George Segal is perhaps best known for his whitewashed sculptural tableaux capturing quotidian American life. Associated with Pop art as well as with artist friends like Allan Kaprow—whose Happenings first took place on Segal's New Jersey farm—and composer John Cage, Segal created a distinctive style that resulted from a concerted effort to combine art and life in one space. The artist enlisted his friends, family, and associates as live models for his sculptures, using plaster bandages in place of traditional casting methods. Originally trained as a painter, he was drawn to sculpture's three-dimensional representations of reality, and around 1958 Segal began to make sculpture that came off the pedestal and located in the space of life itself.
The six figures in The Costume Party (1965–72)—three men and three women, some standing, others reclining, and one sitting—appear in an array of primary colors. Their posture and placement suggest a narrative, though they are unaccompanied by the descriptive settings typical of Segal's works. The subject matter springs from personal experience—Segal had attended "a Halloween party and decided that the theme had possibilities."1 He considered this work to be "pure fantasy, and a move away from the "relentlessly banal" subjects of his previous five years of work.2 This dark fantasy collects figures from literary and popular culture into one moment—Antony (cast from dealer Richard Bellamy) and Cleopatra reclining on the floor next to a seated Catwoman and presided over by the fool Bottom from William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Superman, and the James Bond villain Pussy Galore. Reworked over a period of seven years, The Costume Party has been exhibited in different configurations and color schemes; with each change Segal felt the grouping took on a nightmarish, hallucinatory mood, which for the artist became, through the making of this piece, increasingly connected to color.
The Costume Party was Segal's first foray into finished sculpture painted in color, although he had previously painted the titular article of clothing of Woman In Red Jacket (1958) in polychrome. Though he did not return to the colored figure until the mid-1970s, both Segal and critics connect the coloration of these figures to the artist's roots in painting. Expressively painted, the elemental color choices are juxtaposed against his trademark white. They also have a larger spiritual valence: around 1968, a friend lent Segal a book about a Lakota leader, Black Elk Speaks (1932), which describes the four colors of the universe as being black, red, blue, and yellow. The Costume Party's vibrant, intense hues and Segal's attention to what he termed "pedestrian space" pull the viewer into a space halfway between sculpture and real life.
1. Martin Friedman and Graham W. J. Beal, George Segal: Sculptures, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1978), p. 21.
2. Ibid., p. 44.