George Segal: Casting New Jersey

Untitled (Assembling Plaster Cast), Black and White Contact Sheet, 1975
Untitled (Assembling Plaster Cast), Black and White Contact Sheet, 1975

This digital gallery was created for the Princeton University Art Museum and explores the sociability, desire, inspiration, and frustration that characterize the work of sculptor George Segal. It was created in conjunction with the donation of the George Segal Papers to the university archives and the 2013 exhibition, New Jersey as Non-Site, which explores the site-specific and experimental works of avant garde artists in post-WWII New Jersey.

Drawn to the rapidly changing spaces of New Jersey, George Segal (1924-2000) fashioned the intimate, peripheral moments of ordinary life into a modern aesthetic of the Garden State. The selection of sketches, photographs, and letters featured in this digital exhibition are drawn from the George Segal Papers at the Princeton University Library, and illuminates the artist’s eye for entangling art and life and for finding the extraordinary in the mundane. It features selections from early photographic work, personal letters to fellow artists, and intimate documentation of plaster casting sessions in his East New Brunswick Studio.

Exhibition can be found here: Casting New Jersey: Geogre Segal and the Peripheries of Everyday Life

 The following is an excerpt from 2013 PUAM Article: 2013 Fall_Segal-1

Segal’s interest in the rapidly transforming social and spatial ecologies of New Jersey reflects his distinct ethnographic aesthetic. “I could not,” he later wrote, “shut out what I could see with my eyes and touch with my hands.” Some of Segal’s most frequently photographed sites were the cities of the Garden State’s de-industrializing northeast corridor. In 1966, these cities—predominately African-American and poorer than the quickly growing white suburbs that surrounded them—were on the verge of social rebellion. Within the frames of Segal’s prints and contact sheets, the fallout of suburbanization and racial segregation come into sharp relief: black bodies appear small in scale, often set against an overwhelmingly large backdrop of crumbling buildings and freeways. Framing an image of modern New Jersey as an environment where bodies are both overshadowed and laid bare, Segal’s photographs capture poverty as remote yet near at hand and reflect the artist’s pull towards the troubling undercurrents of everyday life.

Untitled (Route 1), Black and White Photography, 1966
Untitled (Route 1), Black and White Photography, 1966

 

Untitled, Sketchbook (1940s)
Untitled, Sketchbook (1940s)

Attention to the richness and singularity of the ordinary is abundant in Segal’s photography and in the documentation of his plaster casting sessions with models. For Segal, models served as objects through which to convey his particular aesthetic vision, but they also directly shaped the work itself. As he wrote in 1966 of the casting session for Ruth in the Kitchen: “I got involved with making a super portrait of Ruth, wanting not only her physical presence, but also showing somehow the labyrinth quality of her mind.” This intimate relationship went both ways, as models cast by Segal describe how their bodies were transformed through their encounter with Segal at his studio in New Brunswick. The intensity of casting echoes the ways Segal’s work perpetually blurred the boundaries between bodies, artwork, artist, and environment.

Untitled (Casting Session), Black and White Photograph, 1975
Untitled (Casting Session), Black and White Photograph, 1975

Segal’s unwillingness to compromise such a vivid depiction of “uncomfortably real” life vocalizes a sharp critique of how we see, touch, represent, and come to understand the contents and consistency of the world around us. Suffused within the artist’s personal archive is an attraction to moments of social and physical vulnerability and the darker sides of humanity. Together, the material illuminates the entanglement between Segal’s life and his art, demonstrating how each flows into the other, revealing Segal’s capacity to elicit the extraordinary in the mundane landscapes and bodies of New Jersey.

*All images are from the George Segal Papers, Princeton University Rare Books and Special Collections

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