In early 1961, George Segal hadn’t yet found his signature sculptural style. He was still attempting to forge a path as a painter, making work that was equally indebted to the languid figuration of Matisse and the bravura brushwork of the Abstract Expressionists. In the late 1950s, he had tried three-dimensional work, constructing rough-hewn, expressionistic figures from burlap, plaster, and chicken wire—all materials readily available on his farm. The sculptures were always conceived in relation to his paintings, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1961 that he serendipitously found the material that would change everything for him. One of his students, the wife of a chemist at Johnson & Johnson laboratories, brought to class some cloth bandages newly developed to aid in setting broken bones. “Immediately, I knew what I wanted to do,” Segal recalled.1
What he thought to do was dip the bandages in plaster and wrap them around live models, making casts that refined his earlier sculptures into more convincing volumes with a great deal more detail. He served as his own first model, but soon began casting friends and relatives and placing the forms in theatrical environments assembled from found objects. In these installations, the figures become ghostly presences whose individual features pale in the face of the resolutely real objects that surround them. Critics immediately saw that they had something in common with the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg—artists who were first dubbed “New Realists,” but soon would be rechristened as Pop artists. Like them, Segal drew his imagery from the real world; but if Pop Art is at bottom a tongue-in-cheek celebration of consumer products, images, and advertising, then Segal was not at heart a Pop artist. His works are tributes to Everyman and the everyday, and most are quietly reflective and even melancholy in mood. They are also strongly narrative—so much so that Mark Rothko once remarked to Segal that his sculptures were like “walk-in [Edward] Hoppers.”2
Hopper’s great lunch-counter vignette, Nighthawks (1942), certainly seems to be the emotional forebear of Segal’s The Diner (1964–1966).3 Two figures avoid eye contact under the glare of a fluorescent tube; they are alone, with only a shabby green counter between them, and the sexual tension is palpable. Segal described the work as a self-portrait of sorts: “In the years that I was farming … I was extremely restless, running into New York all the time, seeing friends and driving home at midnight. I almost invariably stopped at a diner for coffee… . Walking into a diner after midnight when you’re the only customer, there’s both fatigue and electricity. The waitress behind the counter is always sizing you up, wondering if you’re going to rob her or rape her.”4 Segal also pays close attention to the formal aspects of his work—color, mass, volume, and the interplay of positive and negative spaces. An expansive red panel against the back wall—the only element that did not come from the failed New Jersey diner that was the source for the other props—frames the action and also is an homage to the great Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman, whose work Segal had long admired.
Though best known for multiple-figure, theatrical environments like The Diner, Segal was also fascinated by single-figure motifs like “woman at her toilette,” a theme familiar from the work of Impressionist painters such as Edgar Degas and Auguste Renoir. Segal treated it with similar reverence, using it to explore the intimate everyday world of women in an unflinching but affectionate way. The precipitous posture and ample proportions of the figure in Woman Brushing Her Hair on Green Chair (1964) recall Degas, but the technique is pure Segal: thick layers of bandages, with handfuls of wet plaster slapped on them, emphasize the woman’s fleshiness.5 As in all his work, the juxtaposition of a cast figure with found objects is a surreal mix of illusion and reality that nonetheless speaks volumes about our real human relationships.
Quoted in Phyllis Tuchman, George Segal (New York: Abbeville Press, 1983), 23. ↩
Cited in Graham Beal, “Realism at a Distance,” in Martin Friedman, George Segal: Sculptures, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1978), 68. ↩
The Diner was made in 1964 and first shown in 1965, after which it was returned to Segal’s studio. In 1966 he changed its arrangement substantially, moving the male figure much closer to the waitress in order to “increase the psychic distance between them.” This change is the reason the piece has been assigned an extended date. See Segal’s “Commentaries on Six Sculptures” in Friedman, George Segal, 36–39. ↩
Ibid., 37. ↩
Friedman, George Segal, 12. ↩