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Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2001

An artist who stands out from the crowd

Art does not exist in a bubble. Contemporary events, like the terrorist attack on America, affect the way we look at it.


Viewing the eerie, white plaster sculptures of New York artist George Segal at Shibuya's Bunkamura Museum of Art, it is hard not to be reminded of the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. But Segal's famous plaster-cast sculptures of real people, so evocative of death masks or the casts of those entombed in ash in Pompeii, are only one aspect of the artist's work in this major retrospective of studio pieces. The exhibition, coming a little over a year after his sudden death at age 75, also offers an illuminating look at Segal's early oil paintings, pastels and sculptures in relief.

The essence of his work is the struggle of the human form -- and, by implication, the human spirit -- to exist in spaces and relationships that are less than natural. There is much of the urban conundrum in the work of this quintessentially New York artist.

Early pastels of his untitled series of the late '50s and early '60s provide the first hint of this theme and also reveal Segal's surprising mastery of color. Here he pays tribute to Edgar Degas (1834-1917), the French artist who worked mainly in pastels. Like Degas, Segal employs the radical cropping of figures and off-center compositions, as in one striking untitled work from 1964 that shows a pair of female legs jutting out at an unusual angle.

In Segal's sculptural reliefs, the truncation of the human form is even more apparent. Incomplete parts of the models' bodies emerge from the plaster as if laid bare by an archaeologist or, more macabre, like victims turned up in the earth.

Segal's plaster sculptures are usually thought of as pure white. Most striking of these is the "Pregnancy Series" (1978), which shows the swelling belly and breasts of a woman at seven stages of pregnancy.

Segal also colored many of his sculptures with intriguing effect. In the relief "Flesh Nude in Blue Field I" (1977), he uses color to both flatten and highlight: A somber blue tone softens the contours of partially represented figures, while vivid pinks and reds pick out and embrace the humanity of a single figure, faceless but front-on to the viewer. The result seems to celebrate an individuality that is often lost in the crowd.

"The Homeless" (1989) reminds us of the way that many of us shut out the street poor from our minds, while "Bus Passengers" (1997) documents the way we ignore each other in close proximity. These people may as well be -- as they are here -- plaster models, for all the attention we pay them. This psychological paradox is at the heart of modern urban life, in which, surrounded by millions of our fellow humans, we strive to ignore them.

His skill in dealing with this aspect of our environment is the true reason that Segal's work has such a resonance beyond its technical achievement. If New York were somehow wiped off the face of the Earth, Segal's work would serve as a poignant record of that city, as the artifacts recovered from Pompeii remind us of the Roman world.

The attack on New York that highlighted the instability of this hypermodern high-rise urbanscape has given Segal's work almost an aura of prophecy. But his work is not just about New York. It strikes a chord with people anywhere who live in big cities that don't quite fit them.

"George Segal Retrospective: From the Artist's Studio" runs till Oct. 21 at the Bunkamura Museum of Art, Shibuya, (03)-3477-9252. Open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. till 9 p.m. on Friday & Saturday. Admission 1,200 yen for adults, 800 yen for university and high school students, and 500 yen for children.

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