Casting New Jersey: George Segal and the Peripheries of Everyday Life
Gifted in 2009 to the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Princeton University Library by the George and Helen Segal Foundation, the George Segal Papers document more than sixty years of the sculptor’s life, from the 1940s through the early 2000s. Casting New Jersey, a selection of photographs and letters featured in the fall 2013 exhibition New Jersey as Non-Site, offers a glimpse into this archive, particularly via the lens Segal cast on New Jersey’s changing urban landscape and the bodies that figured so prominently in his sculptures.
Segal’s interest in the rapidly transforming social and spatial ecologies of New Jersey reflects his distinct ethnographic aesthetic. “I could not,” he later wrote, “shut out what I could see with my eyes and touch with my hands.” Some of Segal’s most photographed sites were the cities of the Garden State’s de-industrializing northeast corridor. In 1966, these cities—predominately African American and poorer than the quickly growing white suburbs that surrounded them—were on the verge of social rebellion. Within the frames of Segal’s prints and contact sheets, the fallout of suburbanization and racial segregation come into sharp relief: black bodies appear small in scale, often set against an overwhelmingly large backdrop of crumbling buildings and freeways. Framing an image of modern New Jersey as an environment where bodies are both overshadowed and laid bare, Segal’s photographs capture poverty as remote yet near at hand and reflect the artist’s pull toward the troubling undercurrents of everyday life.
Attention to the richness and singularity of the ordinary is abundant in Segal’s photography and in the documentation of his plastercasting sessions with models. For Segal, models served as objects through which to convey his particular aesthetic vision, but they also directly shaped the work itself. As he wrote in 1966 of the casting session for Ruth in the Kitchen: “I got involved with making a super portrait of Ruth, wanting not only her physical presence, but also showing somehow the labyrinth quality of her mind.” This intimate relationship went both ways, as models cast by Segal describe how their bodies were transformed through their encounter with Segal at his studio in New Brunswick. The intensity of casting echoes the ways Segal’s work perpetually blurred the boundaries between bodies, artwork, artist, and environment.
Segal’s unwillingness to compromise such a vivid depiction of “uncomfortably real” life vocalizes a sharp critique of how we see, touch, represent, and come to understand the contents and consistency of the world around us. Suffused within the artist’s personal archive is an attraction to moments of social and physical vulnerability and the darker sides of humanity. Together, the material illuminates the entanglement between Segal’s life and his art, demonstrating how each flows into the other, revealing Segal’s capacity to elicit the extraordinary in the mundane landscapes and bodies of New Jersey.
Ph.D. candidate, Anthropology, CUNY Graduate Center Andrew W. Mellon Research Assistant