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Genesis According to Segal

Five works at the Skirball interpret Scripture and reveal something of the noted sculptor in the process.

March 09, 1997|William Wilson | William Wilson is a Times art critic

George Segal is among the finest and most affecting American sculptors of his generation. Best known as a maker of life-size environments about everyday life, he's also long pursued a personal interest in interpreting the Bible through his work. Now the five resulting tableaux--all drawn from the Book of Genesis--are seen together for the first time in a museum setting, at the Skirball Cultural Center and Museum. This is apt since the institution emphasizes art related to the Jewish experience. Gallery director Nancy Berman acted as curator for the show, titled "George Segal: Works From the Bible."

Segal was born in New York in 1924, a child of the Great Depression, and his teachers were of the Abstract Expressionist generation. Educated at Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture, Pratt Institute of Design and New York University, he nevertheless describes his roots as "proletarian." His father was a kosher butcher. In 1940 the family moved to South Brunswick, N.J., joining a large group of idealistic New York Jews who wanted to get back to the land. The Segals established a chicken farm that thrived during World War II because of a huge demand for food to stoke the troops. After V-J day, however, that market unraveled. Segal's art studies were periodically curtailed when he was obliged to give a hand with the chickens.

When he married Helen Steinberg in 1946, they established their own chicken ranch across the road. Segal loathed the beasts but thought they might support his family. They didn't. At one point the artist took public school teaching jobs to avoid bankruptcy. Eventually the chicken coop became his sculpture studio. He finally found his trademark style: plaster sculpture figures literally modeled on the bodies of friends, then set into full-scale environments.

It was the '60s and he was 40. Pop Art was the rage. He got crammed into the category, although temperamentally opposite cool guys such as Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein.

Segal was accorded a full-dress retrospective by Minneapolis' Walker Art Center in 1978 (Californians saw it at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). By then it was clear his real artistic ancestors were the New York Social Realists of the 1930s, the Soyer brothers, Ben Shahn and Edward Hopper. Like them, Segal loved ordinary reality. His could wring larger meaning from specific situations. You knew exactly what he meant by showing a beat-up middle-aged guy in a coffee shop contemplating the waitress with longing but no expectations. A man disembarking from a bus is weary, but he has to keep up his hopes.

All this raises the central questions posed by the five scenes from the Book of Genesis at the Skirball. Can an artist so heartfelt in the depiction of the real apply his talent to illuminating the realm of towering saints and patriarchs from the holiest text of the Judeo-Christian world? Can a modern artist in a skeptical, secular, existential society add anything to the huge body of visual literature whose authors utterly embraced what they were doing?

Even given the purposeful open-endedness of works of art, these, I think, will evoke an unusually wide range of reactions. They don't just address aesthetic issues or personal taste, they bear on what people believe.

If it's possible to assume a kind of neutral sympathy on the part of the viewer, then the question becomes, are these works convincing? As an artist, Segal has already won us over. So here we need to deal mainly with matters of stagecraft. Is the casting apt? Is the story well told? Do the sets make the right mood?

Whatever the response, Segal has to be respected for his courage in using contemporary realism to interpret the Bible, a tactic that historically has been troublesome. When the 16th century Venetian Mannnerist Veronese executed a huge panorama of "The Marriage Feast at Cana" casting the local nobles as biblical characters, officials of the Inquisition made threatening noises. When his more audacious, younger Roman contemporary Caravaggio modeled his holy players on mountebanks and street people, the authorities were even more stricken.

Segal's dramatis personae are costumed for chronological ambiguity, but there is no mistaking that they are the same living, modern people he always uses. The device certainly humanizes the biblical actors but it doesn't always persuade us that they suit the transcendent missions assigned by the Scriptures. It is not even clear that Segal intends they should.

"In Memory of May 4, 1970: Kent State, Abraham and Isaac" is a 1978 piece commissioned by the Ohio university to commemorate the tragic day when the National Guard opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four. The work ultimately was rejected by the school as unpatriotic.

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