Plaster Caste: John Perreault on George Segal, in 1968

George Segal, Depression Breadline (detail), 1991, bronze. VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

George Segal, Depression Breadline (detail), 1991, bronze.


With famed art critic John Perreault having recently died at age 78, we turn back to November 1968, when he wrote a review of a George Segal show at New York’s Sidney Janis Gallery for ARTnews. At the time, Perreault had already gained notoriety as an art critic for the Village Voice and was becoming known as a defender of avant-garde underdogs. Here, Perreault writes a defense of Segal, saying that he is different from and, in some ways, better than Pop, which had, in his opinion, already become cliché by the time this was penned. Noting the way that Segal combines real-life and artist-made objects, Perreault praises the New Jersey–based sculptor’s interest in the everyday and the blue collar. Moreover, Perreault argues, Segal’s plaster sculptures get at universal issues like the beauty of the body, its imperfections, and its histories. Perreault’s review follows in full below.—Alex Greenberger

“Plaster Caste”
By John Perreault

George Segal’s plaster people, caught in poignant gestures of loneliness and surrounded by the furniture of their life, will be seen next month at Janis

Now that Pop Art per se is no longer an issue, now that the constellation of styles has been assimilated and its shock value neutralized—Campbell’s soup-can waste-paper baskets are a glut on the market and Camp, by its very nature a super cliché, has become an ordinary cliché—it is significant, nevertheless, that several of the artists labeled, extolled and sometimes, unfortunately, dismissed as Pop have continued to develop and to produce new works of high quality.

One such artist is George Segal; his December show (at Janis) will do much to establish his position as, surprisingly enough, a major artist who, along with three or four of the other Pop Popes, proves his art is artful enough to survive the labels that served as handy introductions but not as adequate definitions. The shock of seeing Segal’s plaster molds of real people located within pristine arrangements of found objects has been mitigated by familiarity; we are now able to perceive just how judicious and significant are the multiple choices that go into the creation of one of Segal’s poignant and yet strictly unsentimental “slice-of-life” evocations.

Segal has the distinction of being a New York artist who lives in New Jersey. He lives outside of New Brunswick with his wife and two children on what was formerly a chicken farm. Indeed, he was once a chicken farmer himself and his neighbors, either unimpressed or uninformed about his more recent achievements, still think of him as this, even though his abandoned “coop,” which is several city blocks long, houses a workshop and numerous, incongruous, plaster inhabitants.

Segal began as a painter. In the late ’50s, his friendship with Allan Kaprow, who was then teaching nearby at Rutgers University (Robert Whitman and Lucas Samaras were students and Roy Lichtenstein was teaching at Douglass College), played and important role in his development. Segal later became acquainted with Claes Oldenburg, Red Grooms and other artists centered around the Hansa Gallery, and had his first show at the Green Gallery, like Hansa under the direction of Dick Bellamy. From the beginning plaster people were his trademark.

In his recent works, after a venturesome but unprofitable side-trip into painted figures and allegory, Segal achieves a balance that is post-Pop, post-painterly and pre-apocalyptic. In short, by combining aspects of several different categories—painting vs. sculpture, presentation vs. representation, art vs. life—he has managed a significant statement that is about both art and life.

One can find much to praise in his careful contrasts between real (presented) objects and made (represented) figures: plaster bodies in contrast to wood, rattan, glass and even daylight. His media-mix is canny. Subway uses moving lights to suggest the motion of a subway car between stops. The blinking PARK sign in Parking Garage, a major piece in the Janis show, is perfect. His sense of composition, although arrived at through an anti-compositional stance, is classic without being rigid or cold.

In his new works, Segal re-introduces the self-portrait. Self-Portrait with Head and Body (see cover) depicts Segal himself in the act of placing a plaster head upon a plaster body. The figure is the same one employed in a finished state in Girl Sitting against Wall, notable for its almost Supremist severity of composition. Artist in Studio shows Segal or the plaster ghost of Segal in the act of drawing two models (also plaster). The tableau is backed up by a wall on which a series of large drawings are displayed. With these two pieces Segal manages to create works of art that are about themselves in a new and very complicated way.

George Segal, Man on Bicycle, 1962, plaster and bicycle parts. NATIONAAL ARCHIEF/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

George Segal, Man on Bicycle, 1962, plaster and bicycle parts.


Artist in Studio is illuminating because it reveals the central formal issue of Segal’s work—until now disguised by the shock of his commonplace subject matter. For Segal, the concept of “boundary” is crucial. He not only makes choices involving model (mold), pose and suggestive environmental fragments, but also major decisions about boundaries. Where will a piece end? How much is just enough? Should the linoleum beneath the plaster figures be discarded? The open bag of plaster? The rafters of his studio?

On the other hand, the most obvious characteristic of Segal’s work is his consistent use of isolated figures within contexts that are widened by his skill in selecting evocative props (the perfect motel bed in The Motel Room, the shower stall of Shower Stall, the metal corner-guard affixed to The Parking Garage). This characteristic suggests the paintings of Edward Hopper. The mood is somewhat the same, as is the mode. And, like Hopper, Segal is not an American Social-Realist, but a poetic-realist. This phrase seems to be an unnatural conjunction of polarities. Reality, however—if we mean by “reality” total rather than exclusively cerebral or visual experience—is unavoidably poetic and not, contrary to certain therapeutic but false philosophies, composed of mere facts. Facts when inspected with even a minimum degree of attention dissolve into ephemeral sense data or, on the other hand, into vague subjective states. Segal is able to transform facts—shoes, drinking glasses, subway cars—into emotions.

In regards to the plaster pictures themselves, these hollow men and women are a cast of characters that achieves a kind of blue-collar universality. They indicate the American yoga of physical and psychological exhaustion. The bodies, or the imprints of these bodies, exist in three-dimensional space, but their thoughts or their souls are elsewhere, outside the workaday world. Segal is a poet. But he is never oppressive, didactic, or “literary.” He celebrates acceptance. Acceptance, however, must not be read as resignation. Wisdom is contained in the location of the differences between these apparent similarities.

Segal exploits the language of the body. He does not use the heroic poses of traditional representational sculpture, but the every-day postures that communicate unconsciously. (Indeed, in some systems or anti-systems of thought, the physical manifestation of a psychological state is the psychological state.) Facial expressions, because they are created by muscles too subtle to be captured by Segal’s techniques of “mummification” (cloth soaked in wet plaster is applied directly to the live model), are automatically eliminated, and the body itself, as in dance, bears the burden of expression. The body, however, even when immobile, is capable of sending messages of great complexity. The way a man sits, lounges, slumps or arranges himself in a chair contains more history and more truth than all the personality profiles in the world. The body does not lie. The language of the body—relationships between limbs and torso, muscle tensions, posture and carriage—offers a rich vocabulary of signs.

The “working-class,” un-Mod tonality of Segal’s iconography is satisfying, not because it approaches certain Marxian or Ash-Can clichés, but because his blue-collar prototypes—a parking-lot attendant, a girl putting on a pair of shoes—represent a-literate personalities (as opposed to fashionably normative “post-literate” ones) who have not ritualized their body language into “manners” that determine “correct” ways of sitting, standing, moving. Segal brilliantly exposes this forbidden vocabulary of gestures. The bodies of Segal’s faceless (wordless) people become all face.

What Segal captures with almost infallible grace is the moment of stasis, the significant pose. His figures are poised between the physical and the spiritual and can be read either way, just as certain Gestalt illustrations can be read as ladies or rabbits, lovers or pottery. He rarely descends into bathos or social commentary. At his best and most “poetic” he succeeds in expressing the universal in terms of the particular. What more can we ask?

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