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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.
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.
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
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
"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."
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
"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
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."
Squibb , 609-252-6275. Opening reception Sunday, March 1, 3 to 5
p.m. Free. 3 to 5 p.m.
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
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
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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