Looking for Life Signs in George Segal’s Work

For well over 30 years, I have been trying to find something to admire in the sculpture of George Segal, and never quite succeeding. Every encounter with the work leaves me feeling disappointed and vaguely depressed. Still, I always take another look, as I did the other day when I went to see the retrospective of Mr. Segal’s work that has now come to the Jewish Museum. (It was organized last year at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and has already been seen at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.) Much of the work I had, of course, seen many times already- Lovers on a Bed I (1962), Cinema (1963), The Butcher Shop (1965) and even the more recent Depression Bread Line (1991)-and this time, too, they elicited the usual melancholy response.

For in such works, and even in the political sculptures like The Execution (1967) and The Holocaust (1982), there is always the same discrepancy between the scale of the effort that has been invested in assembling the materials that go into the construction of Mr. Segal’s sculptural tableaux-all the secondhand hardware that provides an environment for the white plaster figures that have been cast from life-and the unrelieved dead-weight quality of the resulting assembly. Over the years, I have for this reason come more and more to think of these large-scale works as tableaux morts -tableaux of so-called real life that turn large chunks of experience into overscale still life. For even Mr. Segal’s life-size plaster figures-indeed, especially his life-size plaster figures-have this nature-morte quality, the quality of lifeless objects.

It is this eerie lack of any suggestion of human vitality that always disturbs me in Mr. Segal’s sculpture, and one is made all the more conscious of that lack on the present occasion because of the extraordinary surprise that awaits the visitor of this retrospective in the very last room of the show. This surprise consists of a series of portrait drawings, executed in pastels and charcoal and all dating from the 1990’s, that in my judgment are far and away the finest works of art Mr. Segal has ever produced. The subjects are drawn from family and friends-the artist’s wife and mother, the photographer Arnold Newman and the sculptor Marisol-and projected on a larger-than-life-size scale. So powerful are these drawings, both in the compelling human presences they evoke and in their command of a dauntingly dense chiaroscuro that is far more sculptural in feeling than any George Segal sculpture I’ve ever seen, that one is left to wonder if the artist may not at last have found his true métier in this medium.

These are very “black” drawings, not only in the way they favor extreme densities of shadow over very fragile and fugitive sources of light but also in their dark, undeceived account of the ravages which the passage of time inflicts on the human physiognomy. Mr. Segal is said to have looked to the etchings of Rembrandt for some guidance in this project, and this I can well believe. It would be foolish to make any comparisons on that score, but it can be said that Mr. Segal has chosen the right model for the task he set himself in these portraits.

A comparison that does strike me as anything but foolish, however, is the one to be made between these portrait drawings and Mr. Segal’s own portrait sculptures. There are several of the latter in this retrospective, and none commands anything like the power of the recent portrait drawings. The most amusing of the portrait sculptures is undoubtedly the one of Sidney Janis With Mondrian Painting (1967), which doesn’t penetrate very deeply into the character of the late Sidney Janis but does provide an entertaining contrast in its juxtaposition of the white-plaster effigy of the art dealer and the actual abstract painting by Piet Mondrian. (Need one add that the only thing deep about this portrait is the painting by Mondrian?)

The portrait sculpture that is really creepy, however, is the one devoted to Meyer Schapiro (1977). When I first saw this painted sculpture at the Janis Gallery some years ago, I thought it was a really awful piece of work, grotesquely ill-judged in its color and an utter blank as a depiction of its subject’s character. No doubt it was conceived as a tender act of hommage to a much revered art historian who was also a friend and mentor to many living artists, but the unfortunate truth is that Mr. Segal’s sculptural methods have never lent themselves to the art of portraiture. Even where a tolerable likeness is achieved, as it is in this case, the subject ends up looking like another lifeless object. A true portrait of Schapiro might, perhaps, have depicted him at a moment of high animation, on the lecture platform, with arms gesturing and a color slide of a great painting on the screen, and the speaker’s eyes aglow with excitement over both his topic and his own eloquence. What a pity that Meyer Schapiro died before Mr. Segal was able to make him the subject of one of his 1990’s black portrait drawings!

Similarly, I do not think Mr. Segal’s sculptural methods, which are so completely tethered to the banalities of everyday life, are any more appropriate for subjects drawn from the Bible than they are for the art of the portrait. In the installation of the current retrospective at the Jewish Museum, the work that greets the visitor at the entrance is a tableau depicting Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael (1987). No doubt this was thought to be an appropriate “religious” theme with which to commence the show’s installation at the Jewish Museum, but the work itself looks distressingly like a scene from a badly directed Off-Broadway melodrama. In the catalogue accompanying the retrospective, Marco Livingstone suggests that Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael is a work that upholds “a vision of the future through which the artist gazes optimistically towards the 21st century.” Gee, who could have guessed such a thing? But if this means that in the widely praised art of the 21st century we are likely to see as much cornball melodrama as we have lately seen in the widely praised art of the 20th century, then Mr. Livingstone may be on to something.

Mine is, of course, very much a minority view of Mr. Segal’s accomplishments as a sculptor, for he is indeed one of the most widely praised sculptors of his generation. But, as some of us also know, not everything that is widely praised in the art of our time is all that it is cracked up to be. Still, the current show at the Jewish Museum is worth seeing for those late, unforgettable portrait drawings.

The exhibition remains on view at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue at 91st Street, through Oct. 4.

Looking for Life Signs in George Segal’s Work