On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

GEORGE SEGAL 1986

What first startled me to attention in the glimpses I had of George Segal's most recent work was a series of painted-relief paraphrases of Cubist paintings and collages by Picasso, Braque, and Gris. The connection between Segal and this anthology of by now venerable masterpieces in the canon of early modern art initially baffled me. I had always assumed that Segal insisted on the wholeness of people and things and upon our slow, sustained response to them, whereas these fragmented, jigsaw-puzzle visions of floating guitars, splintered wineglasses, and shuffled playing cards belonged to an alien territory in which the tempo was that of a magician providing a kaleidoscopic spectacle so complex and so rapidly shifting that we could only blink with wonder. What on earth was Segal doing in the land of Cubist legerdemain where visual artifice reigned? Was this an unexpected leap by Segal into a younger-generation exercise in postmodernist irony, in which some textbook classics of Cubism would be wittily restated from a cool, remote distance? That possibility was intriguing, and I immediately recalled how in earlier works Segal had now and then reincarnated in his own silent and solemn language the imagery of the great early moderns, whether the nudes of Matisse ( 1971-73), a Surrealist chair by Picasso ( 1973), or the apples of Cézanne ( 1981). And, come to think of it, hadn't another Pop artist of Segal's generation, Roy Lichtenstein, also appropriated famous selections from the anthology of modern art throughout his own long career?

Yet all such speculations about Segal's joining forces with this erudite, tongue-incheek mode of art-historical quotation began to evaporate before the works themselves. At first I was dazzled and occasionally amused by Segal's own virtuoso prestidigitations of his Cubist prototypes. In one, a variation of a Braque still life of 1913, the original Cubist phantom of a pipe--a shadowy void cut out of a strip of newspaper--is solidified into a protruding plaster reality, as palpable as the plaster bottle, cup, and apples above it; and almost as a joke, a French newspaper clipping in the same Braque collage is replaced by Dr. Joyce Brothers's column from an American daily. In another variation on a 1913 Braque, Segal's departure from the original is still more free-wheeling and personal (fig. 161). Here, the specter of a French wooden table is metamorphosed into a scrap heap of fragments of real wooden table legs, one of which sticks outward, poking (la Johns and Salle) into the spectator's space; and suddenly, we sense that the milieu invoked in these Neo-Cubist reliefs is not so much the world of Parisian cafés on the eve of the First World War but rather the nostalgic wooden

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