American sculptor George Segal (1924–2000) is known for his ghostly white figures created by casting directly from the human body using gauze strips impregnated with plaster. Wendy with Chin on Hand, 1982, is a partial bronze bust of Wendy Worth, his longtime model, for which Segal cast only her face, hand, and shoulder. Clearly related to his Fragments series, the white-painted sculpture echoes classical marbles that were often unearthed in pieces and lacked their original polychromy. Its surface is far less refined than any Roman or Greek antecedent, however, retaining as it does all the evidence of the messy casting process.
In addition, the pose, which at first glance suggests a classical elegance and balance, is in fact a result of contortion or perhaps even piece-by-piece assemblage, for it is the model’s right hand, not the left, that touches the right shoulder—a position no one would adopt naturally or even easily. In this way both pose and surface manifest the artificial, constructed nature of this beautiful illusion. Despite the literal nature of the body-casting process, this muse is very much the artist’s creation.
Segal’s casting process evolved over the course of his career. In the 1960s he used a single-cast method, wrapping his model in plaster-soaked strips, letting them dry, and then cutting the strips off in pieces and reassembling them to create the finished work. Thus all the detail captured at the interface of plaster and body ended up on the inside of the hollow sculpture, while the outside retained the evidence of Segal’s handling of the plaster. As a result, his figures appeared mummified and anonymous. In the early 1970s he began taking secondary casts, using the hollow primary casts as molds. This more traditional approach brought the once-hidden details from the interior to the surface of the sculpture. And in 1976, prompted by a commission for an outdoor sculpture, Segal began casting select plasters in bronze. After 1979, when a white patina for bronze was invented, he was finally able to give his bronze sculptures the look of plasters.
Thanks to a generous gift of the Helen and George Segal Foundation, Wendy with Chin on Hand is the fifth sculpture by the artist to enter the National Gallery’s collection. Among the holdings is, most notably, The Dancers, another 1982 bronze (a Collectors Committee purchase) that depicts four women awkwardly arranged in a circle, each intensely focused on her own deliberate pose. The Dancers is an impressive and large composition and is among the finest examples of Segal’s newfound ability to duplicate the original plaster, which in this case was cast ten years earlier, in bronze. Wendy with Chin on Hand, by contrast, is the smallest Segal sculpture to enter the collection to date and offers a more intimate glimpse into the artist’s practice.
The George and Helen Segal Foundation, North Brunswick, New Jersey; gift 2009 to NGA.
- Skelton, Sydney. "George Segal, Wendy with Chin on Hand." Bulletin / National Gallery of Art, no. 42 (Spring 2010): 29, repro.