Rush Hour, by George Segal
One of the strengths of the Nasher Sculpture Center is the breadth of the collection. If you are looking for a survey of contemporary sculpture, the big names are all here.
Sometimes, though, viewing one object leaves you wanting to know more about that artist’s work and how this piece fits into the spectrum.
That’s the idea behind “George Segal: Street Scenes,” which opens at the Center on Saturday. Segal’s Rush Hour is part of the Center’s permanent collection and usually resides in the sculpture garden. It’s one of the Center’s most iconic works. Jed Morse, Acting Chief Curator of the Center, says bringing in the show makes sense as a way to educate viewers about works they may have seen many times.
“I like to bring in exhibits that give context to important works in the collection,” Morse said during a walk through of the show on Thursday.
Segal was part of the pop-art movement and became famous in the early 1960s for his life-sized plaster figures. He created the figures using a technique he pioneered using the same plaster-impregnated gauze strips a doctor would use to set a bone. Once removed from the models, those moldings formed the base for the sculpture. His work focused on everyday life in the city, and he made frequent trips from his home in New Jersey to New York City to watch people as they went about their daily routines. He died in 2000.
The results of those trips suggest a level of weariness and isolation of the people whose lives would later be frozen in sculptures. It’s ironic when you think about it — a city with such high energy and density, but so many of its residents are just tired and alone. It’s a scene anyone who has ever ridden a subway or stood in line at a fast food joint has seen time and time again.
And so it is with one grouping of Segal’s figures after another. Street Crossing (above) is the largest grouping of figures in the show. Pedestrians intersect without consideration for those they pass. In Bus Passengers (below), people are packed like sardines, yet there is no human connection.
“There’s a special relationship between the figures, but no familiarity. There’s a psychological distance between them,” Morse says. “They’re close together physically but worlds apart in their own minds.”
Segal is able to get to these ideas by emphasizing his figures’ physical gestures. Their eyes remain blank or closed, and so we rely on their body language for communication.
Things became even bleaker to Segal during the ’80s. New York was in bad shape economically and Rudy Giuliani had yet to usher in the Disneyfication of Times Square. Segal began to observe the city’s downtrodden, the results of which are Dumpster, Liquor Store and The Homeless (below) — works whose titles tell you all you need to know about the inhabitants current lot in life.
“His work has the quality of movie stills — one frame plucked out of a scene,” Morse says. “It has the same sense of narration, direction and composition.”
On Sunday, the Dallas Black Dance Theatre will premiere Segalscapes 2009, a work commissioned by the Nasher for the new exhibition. It will be interesting to see how a dance program typically filled with interaction and emotion will fit in among these figures who give off such an air of isolation.
“George Segal: Street Scenes” will be on display through April 5.
Photos: Nasher Sculpture Center