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The public art of a private man

WE tend to see the American School - deKooning, Pollock, Motherwell - as the most liberating and fertile movement in American art. These Abstract Expressionists may have sowed the seeds of ferment, but the young artists who followed - Johns, Rauschenberg, Kaprow, Oldenburg, Segal - harvested the ideas and crystallized the rebellion. If we say that the New York School founded American painting in the late '40s, the generation that followed took it a step further, abandoning the centuries-long European tradition of canvas painting for the uniquely American ``combine,'' ``junk sculpture,'' ``environment,'' and ``performance.'' This was the generation that, as author Calvin Tomkins suggested, pulled art off the wall and thrust it into life.

Sculptor George Segal belonged to this cadre and forged his art square in the eye of the hurricane that wrought contemporary American art. His work is ultimately a very personal dialogue with the political, aesthetic, and social dialectic of the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s.

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The signature style he crafted in those changing times - craggy, white, life-size figures cast in real scale environments like storefronts or movie entrances - has stood the test of time, holding its own through the stark geometry of Minimalism in the '70's and looking timely this year in a summer show at the Sidney Janis in New York.

At age 16 Segal was bent on a career in fine art, while a post-depression America saw artists as leftists and work-shirking libertines. He persuaded his cautious East European father to let him go to art school with a promise that he'd study something practical like commercial art. ``When I got to Cooper Union, I took every fine art course the place had to offer,'' Segal recalls.

With World War II, art became an even more spurious enterprise. Segal returned to his father's chicken farm to help out. ``I was so bored I thought I'd die,'' he says. ``But looking back, building coops, digging ditches, all that helped me connect with my hands and appreciate the formal elegance of common things.''

The war wound down, Segal returned to Pratt Institute. There, around 1949, he saw his first Abstract Expressionist works. ``Those artists were our heroes,'' he says. ``They were painting in their empty storefronts in New York City, but their work and idealism filtered down to us. We loved their anti-materialistic philosophy, their sensual and irreverent techniques.''

Artists hadn't been a united front since the '30s, when they teamed with workers to back social reforms. Stalin and the McCarthy trials disillusioned and dispersed artists. According to Segal, Abstract Expressionism's impact was to reinstill a sense of common purpose and artistic idealism.

Segal remembers international artist William Baziotes as a teacher and mentor to young students. ``Baziotes would show up with Mark Rothko paintings crumpled under his arm. He'd tell us about the arrival of a `new art.''' At Baziotes's goading Segal began making huge, free abstractions with house paints and wide industrial brushes. He was never comfortable with the style.

Segal graduated without event and without work. He stopped doing art and built his own chicken farm for income. ``That was before art was a consumer item. Artists barely survived. I traveled 40 miles a day in a broken down car to teach at a high school for extra money, and every spare minute I made art in the attic.''

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The mid-'30s were trying for Segal. His farm went bankrupt, his wife was pregnant, the HUNSA gallery where he exhibited folded. ``As Abstract Expressionism gained momentum, I kept struggling between awe and doubt of it, asking why the so-called new art had to excise a whole tradition of Renaissance and Cubist space, why it required that artists shut out recognizable objects, and narrative.''

At this time Segal made a pivotal connection with the work of experimental composer John Cage. Cage was at the hub of a small movement to bring art out of the rarefied air of the abstract canvas and back into a connection with objects and actions in life.

Segal recalls Cage's 1953 performance of ``Silence,'' the now famous conceptual work. ``Cage staged a concert and all the art elite showed up,'' he says. The pianist came on stage, sat down, and simply sat at the piano doing nothing for four minutes. At first the audience chatter died down to a dead silence, then people waited, they became embarrassed, they rustled, they became acutely aware of themselves and everything around them.

``Random throat clearing became part of the evening's art, as did the emptying seats, the people awkwardly leaving. Cage's point was that to remain visible, art had to connect artist, viewer, and life in some real way. Once I understood this I felt a new direction and two things became clear: my work needed the figure as an expressive mode and had to address philosophical issues.''

Today Segal works much as he did some 30 years ago. His workspace is a 30-by-50-foot studio off his home in New Jersey. Unlike many artists of Segal's repute, he uses no assistants, except to haul an occasional load. His wife remains his closest aid and confidante.

Segal's working method is very close to the one he stumbled on and more or less coined in the '50s. ``Back then I took every odd job I could find. I was asked to research the art applications of Johnson & Johnson plaster impregnated plastic, the sort used to cast broken bones. I immediately saw the sculptural potential.''

``I had my wife cover me head to foot in the stuff. Once it dried, I broke out, ripping off a lot of body hair and breaking the mold in the process. I pieced the resulting figure back together. It was white, spectral, full of allusive potential, yet not specific, just what I'd been after.''

Segal has fine-tuned his technique, but he still covers live models in small puzzle pieces of quick-drying plaster, pieces the parts together, and makes a final, more permanent mold. But this is only the beginning. ``My white figures read as if they're the main focus, but every relationship is equally important. I don't simply toss objects around the figures. I look and look for exactly the right things. I carefully study the expressive and formal impact of every proportion and relationship. I have a clear articulated composition like a printer might. I like the work to look spontaneous, but it is anything but that.''

By virtue of its size and stagelike character, Segal's work appears conspicuously public. Despite social content attributed to Segal - urban alienation, isolation - he says his work is first and foremost a personal investigation, a method for exploring his own values, world views, and feelings.

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