THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
“As a painter, I am reluctant to talk about my own work,” writes Leopold Segedin near the start of his new book, Leopold Segedin: A Habit of Art. It’s an understandable impulse, though one belied by the extensive artist’s commentary that follows. Then again, and as this richly illustrated volume makes plain, Segedin is not afraid of visual paradoxes or, to phrase it differently, melancholy ironies made visible. His train station paintings, almost always set at the golden hour, are crowded with people yet lonely in the sharpest way.
If Segedin were from London, these works could be scored to the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.” Happily, he is an American, Chicago-born—Chicago, that somber city—and, like Saul Bellow, dizzy with memories of the long-gone Jewish West Side. In an introductory essay, Professor David M. Sokol of the University of Illinois at Chicago locates Segedin within a local tradition extending from the Hull-House painters to the Depression-era Chicago Society of Artists and American Jewish Art Club.
In that same essay, Sokol notes the influence of Northern Renaissance painters on the artist. For example, Segedin’s Approaching Storm: A View of Chicago is a careful homage to Vermeer’s View of Delft. Additionally, Segedin writes that he created one of his Tower of Babel paintings (Tower of Babel, 1951) with full knowledge of Bruegel the Elder’s famous oil paintings of that same subject.
Segedin’s many renderings of kids playing “buck buck,” craps, and other games are reminiscent of Bruegel’s intricate Children’s Games. In the upper right corner of that piece, a child holds up a carnival mask that looks an awful lot like an adult’s face. Here’s Segedin expressing roughly the same idea in relation to his own work: “Childhood is still a part of my life. It’s not something I outgrew… We’re still playing games. We’re always playing games.”
All the world’s a playground, to torture Shakespeare a little. That’s not a hard lesson to learn in Chicago, where so much of local politicking and democratic posturing seems to be a poorly concealed game of “king of the hill.” Sensing the country’s mood in 2016, Segedin seems to have arrived at a comparably cynical conclusion in his Follow the Leader series; “I put in these dogs following each other, sniffing each other’s rear ends,” he notes about Follow the Leader #3. And 1968’s Polifiction: Hanging Man, another monument to voter fatigue, is exactly as politically charged as one might expect of something painted in 1968.
Like Bruegel, van Eyck, and the other Northern Renaissance masters, Segedin has a clear affinity for symbolism. At times, his works bring to mind the “transfigured reality” that critic Erwin Panofsky appreciated in van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. In Panofsky’s words, Van Eyck’s “attributes and symbols are chosen and placed in such a way that what is possibly meant to express an allegorical meaning, at the same time perfectly ‘fits’ into a landscape or an interior apparently taken from life.” The symbolic vocabulary that Segedin uses in his Chicago paintings is sometimes, though not always, subtle. Only after viewing his works in sequence does one sense the significance of doors in his vision. Dynamism and density, gathered in and flooded with early evening light: this is the humanist’s transfigured Chicago.
There is something paradoxical in Segedin’s use of symbols. Take the role of flight in his paintings. In L Station (Three Ages) and several other works, the young Segedin plays with a model airplane on the gritty streets of the West Side. Does this figure yearn to escape his native soil, a neighborhood that well-intentioned reformers might have considered unwholesome and that Hizzoner considered an obstacle to the Eisenhower Expressway?
Leopold Segedin, L Station (Three Ages), 2002. Image courtesy of Paul Segedin.
Young Segedin also dreamed of being a pilot. The older, wised-up Segedin meets with this fantasy in the book’s cover painting, Confrontation. Despite this youthful escapism, Segedin has spent much of his adult career in a mood that could easily be confused with nostalgia. Perhaps escape is impossible—or perhaps, in reconstructing his memories through art, Segedin is reconciling himself to the limitations one experiences even in a long and eventful life.
Interestingly, the only mythological motif that appealed to Segedin was Icarus. Would New York have been too close to the sun? “Unanswerable,” answers Segedin. “What difference do the possible futures of my past make to me now?”
Segedin departed from Chicago in his Parts of Man, Permutation, and Transformations series, which reflected his reaction to the Holocaust. Segedin wrestled with the challenge of addressing this subject without lapsing into sentimentality, melodrama, or, paradoxically, the sort of beauty that might undermine his art’s very purpose. In these acrylic paintings, grotesquely pink body parts melt away in what Segedin describes as “an institutional kind of space.” Though he says the multicolored orbs in Parts of Man II are celebratory balloons, it is not hard to imagine them as oversimplified atoms, bouncing around in what is fundamentally a vacuum.
Segedin is not afraid of joy. His Old Men Dancing and Old Man Dancing paintings from 2009 and 2010 are, from one angle, an affirmation of life. Yet Old Men Dancing, 2010, #2 expresses something more than happiness. Set on an El platform in front of an indifferent crowd of 1930s/’40s Chicagoans, now long dead, it feels like a gesture of defiance. Life is not just for living—it is also for spitting in the face of death.
Edited by the artist’s son, Paul Segedin, the book itself is a lovingly crafted tribute. I have no doubt it will adorn a few coffee tables. Although some design elements in the front matter look a bit clunky, in most of the book, the art is served well by its surroundings. Similarly, though the commentary can be somewhat repetitive, that’s partly a result of Segedin’s consistent subject matter and aesthetic choices over the last few decades.
A final paradox or riddle or—extending the Segedinian cynicism inward—questionable bit of wordplay: Segedin, a student of Chicago’s architectural exteriors, is, in the end, a searcher after the interior. For those who see his Chicago in themselves, his search may prove worthwhile.
Leopold Segedin: A Habit of Art by Leopold Segedin (ed. Paul Segedin and Benjamin Segedin). Illustrated. Outbound Ike Publishing, China, $50.
Nathan Worcester is a writer and assistant editor of the New Art Examiner. All comments welcome via firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @thedryones.
Leopold Segedin, Confrontation, 1999. Image courtesy of Paul Segedin.
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