Sur Rodney (Sur)

Sur Rodney (Sur) writes about his research for "Favorites"

Sur Rodney (Sur) writes about his research for "Favorites"

No Chicken’s, No Foul: In consideration of George Segal’s Sculptures in Sheridan Square Park

I received an e-mail from Sarah Schulman wherein she writes: “We are doing a performance, a "walk" through the generational divide in the queer West Village. The piece is called "Favorites" - we are asking three people of my generation and three younger people to tell the group - their favorite thing in the neighborhood that is gone. And, their favorite thing in the neighborhood that is still here...They know you of course…Would you be willing to be one of the speakers? It's set up so that you pick a location either where your place is (or was) and we bring the group to meet you there. Then you tell us about both the lost and still existent favorite places for about fifteen minutes.”

The West Village spot I chose that is gone, was Keller’s, a bar on the West Side Highway first established as the Knickerbocker Hotel and Salon in the early 1900s. I was a flaneur on the Lower East Side but would also be an occasional flaneur in the West Village beginning in the 1970s. Keller’s was remarked on as the birthplace of Disco in the early 1970s, for having the Village People photographed in front of the bar for an album cover. By the mid to late 1980′s Keller’s catered more to a Latino and African-American clientele, renown amongst the swell of black gay legends in the literary world at that time, and would finally close in 1998, after HAART the AIDS cocktail arrived. The building was land-marked on November 14, 2006 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. How much of the history of its patronage has been preserved? What stories might I have had to tell?

As plans for the walk progressed, the organizers realized that Keller’s was too far off of the path for the walk. The re-route was more likely to end at Sheridan Square Park, site of the George Segal sculptures. I was asked if I wouldn’t mind speaking to the group there. In my ever-conciliatory manner, I agreed. Being art worldly, my familiarity with the sculptor resuscitated my curiosity. What meaning could I bring to these sculptures for the occasion? What history do they have to tell? And how does that story bear on what they represent? The ghostliness of the sculptures seem to have been a prediction for what they would represent in the future -- ghosts of the past. The controversy around the proposal surprised me once I learned of its nature. I’ll speak to that at the end of my story, reclaiming and addressing what many of us know to be true.

In June 2011, following the passage by the New York state legislature of the Marriage Equality Act, Art & Antiquities director, Jonathan Kuhn, heard from Leslie Cohen, who with Beth Suskind, her partner of more than 35 years, posed for the female figures in Segal’s sculptures. Their picture was taken with the sculpture at the dedication in 1992.

The Models: Leslie Cohen and Beth Suskind met in Buffalo College, a teacher’s college in 1965 on the first day of their freshman year. A close relationship they developed at first, would scare them and they would drift apart. Leslie, after graduation, moved back to NYC to study art history at Queens College. By chance, through a mutual friend, Leslie would be reintroduced to Beth, in 1976 more than a decade after they first met. This reintroduction would happen sometime after Leslie had been living in New York. While studying art history at Queens Collage, Leslie would befriend John (a gay man) and be introduced to his friend David, an artist who threw parties in his loft on Canal Street. David’s then partner, Manuel was an assistant at the Sidney Janis gallery, which represented some of the leading artists of the time: Claes Oldenburg, Ellsworth Kelly, and George Segal. David would become one of the two standing male figures in the Segal sculptures. Leslie and Beth would be models for the two-seated women, so we know for certain how 3 of the 4 figures identify.

The Sculptor: George Segal was an artist I became familiar with as he was good friends’ with the FLUXUS family, a family of artists experimenting with the boundaries of what art could be beginning in the late 1950s. Knowing of this association made him more interesting than what his sculptures revealed. George Segal began his art career adventure as a figurative painter working in an expressionistic manner before coming to his renown with the Pop Art movement with his sculptures. Segal was born in New York, his Jewish parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. His parents ran a butcher shop in the Bronx, then moved to a poultry farm in New Jersey where Segal grew up. In 1946 he married Helen and they bought another chicken farm in South Brunswick, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Segal only ran the chicken farm for a few years, and began using the space to hold annual picnics for his friends from the New York art world. His location in central New Jersey also led to a friendship with Allan Kaprow in Rutgers University’s art department, one of the faculty renown for his germinal associations with the controversial FLUXUS group. Segal was said to have introduced several Rutgers professors to the experimental composer John Cage, which to me seems unlikely. Segal had a close relationship with Allan Kaprow, with whom he also shared a affinity as a Jew, Kaprow’s father was a Rabbi. Kaprow was a painter, assemblagist and a pioneer in establishing the concepts of performance art. He helped to develop the “Environment” and “Happenings" to describe art events that took place on Segal's farm in the spring of 1957. He’s also credited with developing their theory. In 1958, Kaprow published the essay "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock”. In it he calls for a "concrete art" made of everyday materials such as "paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies."

Knowing George Segal had only visited John Cage’s class at the New School that Kaprow attended, it was more likely that Kaprow would have introduced Segal to Cage. The American conceptual artist and Avant Garde composer George Brecht, born George Ellis MacDiarmid, also attended the classes. Brecht, who became great friends with Kaprow, would be, as I see it, an essential link for George Segal turning from a figurative expressionistic painter to creating his plaster casts that he became celebrated for.

Why body plaster-casting bandages? George Brecht was one of the originators of 'participatory' art, in which the artwork can only be experienced by the active involvement of the viewer, he is most famous for his Event Scores such as Drip Music 1962, and is widely seen as an important precursor to conceptual art. Brecht was also a chemist who worked for Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, who had headquarters in New Brunswick New Jersey, close to Rutgers University. Johnson & Johnson had developed a body plaster-casting bandage material that was made available for artists hoping to raise the corporations profile in the arts. Providing George Segal with a local source for him to begin to produce his own tableaux using this white plaster bandage material that has me thinking of their contrast to Kaprow’s two memorable crudely rendered figures expressionistically covered in black tar exhibited at the Hansa gallery in the late 1950s -- one looking like a Venus of Willendorf and the other, a male figure with an oversized erect penis – preceded Segal’s first experiments. The rawness of the material would now be understood as there was a language in art to support it -- discussions around Kaprows “concrete art” and around Cage silence, helped tremendously.

So here we have George Brecht one of the originators of 'participatory' art, and widely seen as an important precursor to conceptual art as an animateur in having George Segal come to acquiring an abundance of plaster bandage material to create work that would eventually launch his career as a Pop Artist. Some of Segal’s more noteworthy The Holocaust (1982) in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, The Commuters (1982) in New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, were dedicated a decade prior to this tableaux in Sheridan Square Park and 3 years later the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC. (1995) would appear.

The Commisioner: Peter Putnam (1927-1987) a trustee and founder of the Mildred Andrews Fund, a private operating foundation that funded higher education and art, with an emphasis on sculpture, approached Segal, who apparently was not the first artist approached. Will we ever know who the other’s were? Peter’s mother Mildred Andrew Putnam, drew national attention after commissioning a sculpture by George Segal commemorating the 1970 slayings of 4 Kent State Univ. students by the Ohio National Guard. Kent State refused the gift of the $100,000 controversial artwork, entitled Abraham and Isaac and Putnam would donate it to Princeton University instead. But this deal would be different. What ever politics circumstances came into play, we may never know, however we do know that Segal accepted the commission which stipulated only that the work “had to be loving and caring, and show the affection that is the hallmark of gay people . . . and it had to have equal representation of men and women.” The established framework and support within the arts and the development of Pop Art supported a language that helped establish his sculptures into the canon of art history at the time, making him a likely candidate for this commission, and easier to market.

The figures, cast in 1980, received all of its community and design approvals in 1982. However, it would not be installed until the following decade amid political controversy much of it swirling around race and representation. “The sculptures were too white” was one claim. They were not a representation of the true history of gay liberation or the participants at Stonewall. On June 23rd 1992, the city’s first black Mayor David Dinkins and Parks Commissioner Betsy Gotbaum helped unveil the monument in Christopher Park. The initial opposition and rancor that had greeted the project had subsided; the advent of AIDS, which had devastated the gay community in particular, added a more somber dimension to the monument and its “mute” figures.

Now let’s get real--the erasure of black and brown bodies from most revolutionary histories in the U.S. is not new, and ongoing. The criticism that the sculptures are “too white” I find laughable, if they were painted black or brown would it make any real difference to how they are seen? These sculptures were meant to be a representation of same-sex relationships, period. The race of their representation not clearly in evidence, so what is really being questioned here? How can one assign race to these bronze figures as they appear? They are representations of human bodies with no defined race. To create controversy around this fact while the black and brown bodies so evident in the Village, then and now, are continually marginalized and treated as other, throwing mud at this sculpture seems misplaced.

In the gay village, black and brown bodies are appreciated for their entertainment and fetishized value mostly, and have usually found themselves persona non grata in many of the establishments that served the gay clientele in the Village. The Village then a haven for the gay community has never really taken up the cause for the plight and treatment of the black and brown bodies in their midst and rarely invited them to the table when concerns of the “gay community” are redressed. We’ve had to make our own.

The micro-aggressions we are confronted with in many of these establishments back then are no less today than they were back then. They’ve just been normalized. We had bars that at times felt open to us while many others did not welcome our presence. We made spaces for ourselves in places like Keller’s and Peter Rabbit’s then, I’ve been told, and bars like the Hanger today. Chi Chiz, seen as way too black and in your face “thuggish” was forced out. Exhausted by legal battles and ongoing police harassment, at the behest of scared white neighbors, forced them to finally close their doors in January 2011. A quick Google search on controversy at Chi Chiz brings me to, wherein I read comments like “Should have left it open, as said in a previous comment now they’re all going to move into one of the other bars!” and “BTW, don’t think that they won’t come for the other bars in the West Village too. They won’t be happy until an area that has always been historically gay is completely whitewashed.” The battles of then continue today but now have a name and an organized front. What of the ongoing fights with FIERCE? An LGBTQ youth of color-led organization building leadership, political consciousness, and organizing skills of youth of color between the ages of 13-24, they organize around local grassroots campaigns to fight police harassment and violence and increased access to safe public space for LGBTQ youth fighting for their right to share the public space on the Christopher Street Piers.

When I look at these sculptures in Sheridan Square Park, I see nothing that speaks to the history of a once gay village neighborhood specifically. Presently staged, in an openly shared public space, a tableau of George Segal’s sculptural figures quietly rests in one area of a garden park, presenting 2 same sexed couples’, wrapped in white body plaster-casted bandages and bronzed, one couple seated, the other standing, neither having anything to do with chickens.

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