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George Segal

By Michael Brenson

George Segal’s FDR Memorial in Washington D.C. is truly a public artwork. People of all ages lean over the seated man in “Fireside Chat” listening intently, prayerfully, to the radio. They seek a place for themselves beside the somber man and woman in “Appalachian Farm Couple,” he with boots and overalls, she with bare feet and housedress. They find it almost impossible to resist the “Depression Bread Line,” falling in behind the five hungry men, hands buried in the pockets of their thick, tattered coats, or squeezing into the spaces between them. They want to be photographed among George’s uneasy yet stoical figures. They want a photograph to admit what even after September 11 many of them probably can’t—the persistence within the light music, lite music, high tech, 2001 self of the heaviness and susceptibility that are conditions of George’s grandeur.

With all the aggravation involved in realizing this Memorial, it has a tantalizing effortlessness. It seems to have materialized intact from the depths of the Segal history. George was born and raised in the Bronx. His immigrant parents were among the millions who listened avidly to FDR and, like many other New York Jews, found Socialism, as well as Zionism, appealing. His father was a kosher butcher who barely scraped by before moving the family to New Jersey to raise chickens. Like many other children of the Depression, George never stopped believing that its paucity and precariousness were lessons and truths. To see his rootedness in these years is to appreciate better his radical unpretentiousness, his connection to people who can never believe their struggle for survival will end, his refusal to identify any aspect of his life or work with the spit and polish of Hollywood glamour and corporate success. He created an art in which the next moment is always unknown, and the simplest acts, like drinking a soda, making phone call, or sweeping a sidewalk could be saturated with dignity and need. With all his pride, and all his confidence in the complexity and substance of his vision, he was incapable of self-importance. He never stopped believing that art, like life, was a privilege and a gift.

In the 20 years I knew him, I saw George at countless benefits, openings, dinners, and parties. Artists go to art world events for many reasons: to drink and have fun, to make connections and be seen, to look at the art, to show support for an institution or friend. I’m sure George’s responses to institutional occasions could be as complex as anyone else’s and I wish I could have overheard some of the remarks he must have made about them to his wife, Helen, but he was different at these occasions than most other people. He did not take any of them for granted. This man of dungarees and flannel shirts came nattily dressed in tie and tweeds. He was gallant. He beamed. I never saw him at an event at which he did not seem glad to have been included, and at which he did not make everyone he spoke with feel special. The last art world ritual at which I saw him and Helen was the opening in September 1999 of the Whitney Museum’s American Century: Art and Culture, 1950-2000 exhibition. They had just returned from Washington where George had been awarded the National Medal of Arts. He seemed tired but pleased. The Whitney included one of his sculptures in that exhibition, but I ran into George and Helen on a different floor, emerging for an instant, smiling and shaking hands and uttering a few words, then swallowed up again by the sea of people. I think George actually liked museum crowds. I think he believed that anything that could support art and artists was good, that these social rituals helped sustain the structures that had made room for his tales of voluptuousness and forsakenness, mischievousness and survival, and that anyone who shared his hope that the art world could one day function as a real community was a friend.

In October 1998 I went to East Brunswick to interview George for an essay I was preparing on the visual artists’ fellowship program of the National Endowment for the Arts. He, along with Robert Motherwell and Barbara Rose, served on the first visual artists peer panel in the fall of 1966. I wanted to know everything George could tell me about that panel and about his response to the new kind of government arts funding the NEA ushered in. In his office, if that is what it was, inside the entrance to the converted chicken coop that was his studio and his museum, I showed him a list of the first fellowship recipients in order to jog his memory. It was as if he had just been handed a Biblical scroll. Slowly he read out the names of the artists he knew. “Ronnie Bladen… Gene Davis… Mark di Suvero, Dan Flavin, Jean Follett, Goodnough… Gary Kuehn, Alfred Leslie, Mangold, Agnes Martin, Bob Morris… Poussette-Dart, Tony Vevers, David Weinrib.” He gave some names special accentuation. Ralph Rosenborg… Stamos, Stankiewicz, Sugarman… Tony Smith, Tony. His recitation made no distinction between abstract and figurative artists, or among painters, sculptors, and conceptual artists, or among artists who have become canonical and artists who are little known or largely forgotten. Occasionally he would intersperse comments, like, “My God, very few people were making money.” Or: “It was impossible to make a mistake since there was such a long list of first-rate artists who were not earning a living.” Or: “Here were friends of ours whom we thought were equally driven, equally talented, and we could not understand why the art world was not responding to this level of quality.”

In the course of the interview, he did more than invoke these artists. He invoked another moment, another time, in his words, “just before the burst,” in which he believed everyone in the art knew everyone else and artists made art with little or no idea what, if anything, would happen to it. He made me feel that all of the artists on that list had been part of something rare and important and that 33 years later they were still on the journey together. Although George had strong likes and dislikes and talked constantly about art and exhibitions, I never heard him make a snide or dismissive remark about another artist. I think he believed that the people who made art, fought for it and lived it, belonged to a perpetually changing but forever ancient family in which every member knew the value of breaking bread and lining up together, and understood that its real enemies were elsewhere, among those fearful of voices and faces, who could not value questions as answers, who believed their exile and uncertainty could end.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 8, 2001.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters