George Segal, who taught sculpture at Princeton from 1968 to 1969, was commissioned in 1978 by Kent State University to create a memorial to the four students killed by members of the National Guard during an antiwar demonstration on their campus. Segal found a metaphor for the tragedy in the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. In Segal’s version, Abraham, dressed in contemporary clothing, looms over a college-aged Isaac, who is stripped of his shirt and bound with rope. Kent State University officials refused it, interpreting it as a politically volatile depiction of murder. According to Segal, however, this group misunderstood the memorial: the theme, in Segal’s words, was “the eternal conflict between adherence to an abstract set of principles versus the love of your own child.” Segal selected Princeton’s site for the sculpture, near the University Chapel, to reinforce the work’s biblical associations.
Hear the Fabricator (y1978-49)
The Johnson Atelier Institute of Sculpture, located first in Princeton Junction and then in Hamilton, New Jersey, was responsible for casting more of Georges Segal’s bronzes than any other foundry, including the Woman on White Wicker Rocker located in the Art Museum. As a caster at the Atelier from 1976 to 2004, I had the honor of meeting George many times over the years. He was always gracious, happy to converse with everyone from the director to the newest shy apprentice. When George first came to the Atelier in the late '70s he was new to bronze casting. His original plaster figures were fragile and extremely valuable, so he was placing a lot of trust in us. In fact, his work was one of the rare instances in which the original was still more valuable than the finished bronze. As we took the plaster works through the casting process, we developed new ways to ensure the safety of his originals.
Out in the foundry, we melted hundreds of pounds of molten bronze to a temperature of around 2100 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the temperature was right, we lifted the crucible out of the furnace and brought it over to the mold, pouring the molten bronze down the pour cup into the hollow cavity. After the bronze cooled, the mold materials were removed from the cast bronze and the metal chasers and welders spent hours grinding, sanding, and polishing the bronze cast to look perfect.
The final step was bringing the work into the patina room. Our head patinator had worked for months with George to develop a special patina that would approximate the look of plaster. This step was especially important to the artist because he said it would give his pieces the unmistakable look that people had come to expect from his work.
Abraham and Isaac was cast just before the special patina was developed and was finished more traditionally, using a hot torch to heat the bronze along with corrosive chemicals like ammonium sulfide and ferric nitrate. After a final lacquer and a waxing afterwards, the bronze was ready to display indoors or out.
Read More (y1978-49)
“I chose the image of Isaac despite its sexual sadomasochism, and in spite of the conflict of the generations, because it deals with mercy and compassion and has a happy ending. There are reasons for that on which we should reflect.”
-artist’s brief remarks given at the dedication of the sculpture
Alan Canfora, wound victim of May 4: “The idea of the work was to show that when one generation is going to commit an act of violence against the next generation, the violence can be averted.” Interesting because Canfora spoke out against many of the proposed memorials at Kent State, but advocated the one that Kent would ultimately reject. (“In Memory Of . . . The 20-year search for a quiet May 4 monument” by Laura Putre)
Special Feature (y1978-49)
See other sculptures by George Segal in the Art Museum