New Jersey, muse of avant-garde art scene

 George Segal's Blue Woman Sitting on Bed, 1998. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

George Segal's Blue Woman Sitting on Bed, 1998. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

Walking the gamut of sculptural figures in George Segal’s enormously long studio in South Brunswick, New Jersey, is a little like walking among the undead.

The life-size figures of plaster-cast people are caught shuffling inside their own movies, waiting in a bread line, waking up in bed, walking a graffiti alley, or just sitting on a milk crate (Segal cast himself sitting on a crate). They neither notice nor care that you are looking at them.

Dozens of these figures, many arranged inside their own tableau of a window, door frame, or a bed, are set up in seven linear rooms converted from an old chicken coop.  Before Segal found success as a pop-art sculptor, he was a chicken farmer.

“It put him in touch with everyday people, farmers and truck drivers,” said Kelly Baum, curator of the exhibition “New Jersey as Non-Site” now at the Princeton Museum of Art. “Many people he encountered as a farmer he would cast as sculptures. His work was inspired by the things around him – people and junk he tripped over – and he incorporated all of that.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The exhibition Baum created argues that New Jersey was critical to the development of the American avant-garde from the 1950s to the 1970s, when artists were looking to get out of Manhattan to find new forms of inspiration.

The show has several major works and artifacts from events created by Segal (who died in 2000), Robert Smithson, Allan Kaprow, Nancy Holt, and Amiri Baraka, among others. Many of them literally dug into the geography of the Garden State to make work.

In 1970, Charles Simonds filmed himself wallowing naked in an abandoned clay pit in Sayreville, N.J., which was not far from his teaching position at Rutgers New Brunswick. He had been visiting the pit of an old brick factory to collect free clay for sculpture projects and ultimately dove in bodily.

“I used it not just as source material, but to enact rituals from which my work springs,” said Simonds, revisiting the film footage at the Princeton museum. “The rituals of my mythology were re-enacted in that clay pit.”

New Jersey offered that kind of experimental – even primal – activity from which came, like a Golem, new directions in art. Nancy Holt was tantalized by the mysterious, untamed parts of the state. Her 1975 film, “Pine Barrens,” is shown in the gallery.

“I lived in a place that was close to the Hudson River. I was always seeing New Jersey,” said the New Jersey native of her younger years in New York (she now lives in New Mexico). “It drew me, this wilderness which was not that far away. You could feel the wildness of nature.”

That wildness was born out in George Segal’s South Brunswick chicken farm, which was the site of a few Happenings – improvised, communal performance events developed by Allan Kaprow. Film footage in the Princeton gallery shows Yvonne Rainer dancing on top of Segal’s chicken coops. By then, Segal had long been out of the chicken business.

“He said it was slavery,” said Segal’s daughter, painter Rena Segal. “He got rid of the chickens. He needed more room, because he used to have a studio upstairs in the house. So, he figured, sell the chickens.”

During the Happenings, people flocked to the chicken farm. Artists looking to escape the orbit of the New York art scene saw New Jersey as a place where anything goes, where you didn’t have to contend with abstract expressionist baggage or municipal regulations. It is where composer Dick Higgins asked a South Brunswick police captain to shoot an automatic rifle at large sheets of musical staffs. The resulting bullet-holes denoted note clusters.

“New Jersey became a site for art because it was considered a non-place,” said Baum. “It’s ironic, that New Jersey became a destination because it wasn’t one.”

One of those artists, Simonds, concurs.

“I could go to Yale for graduate school, or here. I chose here,” said Simonds, speaking about Rutgers.  “At Yale, they said you have to work in the studios. At Rutgers, they said you don’t have to work in studios – in fact, we don’t have any studios. Just go out and find a studio and do whatever you want.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal