NEW YORK — I'VE long had some nagging doubts about George Segal's sculptures. Not because they're plaster casts of real people posed in everyday urban environments, but because it's so obvious that they are. And because, try as I might, I couldn't quite shake the feeling that's all that most of them are, despite Segal's good intentions and the many arguments marshaled on their behalf. Now, there's nothing wrong with plaster-casting people as the first step toward making sculpture. It's as good an idea as any. But ideas by themselves do not make art. All they can do is help set things in motion - establish the context and supply the motivation for the all-important process of creative transformation that can ultimately turn something into art.
Segal is well aware of this, of course, as several of his more thoughtfully conceived and executed pieces have proved. But even they fell short of their potential by not going quite far enough in transforming process into art. We were left, as a result, slightly more aware of the exotic nature of his approach - of how he does what he does - than of what he wanted to communicate.
At least that's how I felt until recently, when several quite remarkable Segal sculptures caused me to sit up and take notice. I decided his next one-man show would be a must-see.
I'm glad I made that decision, for his current exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery here is his best of any I've seen. Its 13 sculptures and 17 black-and-white pastels not only present convincing proof of his artistic maturity; they also point the way to what may be some truly major works ahead. The best surprise of all, however, is that Segal can now take his creative processes completely for granted and can use them with extraordinary effectiveness for purely expressive purposes.
Studying these recent works, I no longer feel, as I had so often in the past, that Segal's figures are nothing but ghostly, empty shells of humanity frozen forever in the act of looking out a window, sitting on a bed, serving coffee in a diner, driving a bus.
Startling and provocative though these figures might have been, there was also something uncomfortably sterile and inhuman about them, especially since the objects included in the settings - the window curtains, the bed, the cups in the diner, the steering wheel of the bus - were often much more ``real'' than the people.
After so many years of being confronted by such images, it's a distinct pleasure now to come across human beings painted more or less naturally and relating in the most relaxed manner possible to whatever they are sitting on or leaning against.
There's the half-length figure of ``Neysa,'' for instance, standing in front of a door with her hands folded; it's as haunting a study of patient, introspective humanity as anyone has produced in years. There's ``Rena,'' younger and with her hands in her pockets, but with no less determination in her manner. And most impressively, there's ``Helen Lokuta,'' also half-length, with a brick wall and a door at her back. This work leaves one wondering how the artist could possibly have distilled so much humanity, so much of the texture and quality of life, into so simple and straightforward a sculptural form. ONLY two of the pieces have completely detached figures: ``Man Walking Along Brick Wall'' and ``The Italian Restaurant.'' The latter, which depicts a man seated at a small, round table covered with a red tablecloth, is particularly effective, because it includes a copy of a portion of Masaccio's fresco ``Expulsion From Eden'' on the wall behind him, giving added layers of resonance.
Among the other works are three ``still lifes'' (for want of a better term): a jacket on a door, a restaurant table, and an old, decrepit jacket and a pair of pants on a chair. All are oddly touching, but the restaurant table is especially so, since it projects a truly poignant aura of frugality and isolation.
The black-and-white pastels, on the other hand, while valuable as clues to Segal's overall approach to drawing, generally fall just short of being successful. The one exception is ``Yona,'' a study of a man's head largely hidden in shadow, which has both the humanity and the rich assortment of textures found in Segal's best sculptures. It's a remarkable drawing in all respects. At the Sidney Janis Gallery, 110 West 57th Street, through April 22.