Sometimes art transports us to places that no longer exist, or could never exist (think surrealism, for example). And sometimes art can transport us simply by its very ordinariness, its ability to immerse itself in the texture of our everyday lives (think documentary street photography).
The renowned American sculptor George Segal, who died in 2000, carved out a third space: While, in both his personal life and his artwork, he embraced the quotidian, his sculptures possess a certain abstraction and solitude that elevate them.
In a recent talk coinciding with the opening of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's major new exhibition, George Segal: Street Scenes, Martin Friedman, director emeritus of Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, spoke of how the artist's plaster figures, with their closed eyes and mouths, are a bit like sleepwalkers, even as he dubbed Segal a "blue-collar realist." That tension between gritty, urban bustle and quiet loneliness is precisely what gives Segal's work lasting appeal.
MMoCA's terrific exhibition is not a full-fledged Segal retrospective but, instead, brings together 16 pieces from the 1960s to the late '90s that hone in on the urban environment. Spread out among MMoCA's large second-floor exhibition space, the sculptures create a little city of their own: a man seen through a bar window here, a woman emerging from her apartment building there, a few people standing on a street corner, and so forth.
George Segal: Street Scenes builds on MMoCA's tradition of major solo shows of the 20th (and early 21st) century's most important American artists: recent years have seen shows by Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt and Jasper Johns. The Segal show should please longtime admirers, but is easily accessible to those encountering his work for the first time. The exhibition is expertly lit, bringing out both the theatrical qualities and the attention to light and shadow that were important to Segal.
While Segal, given his everyday subject matter and the time period in which he emerged on the American art scene, is often associated with pop art, that's really a misnomer. While pop was fun but often glib and surface-oriented, Segal's work has real psychological depth and empathy. The city may be a place of stimulation and wide possibilities, yet it can also be a place of poverty and sadness, as in 1989's The Homeless, in which one figure sleeps over a grate, shrouded in blankets, while another sits with his back resting up against a wall.
Through his mostly monochromatic plaster figures (generally done in ghostly white but sometimes matte black or even silver), Segal speaks to us about those run-of-the-mill moments of our lives in which we teeter between our private worlds and the public crowd, and between anonymity and connection. While New York City provided the lifeblood for his work, the terrain Segal's art covers is universal.
George Segal: Street Scenes, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, through Dec. 28