COVER STORY: George Segal: Sculptor as Photographer: Photo exhibition at Princeton University sheds new light on the black-and-white vision of a great modern artist

By Nicole Plett
   Renowned American sculptor George Segal welcomes us into his world through the viewfinder of his favorite Leica camera. In a lovely exhibition design touch, a playful portrait of Segal, nested in the booth of a Freehold diner, welcomes the visitor to the show, “George Segal: Sculptor as Photographer.” On view in the Milberg Gallery in Princeton University’s Firestone Library, the exhibition opened in July and remains on view through Dec. 30.
   New York art writer Phyllis Tuchman gives a public lecture in conjunction with the show, titled “George Segal: Sculptor, Painter, Photographer,” on Sunday, Nov. 6, at 3 p.m., in McCormick Hall, Room 101, adjacent to the Princeton University Art Museum. Both the exhibition and lecture are free and open to the public.
   ”When I give a lecture, I like to re-think the subject,” said Phyllis Tuchman in a recent phone interview. Ms. Tuchman was still a student at Passaic High School in the late ‘60s when she saw Segal’s sculpture at New York’s Green Gallery. She wrote her first paper on him as a college undergraduate, and became the author of an essential early Segal monograph, published in 1983 and still in print. Tuchman and Segal remained friends from those early days until his death in 2000 at the age of 75.
   ”If I were to re-write my book on George Segal today, my talk would be a new chapter,” Ms. Tuchman continues. “Since his death, more of George’s sculptures can be viewed in person via public commissions than from visits to museums.”
   Among such readily accessible public commissions is Princeton’s own “Abraham and Isaac: In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State University” of 1979, one of his earliest, which stands between the Library and the Chapel.
   ”Pubic sculpture is thriving,” says Ms. Tuchman enthusiastically. “People want to see it, they want to visit it. And people are approaching public sculpture differently, they are interacting with the sculpture differently — because of YouTube.” (When pressed to elaborate, Ms. Tuchman replies: “Come to my talk!”)
   George Segal, who lived in rural South Brunswick, is one of the nation’s most acclaimed sculptors, recognized for his powerful, humanistic statements. His pioneering Pop practice paired direct-cast figures with actual fragments of the real world. Segal’s anonymous, often introspective figures, accept their place in the world without argument and speak to the quiet miracles of everyday life.
   The current exhibition of Segal’s photographs, curated by Valerie Addonizio and Don Skemer, is both a celebration and an unveiling of one tiny element of the George Segal Papers, given to Princeton in 2009 by the George and Helen Segal Foundation. The Segal archive comprises 80 linear feet of correspondence, business files and art, housed in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.
   Encompassed within this treasure trove are 7,000 photographs — prints, negatives, slides, and transparencies — spanning 30 years, only a few dozen of which have ever been exhibited or published.
   ”When we get papers, we want everything,” explains Don Skemer, who quickly adds how surprised he was to learn that “everything,” in the case of this widely admired sculptor, included another artistic pursuit — black-and-white photography.
   Processing the archive took seven months, and the result is a 108-page online finding aid, a comprehensive user’s guide to its contents. After spending months reading and organizing Segal’s records, Ms. Addonizio says she came to feel “inexplicably close” to the thoughtful and genial man whom she never met. It helped, she adds, that he was also a meticulous record-keeper. For this inaugural occasion, the curators have selected photographs that suggest parallels with Segal’s three-dimensional sculpture.
   The exhibition entryway is framed by important markers of Segal’s career: Four large photographic portraits of family and friends which bear relation to his large drawings in charcoal and pastel. Fittingly, the earliest of these is Segal’s portrait of his wife, Helen, whom he married in 1946 and who survives him as a principal of their foundation. Across from the portraits is the lovely three-dimensional work, “Girl in Chair Dangling Left Arm,” for which Helen was the model.
   ”In 1990 … I took to walking the streets in New York and New Jersey with a camera loaded with black-and-white film, my head loaded with memories of those marvelous Farm Security Administration photos of weather-beaten walls, bodies, and faces, sprung from the photographers’ radical interweaving of social and esthetic theories,” Segal wrote in the introduction to his only photography exhibition, “Sequence” of 1993. Beginning in the mid-’80s, Donald Lokuta, creator of Segal’s diner portrait and a professor of photography at Kean University, often accompanied Segal on these photographic adventures. Five contact sheets, tracing the course of a single summer day of photography make a nice addition to the show.
   Undeniably, Segal’s photographs bring us closer to the artist. While his sculpted environments require distance, his photographs invite, and even require, close viewing. Step right up to gawk at the “Robot Fortune Teller” in all her tattered glory. Shot in Keansburg in 1991, she sits in a suffocating glass booth surrounded by signs and props, with a dark, tangled reflection obscuring the spot where her face should be.
   ”Boardwalk” gives us a sweeping view of the once resplendent Asbury Park boardwalk. Look closely to find a tiny, lone figure looking out to sea. And “Waiting,” set in the concrete tunnel of a bus station, draws our eye to a young woman, resting on the curb, who is dwarfed by Segal’s favorite props, the detritus of urban culture: In this case, coin-operated newspaper boxes. Step in closer to take in the lurid Trentonian headline, “Mother’s Day Blood Bath.” For the viewer, such close readings feel akin to getting inside the artist’s mind.
   Segal’s grainy images and high-contrast compositions express his unique vision — social and esthetic. And just as they embrace American photography of the 1930s, they also suggest the influence of his friend Robert Frank who published his groundbreaking visual diary, “The Americans,” in 1958. In 1960, Frank spent six months as a guest in the Segal’s basement, working on a film set on the Segal farm. These photographs may also conjure echoes of Eugène Atget’s 19th-century Parisian shop windows; Walker Evans’s subway portraits; gangster movies and film noir; and a quiet and steady homage to Rembrandt’s drawings and etchings, Segal’s ever-present touchstone.
   A rare sampling of Segal’s early artwork, included in the show, showcases his early experimentation with themes and motifs that reappear in his mature work. These early works, notes Phyllis Tuchman, demonstrate that Segal “was the kind of artist who could have excelled in any field that he chose in the arts.”
   The Princeton Art Museum has also received three gifts of Segal sculptures from the foundation. Kelly Baum, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, responded with an ambitious program to create “New Jersey as Non-Site,” a multi-artist show, scheduled for 2013, that will explore New Jersey’s role in fostering an experimental avant-garde after World War II.
   Ms. Baum says the Foundation’s gifts of archives and artworks were inspiring. “I spent a few weeks this summer looking through the Segal papers,” she says. “It’s a real treasure, and an important resource not just for Segal’s work, but for postwar art in general.”
   Just as Princeton’s Special Collections began life, in the 1890s, as the university’s “Treasure Room,” so today’s visitor is treated to a surfeit of Segal treasure. The George and Helen Segal Foundation has given the community a gift that will keep on giving for years to come.
Events: Lecture: “George Segal: Sculptor, Painter, Photographer” by Phyllis Tuchman, Sunday, Nov. 6, at 3 p.m., in McCormick Hall, Room 101, Princeton University. Exhibition: “George Segal: Sculptor as Photographer,” Milberg Gallery in Firestone Library, Princeton University. The gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 12 noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. More information at: www.princeton.edu/(tilde)rbsc/exhibitions/milberg.html
   An impressive selection of George Segal’s sculpture, including some important public commissions, can be seen right here in the Princeton area.
   Abraham and Isaac In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State University (1979). This controversial commissioned work, in bronze, is located on the Princeton University campus, between the Chapel and Firestone Library, near Washington Road and William Street.
   The Constructors (1987) is a favorite for its meeting of men and I-beams. The big work is located at 20 W. State St., Trenton, in front of the Mary Roebling Building.
   Depression Bread Line (1999), one of Segal’s best-loved works, was created and cast in New Jersey for the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. The second casting is a favored destination at Ground For Sculpture in Hamilton.
   Circus Acrobats (1981) is a recent gift to the Princeton Art Museum from the George and Helen Segal Foundation, currently on view in the museum’s lobby in McCormick Hall.