A sculptor noted for life-sized white plaster figures cast from life, frozen in a gesture or pose and often juxtaposed with colorful, real everyday environments, George Segal began his career as a painter. However, he changed to sculpture because he wanted to create objects he could touch and to take sculpture off the pedestal. Most of his figures are white and appear to be bandaged. During the 'hay-day' of Abstraction, he held to a representational style, with some in the 1960s calling him a Pop Artist.
He was born in the Bronx of New York where his father was a kosher butcher during the Depression. Showing aptitude in science, he attended Stuyvesant High school, known for its graduating of high achieving students. During World War II, he took time off from school to help his dad run a family chicken farm in New Jersey.
He studied art in New York at Cooper Union, the Pratt Institute of Design, Rutgers, and New York University in classes taught by Tony Smith and William Baziotes. In 1948, he married, had two children, and began running his own New Jersey chicken farm while teaching art classes locally.
He began his career as a painter of large-scale nudes in expressionist style but changed to sculpture in 1961 when one of his night-class students, married to a Johnson & Johnson chemist, brought some newly created, plaster-impregnated bandages. Segal saw their potential with sculpture, and his first pieces were made with wire, burlap, and plaster and, according to Matthew Baigell, looked like they had stepped out of one of his expressionist paintings.
Segal later used plaster exclusively, with family and friends serving as models. He achieved life-like figure images by wrapping his models' bodies in wet plaster limb-by-limb. However, his work retains abstract or expressive qualities because he alters the appearance of the limbs by adding and deleting plaster. With this method, he conveys a sense that his figures are imprisoned within their exterior material, and that there is no way one could get a sense of their personalities or inner feelings. Because they are unpainted, they have a ghostly presence, and seem even more so when viewed in everyday environments such as restaurants, parks or domestic interiors.
His sculptures include Woman Shaving Her Leg (1963), The Dinner Table (1962), and The Gas Station (1964). He did some works based on Old Testament themes such as The Sacrifice of Isaac (1973) and also addressed public events such as the shootings at Kent State and the Holocaust.
In 1997, Segal made figures portraying a bread line for the FDR memorial in Washington DC. From bronze, these depictions, including one that was a self portrait, were not of his usual material but are a great part of his lasting legacy.
Segal exhibited regularly from 1956 but won special acclaim in the 1962 New York exhibition titled 'New Realists.' As a person, he has been described as modest and unassuming, and open to warm, open exchanges with people. Towards the end of his life, he did numerous large charcoal portraits of friends, many whom visited his home and studio in South Brunswick, New Jersey where he died on June 9, 2000 after a long illness.