Andy Warhol and George Segal were two artists producing work in the 1960s and 1970s that had to do with popular culture and celebrity culture as well as the burgeoning materialistic and mass-produced society. Andy Warhol personified the Pop Art movement, blurring the lines between art, advertisement, and popular culture. His highly reproducible art pieces, made using screen prints, related to the way many products in the world had become mass produced. His thought process was that art could be just another product, a commodity. Warhol embraced and celebrated celebrity culture and lived his life as a celebrity artist as well. George Segal used his art to warn his viewers against the perils of overconsumption and materialism. His work consists mostly of lifelike plaster sculptures of people. The people are placed into scenes and the viewer occupies the space with them. The faces of the sculptures are often downcast or troubled, and their raw plaster surface makes them feel ghostlike. His statement is that materialism will not lead to happiness and that the cult of celebrity is a dangerous one. Both artists are making a big statement about how radically life changed during the 1950s and 1960s. Warhol work is about enjoying and idolizing the rise of TV culture, celebrities, and mass produced goods. Segal’s work, on the other hand, takes the viewer to the darker side of the new America that emerged at this time. We will see the artistic contrast of these ideas by looking at Warhol’s Mick Jagger, 1975 and George Segal’s Time Square at Night, 1970.
Andy Warhol began his long and illustrious career as an illustrator for books and magazines in the 1950s. He was one of the first fine artists to adopt the silkscreen technique, which he used to produce many of his later pieces. Silkscreening is a process in which an image is burned into a screen using photosensitive chemicals. Pigment is then pushed through the screen. using a squeegee, onto paper or fabric. The screen can be used hundreds of times to produce the same image. Warhol would become famous for his use of silkscreens in the 1960s and 70s. During the 1960s, Warhol began to paint iconic American objects and celebrities, such as dollar bills, Campbell’s soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley. The exhibit The American Supermarket in 1964, was a pivotal event in Warhol’s career. The American Supermarket was an exhibition that was set up to look just like a regular supermarket, except all of the products were art created by Pop Artists of the time. The event was a smashing success, introducing Pop Art to the general public as well as postulating the question about what art is. Warhol drew inspiration from American culture, celebrity, advertising. and mass production. For example, here are his views on Coca-Cola, “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest… All the Coke’s are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it” (Warhol, 1975).
During the 1970s Warhol’s work became more aggressive, sexually charged, and voyeuristic. His subject matter became grittier depicting drug users, orgies, drag queens, and violence. His studio, the infamous Factory, in downtown Manhattan became a hotbed of clandestine activity. Warhol became a fixture on the nightlife scene, partying at Studio 54 with celebrities and It-Girls of the day. By this time Warhol had a lot of rich and famous fans who became patrons of his art. You weren’t a somebody, celebrity wise, in the 1970s unless you had a Warhol do a portrait of you. “Warhol used photographic silkscreen to create his celebrity portraits. This method of printing creates a very precise and defined image and allows the artist to mass-produce a large number of prints with relative ease. Warhol adopted the methods of mass production to make images of movie stars [and musicians] that were themselves mass-produced. Elvis Presley existed not only as a flesh-and-blood person but also as millions of pictures on album covers and movie screens, in newspapers and magazines. He was infinitely reproducible. Similarly, through use of the silkscreen printing process, Warhol could produce as many Elvis paintings as he pleased” (Warhol Museum). Mick Jagger was one such celebrity to get his portrait screened by Warhol, his portrait exemplifying the decadence of 70s era Warhol.
“Warhol had met Jagger in 1963 when the band the Rolling Stones were not well known in the United States. Warhol had designed the band’s provocative album cover Sticky Fingers with its focus on a man’s crotch and a zipper that opened. The album and the design proved to be a huge success and Warhol, ever keen to make money, lamented that he had not been paid enough given the millions of copies that sold. No doubt with an eye for financial success, Warhol turned to the subject of Mick Jagger, now a celebrity friend and part of the New York club scene” (NGA). Jagger’s portrait measures 43” by 28” and is zoomed in on his face and signature pouty lips. Jagger’s image is rendered in a posterized black and white style, with little detail across his face or hair. Warhol has used different screens to add pink and brown patches of color to Jagger’s face and the background respectively. His lips are outlined with a cherry red shape and his eyes are emphasized by green and purple rectangles. Jagger stands shirtless for his portrait, gazing straight out at the viewer, lips parted, eyes casting a come-hither gaze. Jagger was a huge sex symbol at this time and the portrait is charged with his sexual energy. The red color used to emphasize Jagger’s lips also reminds the viewer of female genitalia and Jagger’s long hair and boyish body also add to the sexual ambiguity of the piece. The green rectangles over the eyes seem like eyeshadow, and along with the red “lipstick” gives Jagger a drag-queen-like appearance, blurring gender lines even further. The flat, photocopied quality that the painting has, seems seedy, like a back-of-the-newspaper call-girl ad. The squiggly back lines that Warhol has used to outline Jagger, further add to the sexual energy emanating out of him. Jagger was almost at a demi-god level of fame at this point of the 1970s and Warhol’s portrait really captures the idolizing mood toward him at the time. Jagger is put before the viewer as an image to worship, to envy, to emulate.
The technique to produce the Jagger series of portraits, silkscreening, is a deliberate choice on the part of Warhol. Jagger was one of the most mass-produced celebrities of the 1970s. The Rolling Stones sold thousands of records, dated beautiful models and were photographed with them at glamorous locales frequently. In the 1970s, when record sales were actually profitable for bands, the Rolling Stones appeared in countless ads, advertising their new albums or tours. These ads, along with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards sexual energy, propelled millions of young fans to buy their albums and concert tickets. The line between artist and product was being blurred further and further. Although the Rolling Stones were pulling in gobs of cash from their record sales, they were still in huge amounts of debt to their record company, further pushing them over the edge from artists to commodity. The music written by the band was passed through the record company filter, with record executives (who have no musical background) determining what would sell or not. Warhol brilliantly captures this battle of power in his portrait of Jagger. Jagger is the most unique and powerful frontman on the face of the planet during this time, and yet he is enslaved as a product to a giant corporation, reproduced thousands and thousands of times for profit. Warhol himself was not shy about producing as much work as possible to sell for a profit, inching ever further from fine art to assembly-line product.
George Segal began his artistic career as a painter but discovered his signature sculpting technique during his time teaching in 1961, being inspired by dry plaster bandages a student had brought to class. “Segal took them home and experimented with applying them directly to his body. With the help of his wife, Helen, Segal was able to make parts of a body cast and assemble them into a complete seated figure. Segal provided an environment for his body cast by adding a chair, a window frame and a table. Man Sitting at a Table marked the discovery of a new sculptural technique and a turning point in the artist’s career (Segal).” Although he was associated with Warhol and other artists of the Pop Art movement, “Segal's distinctive style separated his work from ‘Pop Art’ by staying closely related to personal experience and human values. He once said that because he was from the proletariat, he wanted to deal directly with the places around and familiar to himself, rather than with "elegant" topics (Segal)”.
George Segal was also in the same scene as Allen Kaprow, who “organized Happenings — partially improvised non-narrative dramatic performances… Kaprow was one of a number of artists exploring the integration of multi-sensory experience within an environment that often depended on random or improvisational techniques… In encompassing human figures, and on at least one occasion sound, and an environmental milieu, Segal’s sculpture has some affinity to approaches being explored by these artists” ( ). Times Square at Night, and most of Segal’s sculptural work, is left in its’ white, raw plaster form. “The whiteness separates their reality as expressive of the artist's intuition and feelings from that of the colored environment in which Segal places them, while their naturalism provides a bridge between the real world and the artist's personal vision” (Joslyn Art Museum). “Though he was associated with members of the burgeoning Pop art movement in the late 1950s, Segal’s sculptures, which were frequently outfitted with the bland commercial props of the Pop idiom, are distinguished from that characteristically ironic movement by a mute, ghostly anguish. His casting technique, in which the live model is wrapped in strips of plaster-soaked cheesecloth, imparts a rough texture and a minimum of surface detail to the figures, thus heightening the sense of anonymity and isolation”.
Times Square at Night consists of two sculptured of men walking through a night scene of Time Square, the backdrop illuminated with neon signs for pornographic films and food. The two figures are cast from live models using strips of plaster bandages. Although the sculptures are lifelike, their features are ambiguous, giving them an anonymous quality. Their expressions are blank and downcast, although they are walking through one of the most famous places in America. The advertisements for pornographic films do not leave the two men titillated, in fact, they seem lonely and isolated from one another and the scene around them. Times Square as seen as an epicenter of American culture and excess. It is a huge tourist attraction with every kind of diversion to offer. Segal is showing that these diversions and promises of anonymous sexual thrill do not fulfill the two men, it actually deadens them inside. The viewer gets the sense that the men exist apart from the scene they are inhabiting, walking through it but not experiencing it. The bright lights and constant sensory onslaught have made them apathetic.
Comparing Warhol’s Mick Jagger to Segal’s Times Square at Night, two very different attitudes toward sexuality are evident. Warhol shows how Mick Jagger’s sexuality gives him his power, making him rich and famous. Segal’s piece shows how sexual overload has deadened the men, the consumers of the product that celebrities like Jagger sell. Warhol’s piece is dependent on Jagger’s renown as a highly recognizable celebrity figure, the piece wouldn’t have the same impact if it was just a model. Segal’s shows the consumers at the other end of the spectrum, anonymous beings who can’t get no satisfaction. The promises of fun, love, and contentment that the ads and neon signs promise them are always just beyond their grasp. Segal’s men will never have the sexual power that Warhol’s Jagger possesses, which sends them out into Times Square, looking for something to fill the void. The pornographic film they see may make them feel like Jagger for an hour or two, but once the credits roll, they will be left with their void again.
The choice of medium is significant in both works. Warhol represents Jagger in a painting, which can only be gazed at by the viewer. The painting is almost like a religious icon, asking the viewer to worship Jagger as well as Warhol’s artistic prowess. The viewer feels impersonal towards the painting due to the disparity between them and Jagger or Warhol. Painting is always separate from the viewer because it exists in a two dimensional space. Segal’s sculpture work the viewer occupies the same space as the sculptures, effectively making the viewer part of the piece. The work is personal and asks the viewer to essentially walk in the same footsteps as the two men. In Warhol’s piece, the brightly colored paint emphasizing Jagger’s face and lips brings sex to the center as the product being sold. The viewer stands in front of the painting, simultaneously wanting to be Jagger himself and the object of Jagger’s sexual desires. Segal’s blank plaster figures shows that the pseudo sexual power the two men are after doesn’t exist, and is deliberately concocted by corporations and advertisers to sell products. Record companies and artists like Warhol have tapped into the public’s desire to possess power like Jagger and have commodified it. Segal’s ghostlike sculpture is a hand sliding back the curtain to show that the chase of these intangible commodities is ultimately unfulfilling and that those selling them only see human beings as anonymous consumers.
The post sexual revolution America of the 1970s was polarized between embracing the decadence of sex, materialism and mass-consumption and searching for the significance in any of it. Both artists made a dramatic statement about consumer culture and leave an indelible mark on one of the most tumultuous periods of American history. While Warhol embraced the sale of sex and star power, and used his paintings to make huge profits from both, Segal created lifelike anonymous plaster sculptures to warn against the very objects that Warhol deified with his silkscreened icons and superstars.
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