There’s nothing new about plaster death masks, or life masks either. But what sculptor George Segal does is encase entire living human beings, thus creating ghostly Plaster People, suggestive of the Pompeian figures buried 19 centuries ago in volcanic ash.
“Everyone talks about how grim and serious my work is,” says Bronx-born Segal, 52, whose figures are now displayed in most major museums here and abroad. “I decided there are experiences that aren’t grim and serious. Sensuous is beautiful. I’m allowing myself to express in my work the sexual pleasure I’ve always felt in my life.”
And so, in his recent exhibit at Manhattan’s prestigious Sidney Janis Gallery, Segal has turned his hand to something new. In addition to the familiar eerie white presences—usually mixed with real-life props like traffic signs, storefronts, beds and doorways—he unveiled a small group of explicitly sexual wall reliefs. “All of us have erotic dreams,” says Segal. “I’d be dishonest if I tried to dodge it.” Even more surprisingly, he intensified the psychological impact of many of the new works by painting them fluorescent magenta and electric blues and greens. “I’m like a baby playing with primitive colors,” he says.
The playful mood contrasts sharply with his early days, when he struggled to paint while raising 5,000 chickens on a farm in New Brunswick, N.J. Between trips to deliver eggs, he briefly studied with the German-born abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann, then decided to experiment with sculpture. In the late ’50s he joined with a group of artists like Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, James Rosenquist and Donald Judd, who seemed equally interested in redefining art forms. “We were all broke, unknown, stubborn. We disagreed sharply with one another.”
The arguments helped to focus Segal’s own goals. “I wanted to do more than create the illusion of space, as in painting,” he recalls. “I wanted to create an actual space into which I could walk and encounter people my own size, real furniture, real objects.” The question was how. In 1960, when a friend gave him a supply of plaster-impregnated bandages used by doctors to make casts, Segal tried wrapping the whole figure of his model in plaster. (It must be done in sections to avoid suffocation.) “I liked it because I was impatient, and plaster was a shortcut. Only later did I realize how mysterious it is.”
Segal today still lives on the 12-acre farm near what he calls “the great pigeon swamp” in industrial New Jersey. He shares a quiet life with wife Helen and daughter Rena, 23, a graduate student at nearby Rutgers. “The old crowd [Oldenburg et al] is pretty split off, everyone living their own lives,” Segal muses. “Here it’s a far cry from the neurotic ‘I gotta see my shrink’ kind of life of the city.” It does have its drawbacks, he admits: “If the mosquitoes don’t get you, the gases will.”
His studio, once the chicken house, is also a gallery for many of his works. “There’s nothing weird about living amidst all these ghostly presences,” says Segal, who adds, “I call them by their names.” Both his daughter and wife have been his models (but not in the nude). Has Segal himself ever been the subject for a cast? Yes, he says, many times. Helen wraps on the plaster. “It’s pleasant, really. Most people like being sealed off in a private world.” (One who didn’t was Ethel Scull, estranged wife of the art collector, who panicked and had to be cut out of the plaster, leaving her Courrèges boots trapped inside.) Segal prefers using friends as models, though they may have to hold still for longer than three hours. “I don’t have to get acquainted,” he explains. “If they tense up we can gas a bit, and then they relax.” What about getting people to pose for some of the recent erotic works? “Listen,” he says. “They don’t need much convincing. They egg me on.”