George Segal

Sculptor, painter

Born: November 26, 1924, in New York City

Died: June 9, 2000, in South Brunswick, New Jersey

New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2023: Arts & Letters

George Segal didn’t just invent a new art form, he perfected it. And all while working in a converted chicken coop on a Middlesex County poultry farm.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Segal spent his early years in The Bronx, where his parents ran a butcher shop. The family later moved to New Jersey, where they started a poultry farm. Segal helped out on the farm, but returned to New York to study art at Pratt University, Cooper Union, and New York University, where he earned a teaching degree in 1949. During this period, he began to paint and also developed influential contacts in the New York art world.

While still a student, Segal met his future wife, Helen. They married and bought their own poultry farm in South Brunswick, where they would live the rest of their lives. To supplement their modest income from the farm, Segal taught art and English at a local high school and at Rutgers University. All the while, he continued to paint, and in 1957 his work was included in a major exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Segal was developing a reputation in New York, but the art world also came to his Jersey retreat. Segal hosted annual picnics at the farm for his New York friends and in 1957, the term “happenings” was coined to describe the art performances that happened there.

In 1961, Segal began experimenting with the use of plaster bandages to create three-dimensional figures. With the help of his wife, he created body parts and learned to assemble them into full figures that he sat in real environments. His “Man Sitting at a Table” marked the beginning of a new art form.

Repurposing his chicken coop as an art studio, Segal mastered his new technique with the help of human models—sometimes friends and family, sometimes famous individuals, such as Israeli diplomat Abba Eban and Norris Mailer, wife of novelist Norman Mailer. In a 2014 interview with New Jersey Monthly, Segal’s daughter, Rena Segal, described her father’s artistic process. “Dad dipped surgical bandages into warm water and plaster, then covered his live models from head to toe in the dripping substance resembling cake batter,” she explained.

The hardened, roughly textured shells of Segal’s molds became the actual artworks, often left in their original white. He arranged his figures in real-life poses, such as waiting for a bus or seated in a diner. The environments were created using found objects, such as a park bench or an old chair. In time, he cast some of his works in bronze or added simple colors.

Although considered part of the pop-art movement (with the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein), Segal’s work is uniquely warm and personal. Many of his best-known pieces are installed in public places, notably his “Street Crossing,” an array of seven standing figures outside the Alexander Kasser Theatre at Montclair State University, which is also home to the George Segal Gallery.

Intro/Acceptance Video