Rarely seen works by one of the country’s most distinguished visual artists are currently on exhibit at the Lehigh University Art Galleries, courtesy of the George and Helen Segal Foundation.
The exhibition of the work of George Segal, considered to the preeminent pop sculptor of his time, runs through April 18 and consists of a selection of six photographs, 11 pen and ink drawings, and eight hanging bas-relief painted plaster sculptures. Also included is the original plaster-sculpture, “Three People on Four Benches,” a 1979 work that resembles, in form and texture, some of the best known Segal works that are on display throughout the country.
Another work, “Woman Sitting on a Park Bench,” will be permanently installed along the university’s Memorial Walkway – a direct result of generous gift from the Segal Foundation.
“It will be a very welcome addition to our growing sculpture garden,” says Ricardo Viera, professor of art and architecture and curator of the university galleries. “The site is perfectly designed for it, and the sculpture itself is likely to invoke discussion and interaction, which is the very intent of public art.”
The Segal exhibit came about as the result of the interest from the Segal Foundation, which is dedicated to the exhibit of Segal’s lifetime of work throughout the world, and the Lehigh University Art Gallery’s mission of visual literary, added Viera.
Rena Segal, daughter of the sculptor and co-curator of the Lehigh exhibit, noted that, “it’s important to us that people who wouldn’t ordinarily see art have an opportunity to view my father’s work.
“We welcome opportunities to exhibit at university museums and other venues,” she says. “The main legacy of the foundation is to present dad’s works to everyday people.”
If the gallery opening at Lehigh was any indication, Segal’s work will gain greater exposure as a result of this installation, Viera says.
“More than 300 people attended, and it was one of the best openings we’ve ever seen,” Viera says. “There was also a talk by Donald Lakuta, a professor of photography at Kean University and friend of the artist, whose photographs are currently on display in Maginnes Hall. It was very successful, and there is already great interest in the exhibit.”
A turning point in an artistic career
Segal was born in 1924 to a Jewish couple who emigrated from Eastern Europe, and he spent his boyhood years on a poultry farm in New Jersey. He discovered his love of art while a student at a technical high school. He later attended Pratt Institute, Cooper Union and New York University, where he furthered his art education and received a teaching degree in 1949.
In the late 1950s, Segal began to experiment in sculpture and opened a one-man show in 1960 that featured several plaster figures. Later the following year, while teaching an adult education class in New Brunswick, a student brought him a box of dry plaster bandages. He experimented by applying them directly to his body. With the help of his wife, Helen, he was able to cobble together parts of a body cast and assemble them into the form of a seated figure. He then provided the environment for his body cast by adding a chair, a window frame and a table. The process served as a turning point in his prolific artistic career.
Often using real people as models for his casts, Segal created real-life tableaux and became known, along with Andy Warhol and others, as a leader of the newly identified “Pop Art” movement. As his work evolved, it retained a realistic style and concentrated on the familiar and the mundane, rather than the obscure and the elegant.
Still, his art was capable of creating controversy.
His work, “Gay Liberation,” which he created for Sheridan Park in Greenwich Village to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots, featured gay couples in caring, romantic poses in endorsement of committed gay relationships. That statement, social observers later noted, was considered revolutionary for its time (1983) and sparked protests.
Segal also created a life-sized bread line and other sculptures depicting scenes from the Great Depression for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., and “The Holocaust,” a figure of a lone man peering through a barbed wire fence.
“He was more than just an artist,” says Viera. “He was a humanist. He had opinions, he had concerns and he did not shy away from expressing them. He was fascinated with ordinary people and ordinary scenes, and he wanted to bring his art closer to people. That was important to him, to have it accessible.”
For his efforts, Segal was rewarded with nearly every major accolade in the art world, including a National Medal of the Arts, which he received from President Clinton in 1999.
He remained active and productive until his death, in 2000, from cancer.
For more information on the George Segal sculpture exhibit in the Zoellner Arts Center Main Gallery and the Donald Lokuta photography exhibit in DuBois Gallery of Maginnes Hall, please call 610-758-3615 or visit the Lehigh University Art Galleries website