Lonely Figures That Call for Compassion

George Segal's life-size sculptures provoke thought about the human condition and how we relate to one another

A life-size plaster figure of a man sits at the counter of a small diner, and another figure, a waitress, is poised to draw him a cup of coffee. The rough figures are easily recognizable as ordinary people, a bit tired and overburdened. And the props - from the counter to the syrup dispenser - are all real and commonplace. When viewed in a museum setting, the contrast between these authentic props and the plaster people is at first disconcerting, then intriguing and moving.

"The Diner" (1964-66), like many sculptures by George Segal, inspires compassion for the human condition. It is among many of the artist's installations currently on view at Montreal's Muse Des Beaux-Arts.

Segal, an internationally recognized sculptor, has played a leading role in the evolution of American art since 1960. His work occupies a unique position between Pop Art and traditional figure sculpture.

The ambitious exhibition "George Segal, a Retrospective: Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings" includes about 70 works. Among these are many well-known and important pieces. Segal's figures, so often isolated from one another even in groups, remind us how much we need one another - how difficult human experience can be, and how important it is to respond to one another kindly.

Having always admired his work, I've watched for the gradual shifts in style and approach as reported by art magazines or recorded in art exhibitions over the years. While still in college, I realized that though his sculpture might be complex, it was not far removed from me or anyone else - neither esoteric nor coldly analytical, but lively and humane.

In a recent telephone interview, Segal emphasized that he was not interested in dictating a response for the viewer, but in provoking thought, disturbing complacency, and providing an open-ended experience. He has, he says, been influenced by the movies (particularly film noir), and most of his sculptures do appear to have a story behind them: Who is that lady on "The Subway"? What are those men in "Depression Bread Line" thinking? And when it comes to "Farewell to Ishmael" or "Abraham and Isaac" or "Jacob's Ladder," we know that the stories are heavy laden with metaphorical implications. His biblical subjects wear modern clothes and could be our neighbors. We identify with them in a way we never would if they wore ancient dress.

Asked about the narratives behind his biblical subjects, Segal says, "Let's talk about those Bible stories. Those stories are familiar to many, many people. I've been struck absolutely by the writing style of the Old Testament. Rarely do you see an adjective, rarely do you get a hint of what the characters are thinking or feeling. The stories are complex and contradictory ... so contradictory that I find them provocative.

"I keep asking myself how I would respond to the same [divine] demands. And I refuse to tell my viewers what I'm thinking. It seems to me [the stories present] a labyrinth of emotional attitudes. Everyone I know has a personal, very subjective response to them - possibly different than mine. All I really want to do is provoke thought and leave room for their own response."

There is a vibrancy to his figures, a sense of capturing the spirit of life behind these characters. Asked if this is what he's after, he says, "I'm trying to do precisely that."

The loneliness and isolation of so many of his figures are not a cynical statement about modern alienation. The figures have personality, identity, and spirit. But because he has left an element of abstraction in the work, they are not so realistically rendered that we lose sight of the universal within the individual. We are meant to identify with them. And if we identify with them, then we can't condescend to them in pity. My own experience is that the work fosters overwhelming love for the individual. I ask if that's his intention.

"I would have to agree," he says. "We know an enormous number of people who are bowed by their problems. They stagger under them.

"I note [my subjects'] gestures. I depend on my language [plaster] to communicate that anguish. I would have been bored years ago with what I do if I couldn't capture that. Yes, I really am interested in provoking some state of compassion."

His subjects are seldom professional models. Instead Segal's friends, family members, neighbors, and eager volunteers pose for him. Does he consider his work with them a collaboration?

"Absolutely I do," he says. "I rely on their intelligence and imagination. I have an image in my head, something I've seen in the real world, and I try to explain, try to recite my image and count on their emotional understanding to [embody it]."

Asked if he feels close to his Jewish roots, he replies, "Yes, I do. My teachers were abstract painters. But I was overwhelmed by the necessity of reality - by the real world. I had to introduce the real world into my art. But I also think it is necessary to make referrals to what is invisible. There are states of mind that are puzzling to express because they are invisible. I try to find that with the people who model for me. My embrace of real objects has to be balanced by the invisible."

Segal keeps his distance from art-world trends. "I simply have to go about my own business, unmoved by any fashion or trend in the art world," he says. "I have to go about my business. We have lived 50 miles from New York for many years now, and I can't be without the city and the stimulation [I find there]. But neither can I be without my silence."

* The exhibit remains in Montreal through Jan. 11, 1998. It then travels to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, Feb. 19 to May 17; and the Jewish Museum in New York, June 14 to Oct. 4.

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