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Casting George
by Martin Friedman

Preoccupied as George Segal was with formal issues such as volume and voids, surface and color, he was at heart a storyteller, a creator of parables in which ordinary events took on extraordinary connotations. Though most of the subjects and themes he portrayed were reflections of the world around him, he universalized and, on occasion, imbued them with mythic portent. A slight female nude standing beneath a huge rock overhang brings to mind the form of a classical nymph. Figures huddled at street crossings could just as well be souls in limbo. Segal was fond of such allusions and on occasion used biblical allegory to comment on aspects of contemporary life. One such theme was Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac at the stern command of the Lord. The two sculptures he based on this subject, he said, were about an older generation’s readiness to sacrifice its children in the cause of war. Most Segal imagery is less specific and, certainly, less moralistic. Its strength, in my view, is its ambiguity. Indeed, for all its descriptiveness, it invites widely different interpretations. The human body was the armature on which he shaped his sculptures, but what came forth from his studio were never merely line-by-line renditions. Too much was going on in his head, too many feelings about the subjects he was dealing with, and—just as important—too many concerns about traditional formal issues to permit rote translations. The fact is, nothing is routine about his representations of the body. Slight and not-so-slight distortions abound throughout his sculptures—exaggerated contours, agitated surfaces, and sharply defined areas next to blurry ones. Each Segal figure bears the history of its making.


Rush Hour, 1983/95. Bronze, installation view. Photo: Tim Hursley,
Courtesy the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.


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