her into the fold."

George and Rena Segal, The Gallery at Bristol-Myers

Squibb , 609-252-6275. Opening reception Sunday, March 1, 3 to 5

p.m. Free. 3 to 5 p.m.

Top Of Page
In Search of George Segal

As George Segal grabs the art pages this spring with

a lifetime retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum of the Smithsonian,

in Washington, D.C., which then moves to the Jewish Museum in New

York, his neighbors in New Jersey can take in some major works without

leaving home.

Two of Segal’s major bronze sculptures are readily accessible to area

viewers. "Abraham and Isaac: In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent


shown in the Craig Terry photograph above, is on the campus of


University, just off Washington Road, between the imposing structures

of the University Chapel and Firestone Library.

It is a memorial to the May day, on the campus of Kent State


when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a crowd of

students during a demonstration against U.S. government action in

Vietnam and Cambodia. Four students were killed; nine more were


wounded. The assault was the first military firing upon a civilian

crowd in the nation’s history. Segal chose an Old Testament story

as a metaphor for the generational conflict, and the work is one of

several major sculptures he has made on Old Testament themes.

Segal, like so many who found themselves on a college campus that

May morning in 1970, still remembers the day well. He was a visiting

professor at Princeton University, teaching a class in sculpture.

"In 1970, because I was actually teaching and emotionally involved

with my students, I was familiar with their mentality, and sympathetic

to their problems," he recalls. He also remembers discouraging

a group of students who were considering sabotaging campus computing

facilities as an act of protest.

The memorial, commissioned from Segal by an Ohio philanthropist as

a gift to Kent State University, "Abraham and Isaac" was


by that institution, and in 1979 it became part of Princeton’s


John B. Putnam Memorial Collection. For more than a decade it stood

as the only memorial to the event. In 1990, Kent State dedicated a

memorial on its grounds to the tragedy that was by then 20 years past.

In 1987, the State of New Jersey commissioned its first work from

Segal. "The Constructors" is a large-scale bronze that stands

in front of the Mary Roebling Commerce Building in Trenton, home of

the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. The tableau is composed

of interlocking steel I-beams which support three bronze figures


construction workers, surrounded by all sorts of familiar, and


building-site paraphernalia. A familiar capital landmark, this is

a work that encapsulates democracy as a "work in progress."

It is worth noting that "The Constructors" was funded by the

state’s Public Buildings Arts Inclusion Act, administered by the New

Jersey State Council on the Arts, which designates up to 1-1/2 percent

of the projected construction cost of new state facilities to be spent

on public art. More than a decade later, this public art program is

still alive and well, with commissions currently being considered

as part of the new light rail line under construction in Hoboken.

Although Segal’s most widely known works are the life-size figures,

his smaller wall pieces are equally affecting. The bas-relief nude,

"Torso" (1972), a proposed gift to the Art Museum, Princeton

University, is currently on exhibit there. Segal’s erotic bas-reliefs

are quite unlike his Americana, evoking fragments of classical marble

friezes and all the humanistic learning associated with that golden


— Nicole Plett

Top Of Page
Illustrations in Print Version

George Segal’s `The Constructors,’ left, stands in front of the

Roebling Building, Trenton. Photo by Michael J. Peters.

Counter-clockwise: `Man Sitting at a Table,’ 1961, was Segal’s first

direct-cast sculpture in which he used J&J bandages for the process,

and himself for the model; `Helen with Apples’ includes Helen Segal as

the model; `Sophie IV,’ 1988, a drawing of Segal’s mother from the

Bristol-Myers Squibb exhibit; and the 1982, `The Holocaust,’ in the

collection of the Jewish Museum, New York.

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