George Segal used living models to create his sculptures. He wrapped them in plaster-soaked bandages and let the materials harden. He then cut the plaster away from the models’ bodies and reassembled the hollow forms. The result: Segal’s white figures seem at once lifelike and eerily still—forever frozen in a mummified state. Segal’s sculptural “environments” combine cast figures with commonplace objects—chairs, tables, signs and wall fragments— to evoke a specific emotion, memory or moment in time. However, the uniform coat of white paint he gives this tableaux suggests a distanced or other worldly reality. Slumped in her chair and staring straight ahead, this figure conveys a sense of exhaustion or boredom. Her unidealized nude form is not erotic but rather suggests a dejected psychological state.
George Segal Girl Sitting Against a Wall II, 1970 Collection of the Akron Art Museum George Segal depicted the prosaic actions of the human body, seeking to uncover something universal in coarse physical reality and the commonplace. His subjects were most often working-class, perhaps reflecting his immigrant family's humble roots. Segal attended public schools in the Bronx and Manhattan and later received a B.A. in art education. While pursuing his calling as a painter, he operated a chicken farm in South Brunswick, New Jersey. This farm became legendary when the avant-garde artist Allan Kaprow staged the first "happening" there in 1957, an event that many consider to be the birth of the contemporary discipline known as performance art. The next year, Segal ceased farming and turned to sculpture, modeling his first figures in plaster and eventually converting the chicken coops into a rambling studio. In the 1960s Segal developed a process of wrapping his models in plaster-soaked bandages. After the wrapping hardened he cut it from the model and reassembled the hollow forms.1 "Originally, I thought casting would be fast and direct, like photography," the artist explained, "but I found that I had to rework every square inch. I add or subtract detail, create a flow or break up an area by working with creases and angles. I'm shaping forms."2 Girl Sitting Against a Wall II is Segal's second version of a female figure seated before a wall and window.3 It is related to a number of his other nude female figures engaged in private reflection or intimate acts. The apparent intimacy is tempered by aloofness: Akron’s figure has a sense of distraction and exhaustion. The emotional quality of such works has often been discussed. Segal's colleague Kaprow described the white figures as "embalmed." "These stark, motionless figures, nearly mummies, frozen in some ordinary hour of their day, remain in an endless trance, blanched of color, communicating with no one."4 Unlike idealized marble nudes of the past, Girl Sitting Against a Wall II is lumpy and worn. She is not erotic in a predictable way. The girl's exposure is psychological more than sexual; she does not tease or please the spectator. Yet there remains an inescapable sense of voyeurism and eros in presenting any nude subject, which Segal seemed to acknowledge in talking about another nude: "I like her voluptuousness; I like her sturdy construction; I like her massive hips."5 Segal typically surrounded his figures with fragments from the real world, creating tableaux of furniture, walls, and signs. Nevertheless, the overall whiteness distances the sculpture from reality. The painted window hints at the world outside while obscuring it from the nude figure, increasing her isolation. Segal's sculpture possesses many historical resonances, ancient and modern. The process of wrapping bandages around a body recalls ancient burial practices including Egyptian mummification. White plaster, which suggests petrifaction, may remind some of casts made by modern archaeologists from the hollow molds left around the burnt bodies of Vesuvius's ancient victims. And the white nude has, of course, been a mainstay of marble sculpture during several centuries. In this century the painter Edward Hopper pursued a vision similar to Segal's, using architecture and human figures to portray the loneliness and melancholy of American life. Unlike many contemporary sculptors, Segal did not fabricate by industrial processes. He remained that most traditional type of sculptor, a modeler, employing the pasty white of plaster. Its odd combination of remoteness and tactile physicality points to the timeless dichotomy of all figurative sculpture: it is both realistic and artificial. - Mitchell D. Kahan, 2001 1. The year after Akron’s piece was made, Segal developed a new technique, casting a material called hydrostone (which is stronger than plaster) from the interior of the shell to give a more refined surface and lifelike rendering. The earlier pieces, like Akron’s, reveal the lumpy external shape. 2. “Exhibitions: Presences in Plaster,” Time (December 13, 1968): 84. 3. The first version of a girl sitting against a wall, from 1968, is in the collection of the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. Unlike Akron’s all-white piece, Stuttgart’s version has a red chair and black window, and the figure’s hands are placed differently. 4. Allan Kaprow, “Segal’s Vital Mummies,” ARTnews (February 1964): 33. 5. Phyllis Tuchman, “Interview with George Segal,” Art in America 60 (May–June 1972): 81. Hunter, Sam, and Don Hawthorne. George Segal. New York: Rizzoli, 1984. Reprinted, Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 1988. Livingstone, Marco. George Segal Retrospective: Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings. Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1997. Van der Mark, Jan. George Segal. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1975.