When George Segal: Street Scenes opens next week at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Martin Friedman will be standing in two of the exhibition's works at once. The emeritus director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis was among friends of the artist who modeled for his figurative plaster sculptures. The customer in Hot Dog Stand (1978) is Friedman. So is the second figure in Depression Bread Line (1991).
Friedman also stands near the show's conception, and the extraordinary donation of Depression Bread Line, one of Segal's signature works, to the museum's permanent collection. MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman used to work for Friedman at the Walker, and they are friends.
It was Friedman who told Fleischman about the New Jersey-based George and Helen Segal Foundation. "Martin had mentioned to me that there was just an incredibly rich array of his work kept there," Fleischman recalls. "I was lucky enough to get an introduction and to go out to New Jersey."
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art director smiles the smile of a man savoring a vivid memory. "I remember the drive very clearly. I went through - in my mind, being a New Englander - sort of the stereotypical New Jersey landscape, industrial, gritty, and as I went out further and further into the country, it was still sort of a hardscrabble landscape, but it became greener and less densely populated."
Arriving at the old chicken farm where Segal had established his studio, Fleischman toured what had once been a chicken coop "that went on for rooms and rooms and rooms," he says. "There it was, much as George had left it, with all of these paintings and drawings in the first few rooms, which quickly evolved into the sculptures, which he had installed in the coop as he worked on them and as he finished them. They were sort of revealed to me room by room. In that grouping was the original plaster sculpture of Depression Bread Line."
A queue of five figures waiting at a door set into a brick wall, Depression Bread Line is one of three works Segal cast in bronze for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. The artist himself served as the model for the fourth figure in the line. Other figures are modeled on friends, including photographer and longtime Segal assistant Donald Lokuta, whose effigy stands in front of Segal. Martin Friedman's figure stands ahead of Lokuta.
It is one of Segal's seminal works, Fleischman observes - at once representative and specific, yet also ambiguous, subtle, complicated. Attired in the hats and long coats of that era, they appear burdened by their thoughts and emotions. But what might they be thinking and feeling as they wait on line for sustenance?
"Segal's figures very often seem to be stuck within themselves," Fleischman says. "He is a master at observing urban density and the interaction of people in that setting - how people sometimes interact with each other, and sometimes seem to be almost anonymous figures in that setting."
As he proceeded from one room to the next, Fleischman says, he felt a sense of reverence, of hushed wonder. "It was a quiet space," he remembers. "I was with people who had been in the space many, many times, for whom it was probably a relatively ordinary experience to step in, and I think they were enjoying watching me being so excited and at the same time so subdued, if that's possible. I said instantly, this work has to be in the show, because the first debate was really about the topic for the show."
By then, he and MMoCA curator of exhibitions Jane Simon had determined that a Segal exhibition ought not to be a retrospective survey of the sculptor's career, but an exploration of urban themes in his work.
When he proposed that Depression Bread Line was so well-suited to this theme that it all but had to be part of the exhibition, the Segal family at first demurred.
"They said - and I understood it right from the get-go - that this plaster cast was totally unique, very precious and very fragile," Fleischman says. "I was certainly discussing with them borrowing a number of other works made of plaster, which was really the artist's chosen medium, if you will. But those works were not quite, shall we say, as monumental as Depression Bread Line."
Suddenly, a generous offer appeared on the table. Before his death, Segal had authorized up to seven bronze castings of Depression Bread Line. One is at the FDR Memorial. A second is installed at the Grounds for Sculpture park in Hamilton, N.J.
Considering the significance of MMoCA's exhibition, its subsequent national tour and the anticipated quality of the catalogue to be published for George Segal: Street Scenes, the Segal Foundation offered the third casting to MMoCA - provided the museum and its patrons could pay for the casting process. When the exhibition's tour finished, the casting of Depression Bread Line would return to MMoCA and become part of its permanent collection.
Susan Kutliroff, the artist's niece and secretary-treasurer of the George and Helen Segal Foundation, says the offer was made because "one of George's wishes and one of the foundation's goals is to have his work seen by as many different people in as many different places as possible."
As conversations about Street Scenes progressed between Fleischman, Simon and the foundation's principals, Kutliroff says, the notion of offering a bronze casting of Depression Bread Line grew too appealing to resist. The fact that Friedman had modeled for one of the figures in the work and that Fleischman had worked for Friedman at the Walker created a kind of symmetry.
"We like these circles," says Kutliroff. "We like these closures. We really like the idea of having [Depression Bread Line] out in the Midwest."
Fleischman was gratified by the generosity of foundations and individuals who donated about $200,000 to cover the casting costs. "I think people understood that this was something of great significance," he says. "It didn't take too much coaxing. People respond to this work."
Nostalgia for Segal's Gay Liberation (1980), installed for many years in Orton Park before being moved to its intended site at Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, may have been a factor in the outpouring of support. It will not be included in the exhibition because it can't be, Fleischman says. "Like most public art works," he explains, "you can't borrow it for an exhibition."
But while it was here, the sculpture's two couples - one gay, one lesbian - were all but adopted by near-east side neighborhood residents, who sometimes adorned the figures with scarves or hats to ward off the winter chill.
"People have a very kind of visceral response to George's work," Fleischman observes. "I think it's always that way. They identify with the human figure, and there the human figure is, in all three of its dimensions. And I have no doubt that we're going to see a lot of people lined up as the sixth figure in Depression Bread Line, taking their place, cameras in tow, snapping away. George loved that kind of response from people. He loved the idea that people connected with his work."
Segal himself was drawn to people in settings such as Hot Dog Stand, in which a male figure is buying a hot dog from a woman who appears disinterested. Segal was fascinated by building fragments, Fleischman notes, and here transposes the hot dog stand's tacky stained-glass ceiling as a Mondrian painting - a fragment that frames Segal's unblinking observance of a disaffected urban exchange that many passers-by might see yet not notice.
"There's another work in the show called The Diner, " adds Fleischman, "also a famous work, from the Walker Art Center's collection, and it shows a man, presumably late at night, ordering coffee and pie at a diner, and there is sort of again that non-interaction between the waitress and the man, and this palpable tension between the stranger in her midst at night in a deserted diner."
By freezing the moment in works such as these, Segal invites viewers to linger, to project similar experiences of their own onto the figures and into these settings and, perhaps, to recognize themselves.
"It's got enough detail for you to relate to it, but it's got enough ambiguity for you to put yourself into the picture, really," says Fleischman. "And George was a man who loved simple things. He liked going to diners and having a cup of coffee and a sandwich. And he wasn't a sort of haute cuisine guy. I mean, he was happy with ordinary people in his life. He loved talking to everybody, and he was a man truly of the people. And his work shows, I think, that same ability to observe. He was an observer, beyond all else, somebody who studied people and understood the gesture of the human being."
During his years at the Walker, from 1983 to 1990, The Diner (1964-66) was one of the first works with which Fleischman spent a great deal of time. "As someone who had the good fortune to work at the museum, I passed by that sculpture hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times - too many to count," he says. "There's a real difference between seeing a sculpture and living with a sculpture. I really feel like I had the opportunity to live with that piece and to come to know it in a very concrete way."
In much the same way that Madison residents lived with Segal's Gay Liberation in Orton Park, we will soon be living with Depression Bread Line at MMoCA. Fleischman's experience with The Diner is apropos.
"As opposed to a cursory glance, I think you have the opportunity to unveil different layers that the artist laid down within the artwork, to really sift through those layers and come to an understanding," he says. "With repeated viewing you come to have a relationship with the object. And you love it, you hate it, your love turns to something else, your hate turns to something else, or maybe it's more subtle than that. Suddenly you realize that one of the figures happens to be doing this and you never really noticed that before. Or why was a detail left off of a doorway."
Viewers invent stories to go with Segal's works, says Fleischman: "You begin to make connections, and in your own mind, your own life experiences begin to translate into the work, and we use it as both something we receive and something we project onto."
The exhibition will include works on loan from Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Walker Art Center, Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, Newark Museum, the Segal Foundation and other major collections.
"This is a very complicated project," Fleischman says. "The plaster sculptures are very fragile. Organizing just the packing and shipping of this is a very tricky proposition. It will probably come here in three full-sized moving vans with hundreds of crates because some of the works, like Depression Bread Line, may take as many as seven or eight crates, wooden crates constructed specifically for their transportation and for their travel to other venues."
After the show closes in December, a tour will take it to museums in Dallas, Kansas City and West Palm Beach, Fla. The exhibition will bring to each of these cities Segal's keen observations of the people he encountered in the Bowery, in Times Square, Manhattan's East Village and other urban tableaux: people imbued with his respect for the downcast, the burdened the overlooked, the anonymous, the isolated, the lonely, the careworn.
Segal began his career as a painter influenced by the abstract expressionists before experimenting with sculptural forms against painted backdrops. In the 1960s, he discovered plaster-impregnated Johnson & Johnson bandages. Wrapping models in them, applying more plaster and allowing it to set, he was able to produce rough figures. Later, he began using these plaster forms as molds from which he could cast more specific figures - first in plaster, later in bronze.
He was always looking. Born and raised in New York City, he made frequent return forays after settling in New Jersey with his family. But if he was known for observing - looking at people and settings - he was also looking for things. He would collect doors, window frames and walls to incorporate into his works.
"In Depression Bread Line, that brick wall is a real brick wall that he found and cast from," Fleischman says.
Segal's restless searching also led him to employ different methods in his work. He sometimes painted his figures, or the settings where they were placed. "One of the works in the exhibition, on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art, is of a girl in a doorway, and it's painted plaster," Fleischman says. "He felt the color brought a different dimension to his work."
A robust syllabus of programming is planned throughout the length of the exhibition, including gallery talks and the screening of videos documenting Segal and his career. "There are," says Fleischman, "lots of videos of George and of George working." Programming will resume when Depression Bread Line returns to MMoCA after the tour.
"One of the things the Madison Community Foundation wanted when they supported our casting of Depression Bread Line was really a connection with students - students who perhaps know nothing of the Great Depression," Fleischman says. "You know, it's a real phenomenon that we have the privilege to note as we get older how quickly things are forgotten. And it's an amazing rate of forgetting. It's a constant. Every generation forgets what the generation before them learned.
He views Depression Bread Line as an opportunity to help students come to an understanding of the Depression, but also a vehicle for introducing the initiatives of the Roosevelt Administration, such as Social Security, that many now take for granted.
But Depression Bread Line will also stand as an outstanding addition to MMoCA's permanent collection. Its significance cannot be overstated. "George Segal is probably one of the most collected American artists around the world, and many, many of his best works are in Europe," Fleischman says. "You find them all over Europe."
Now, one of his most renowned works will live in Madison.
George Segal: Street Scenes
Sept. 13-Dec. 28, 2008
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
Opening reception 6:30-9 pm Friday, Sept. 12