George Segal (American, born 1924),
Times Square at Night
light, plaster, wood, plastic and electrical parts, 108 x 96 x 108 in.; 182.88 x 66.04 x 66.04 cm
Museum purchase, 1973.95; Art © The George and Helen Segal Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
In response to the autographic individualism of Abstract Expressionism, art born of the 1960s was about a return to reality — the observable and the tangible. Pop artists used the language and images of advertising to lampoon consumer culture. Minimalists insisted on the material realities of the art object. Realist artists sought to reinvigorate the figurative tradition. Working with plaster casts of human figures, George Segal constructed tableaux dealing with such everyday environments as the diner, the bus stop, and the bedroom. His subjects, whether alone or in a group, are frequently distracted, lonely, or weary. Despite the small, ubiquitous human dramas these works portray, they were unquestionably conceived during an era also marked by civil rights struggles and a divisive war.
Segal's plaster people are frozen in a disquieting routine. Although he made his casts of friends and acquaintances (one of the figures in Times Square at Night is Jan van der Marck, then director of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art), Segal eliminates portraitlike qualities by manipulating the wet surfaces of the molds to selectively blur or emphasize details. Subsequently, his figures operate as types — waitresses, truck drivers, billboard painters — real Americans constrained by dully ordinary circumstances. An effective example of his expressive tableaux, Times Square at Night shows two men moving silently down a street where a pancake house is neighbor with an adult movie theatre, both businesses plainly advertising their seductions on brightly backlit signs. Segal enhances the social isolation of his figures with this theme of impersonal voyeurism and commodified sex.