Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The unlikely link between chickens, deli food, bandages and art

What do Johnson & Johnson, a good brisket sandwich and art have in common? Interestingly enough, Rutgers University and New Brunswick, sort of, by way of George Segal.

That's George Segal the artist, not George Segal the actor.

A lot of people don't realize it, but Rutgers' New Brunswick campus was at the center of a vibrant and influential art community in the late 1950s and early 1960s. For example, now-legendary Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein was a professor in the Douglass College art department, right around the time Rutgers College instructor and performance art pioneer Allen Kaprow was beginning to conceive of what became known as Happenings. Enjoying both the proximity and distance from Manhattan's scene, they and others found the freedom to experiment on radical new ideas.

Segal found his way from his native New York City to Central New Jersey in 1940 when his father bought a chicken farm in South Brunswick as part of an organized effort to boost food production during the Great Depression. After briefly attending Rutgers, he studied art at Cooper Union in the early 40s and Pratt Institute several years later, marrying Helen Steinberg, the girl next door, in the interim. Ultimately he earned his bachelors degree at NYU, graduating in 1949 with a degree in art education.

The Segals bought their own South Brunswick chicken farm in 1953, but when finances got tenuous, he started teaching English and art in local high schools. Kaprow lived nearby, and the two became friends, with Segal's paintings eventually becoming part of Kaprow's exhibitions. The pair also shared wall space in New Brunswick's Z&Z Kosher Delicatessen in New Brunswick, perhaps hoping that patrons would fancy a nice piece of art with their kreplach.

A portion of Segal's
New Jersey Turnpike Toll Booth,
as installed at the Newark Museum.
Eventually, Segal's worlds combined: he hosted one of the first Happenings on the chicken farm and began using poultry netting (chicken wire) to frame out the basis of plaster sculptures that he'd arrange in front of painted canvases. He soon abandoned the wire in favor of placing plaster-soaked J&J gauze bandages directly on his models, reportedly coming upon the idea after one of his students gave him the material doctors used to create plaster casts for broken bones. Segal would plaster his models with the gauze, allowing it to set only to a certain firmness, then gently removing and reshaping it back to its three-dimensional form. Thus he'd have a fully-formed, accurate human being, albeit in ghostly white. He'd then place the form -- or several -- into a tableau that he called an 'assembled environment.' It might be a group around a kitchen table, couples on a park bench (as in New York's Christopher Park) or a toll collector in an authentic Holland Tunnel booth (as in the Newark Museum's garden).

Segal's molding methods evolved over time, allowing him to create intensely lifelike details in his plaster sculptures. Understanding that his models had to stay in the same posture for more than a half hour as the plaster hardened, he came to realize that what he was capturing was not a pose or posture, but the subject's actual true stance, revealing a great deal of who they were as people and lending truth to the art itself.

Over the decades, Segal's art has been installed widely -- chances are you've seen either the plaster works or those cast in copper, like the Breadline installation at the FDR Memorial in Washington D.C. If you're like me, they've prompted you to want to participate somehow. Maybe you've found yourself wanting to line up with the hungry men waiting on the bread line, or maybe handing fare to the toll collector at the booth in the Newark Museum Garden. Either way, they've drawn you into their lives and made you wonder: what's on your mind? What challenges are you facing today? And perhaps, in some small way, they've encouraged you to consider the same questions about yourself.

Segal eventually became successful enough as an artist to leave teaching behind, but he maintained a 6000 square foot studio at the South Brunswick chicken farm until his death in 2000. Whether he still had chickens at that point, I don't know.

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