Lights On, Nobody Home

In the early 1960s, George Segal began producing the sculptures on which he built his reputation: life-sized plaster casts of the human figure, sometimes alone, often in pairs or groups, usually in public places that he re-created using found objects. There are 13 such sculptures in "George Segal: Street Scenes," now at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, along with a pair of still lifes and a fragment of a human figure. It's a small show that packs a considerable wallop.

Segal, who died in 2000 at age 75, had been a painter with an expressionist bent before turning to sculpture, and he continued to draw and take photographs throughout his life. But as his friend (and sometime model) Martin Friedman recalls in an essay in the exhibition catalog, Segal "felt trapped in an emotional and stylistic dilemma... He increasingly felt that his paintings were unresolved and lacked the coalescence of form he ardently sought. Dissatisfied with what he was accomplishing in two dimensions, he added another one."

Fortunately for us, Friedman might have added. Although I have seen only a smattering of Segal's nonsculptural work, it's clear that the world would be an aesthetically poorer place without his monumental sculptures, which, it could also be argued, paved the way for a great deal of contemporary installation art.

Segal was the subject of a 1978 mid­career retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. "Street Scenes," however, marks the first time an exhibition has taken an in-depth look at the artist's preoccupation with urban scenarios, specifically those inspired by New York City, where he was born and raised and spent a lifetime revisiting from his later base on a New Jersey chicken farm. Wisconsin's Madison Museum of Contemporary Art organized the show; the Norton is its fourth and final venue.

To approach a Segal sculpture is to venture into a thicket of paradoxes. His settings are public spaces — a diner, an intersection, a bus — where utterly private moments are revealed. These spaces are defined by human presence but also by human absence. The actual humans may be long gone, but their presence remains as surely as a person's scent or body heat might linger after he or she has left a room.

This uneasy interplay of presence and absence comes about because Segal used human models — friends and family members — for his work, wrapping them in swaths of messy, plaster-soaked bandages, then creating hollow casts of their bodies. So it is that his figures bear traces of the bodies that once inhabited, however briefly, those plaster casts. (Later in his career, he also worked in bronze.)

It should be mentioned, though, that Segal was never in the business of creating portraits of specific individuals. His sculptures may have started with the participation of those close to him, but the artist ultimately rendered them anonymous. The figures in Segal's sculptures, especially those in "Street Scenes," are almost invariably Everyman or Everywoman.

It's also worth noting that in the sculptures featuring multiple figures, Segal's subjects rarely interact with one another; they merely inhabit the same spaces. (The 1989 piece Chance Meeting, included here, is an exception.) The waitress and customer in the justly celebrated The Diner (1964-66), for example, are studiously avoiding human interaction, which gives the work its bristling charge. Likewise the seven figures in Street Crossing (1992).

In an influential 1972 essay on Francis Bacon and Walt Disney (!), art critic and historian John Berger made comments on Bacon's work that kept echoing in my mind as I walked through the Segal show: "We see character as the empty cast of a consciousness that is absent. Once again, the worst has happened. Living man has become his own mindless spectre. In the larger figure-compositions, where there is more than one personage, the lack of expression is matched by the total unreceptivity of the other figures. They are all proving to each other, all the time, that they can have no expression. Only grimaces remain."

As if his bleak take on the nature of contemporary urban humanity weren't clear enough, Segal turned increasingly in the late 1980s and 1990s to subject matter that could leave no doubt. It would be hard to miss the desolation of the five men standing in Depression Bread Line (1991), an emotionally potent piece that's part of the FDR memorial in Washington, D.C. (Segal modeled one of the figures on himself.) Even more palpable is the despair of the two men in The Homeless (1989), the loneliness of Woman on the Bench (1997), the disconnect among the half-dozen people who make up Bus Passengers (1997).

Segal's work is sometimes thought of alongside that of one of his contemporaries, Duane Hanson (1925-96), although I think it's for the wrong reasons. Yes, both worked with life-sized human figures surrounded by real props, although Hanson was much more preoccupied with meticulously realistic renderings of his human subjects, and Segal went for more generic figures.

But it's the emotional content of the work that really links these two artists. Both were documenters of despair — chroniclers of a particular brand of modern malaise. Just as last year's small Hanson show at the Boca Raton Museum of Art prompted me to revisit that artist's work and its implications, this exceptional little exhibition at the Norton is a welcome reminder of how adroitly George Segal captured the tenor of his times.

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Michael Mills