I woke up Saturday morning with the news blaring from my radio alarm. George Segal, 75, had died of cancer Friday at his New Jersey home. Segal, perhaps the preeminent pop sculptor of his time, was an important symbol during my formative years. My first encounter with his work came during the early '90s, when I made a pilgrimage to New York's Greenwich Village from San Francisco to see the monument he had created in Sheridan Park to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots.
Like so many of Segal's sculptures, "Gay Liberation" is unassuming -- simple plaster casts of ordinary Americans -- with two women sitting on a park bench and two men standing in front, the historic Stonewall Inn in the background. The average tourist probably doesn't notice anything unusual about the sculpture at first, and I'm sure it often goes unnoticed, but there's something strange going on, something that takes a few moments to register: These are casts of gay couples in caring, romantic poses, the embraces of committed relationships, of deep love and companionship. A man firmly holds the shoulder of his lover; a lesbian relaxes her arm on the lap of her partner, whose hand is resting on hers.
The couples in "Gay Liberation" were ordinary, designed to depict gay and lesbian relationships as normal -- a revolutionary statement for a mainstream artist when the first version of the sculpture was created in 1983. Segal's sculptures often appear eroded, like windswept cliffs or the petrified remains of ancient Romans left in suspended animation after the explosion of Pompeii. Just like the lava in that ancient Italian city, Segal's casts are from a plaster that yields an imprecise, impressionistic figure. Physical gesture is often the driving symbolic force in his work, and indeed, "Gay Liberation" is all about touch and tender, affirmative embrace. I absorbed everything about this statue, which depicted a level of emotion that I have long sought in relationships but that has thus far eluded me, and continue to do so to this day.
Segal sought to create sculptures of everyday American scenes and people. With works like "Walk, Don't Walk," which depicted pedestrians (whitewashed, like a plaster leg cast, in his typical style) waiting to cross a street, or "The Diner," with a man ordering a cup of coffee from a waitress, Segal became something like the Norman Rockwell of pop sculpture during the second half of the century, capturing a precise moment in American culture. It's significant that in 1983 he had already sought to include gays and lesbians as a part of his vision of America.
"Gay Liberation" sparked protests, ironically enough, even from a shrill collective of Manhattan gays. In an article in the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review in 1997, Segal summed up the sculpture's New York history to journalist David Boyce: "Early on, local residents, mostly aging Italian Catholics, objected furiously to gays moving into their neighborhood, flouting their religious beliefs. I even got a letter threatening to blow up the sculpture when it was installed.
"Mayor [David] Dinkins finally approved the installation," Segal told Boyce. "At the dedication on June 23, 1992, amazed at the lack of religious protest, I asked a local resident, how come? He laughed and said that the older protesters had mostly died; the younger ones were indifferent. But protests started pouring in from gays. What right did I, non-gay, have to make a sculpture on this subject? Why wasn't a black lesbian woman included in the sculpture? Why weren't all the gay groups consulted? The cacophony was shrill, and nowhere was there any mention of freedom of expression or any discussion of delicacy, restraint, regard for fellow human beings, and a long list of values important in my life."
"Gay Liberation" has had a difficult life. Indeed, it turns the old idiom about life imitating art on its head. Instead, art imitates life, and not always in uplifting ways. The depth of that analogy became apparent in 1994, when seven jocks at Stanford University decided, after a frat party, to expend some excess testosterone on an earlier cast of "Gay Liberation," which has been installed on the campus on and off since 1984.
The vandals, among them the championship football team's quarterback and outside linebacker, were at the center of a national scandal that, ironically, garnered more media attention than any real-life gay-bashing (short of murder) ever could. The Stanford installation of "Gay Liberation" was the first public monument to gays in the United States, and the deeply embarrassed university took the attack seriously. For ramming the sculpture with a park bench and soaking it with paint, the men were prosecuted and sentenced to a year of probation and community service, which the judge, bless him, suggested ought to include a gay studies class.
It wasn't the first time Stanford's "Gay Liberation" had been battered. It was first attacked in 1984, when a vandal struck it 40 times with a hammer. That year, an appalled Segal told the New York Times: "The statement I tried to make in the sculpture is not a political one. It's rather a human one regarding our common humanity with homosexuals. I'm distressed that disagreement with the statement took this violent, brutal form." In 1987, another art slasher spray-painted "AIDS" on the statue's male couple.
Segal's sculptures of gays (which are in easy view of the thousands of children and teenagers who visit Greenwich Village and Stanford University each year) are an important contribution to the canon of gay culture -- the mainstream works that make an inestimably large contribution to the self-esteem of young people just discovering their sexuality.
"Gay Liberation," with its subtly powerful embraces of gay and lesbian couples, suggests to these kids that, rather than the classic stereotypes of loneliness or mental illness that have for too long been falsely associated with homosexuality, a normal, caring environment is within reach.