The long relationship between two artists lies behind the photographs of Donald Lokuta—which is the subject of George Segal in Black and White at the Zimmerli Art Museum.
When Donald Lokuta entered the art studio of George Segal in 1984, he couldn’t have known that he was about to enter the most enriching personal, and professional, relationship of his life. What Lokuta, a fine arts photographer, did know at the time, however, was that he had a deep admiration for Segal GSNB’63 and his art. Segal, who died in 2000, had developed a national reputation for the striking realism of his sculpture, which today is part of museum collections in the United States and Europe. One of his signature pieces is Depression Bread Line, a 1991 commission for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial that depicts five downtrodden men, their hats and raincoats sodden with rainfall, as they queue up awaiting a handout of food.
The sculpture, like all of his work, was created in a studio that had once been a 10-room chicken coop, one of the outbuildings on Segal’s chicken farm, which he bought in 1949 and was just across the road from his boyhood home in South Brunswick, New Jersey, also a farm.
“That first meeting was breathtaking for me,” says Lokuta, whose photographs are the subject of George Segal in Black and White: Photographs by Donald Lokuta, on view at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick. “Segal gave me a tour of the studio and the adjacent rooms where he displayed his work. After that first meeting, I called Segal and asked him if I could also make a portrait of him. He agreed.”
After photographing Segal for the first time, Lokuta returned to the studio to share the results with Segal. The photographer, though generally pleased with what he made, felt something was amiss. As he watched Segal apply plaster-soaked bands of surgical gauze to an emerging figure, Lokuta found himself blurting out: “I think I can do that!” Segal, eyebrows arched, replied, “Really?” He explained the procedure, the two men set to work, and a visit of one hour turned into six. “While we were working,” Lokuta says, “I found perfect opportunities to make photographs. I would wipe my hands of plaster and pick up my Leica, make a few photographs, and get back to work. Now, the photographs felt right.”
And so began a 16-year relationship, during which Lokuta made more than 15,000 images of Segal, documenting the artist at work and the amorphous stages of his creative process. “I want my photographs to take the viewer back to the creative moments, the conception of the work,” says Lokuta. “The images show the art in the environment in which it was created, at the moment it was created. They show the creative space, how the studio looked, and the stages of progress of many works.”
And when a figure was completed, or several of them, and when the product met the artist’s rigorous standards, Segal would use one of the adjacent rooms in his studio as a gallery, often arraying multiple sculpted figures into a tableau. Lokuta’s photographs reveal the extent to which Segal carefully considered the play of the shadows and light, and the spatial dynamics itself, in conveying the essence of the sculptures. This was a quiet obsession of Segal’s: the setting was everything.
Lokuta’s photographs often reveal Segal lost in thought, weighing his options. A somber man by temperament with a wry sense of humor, he was deeply interested in revealing the essence of everyman, not romanticized ideals. His sculpture is, like its creator, very human, showing everyday people doing everyday things. Segal, who received a master’s in fine arts from Rutgers, once said that his sculptures “are reflections of the emotional reality of life.” His work is about each of us, Lokuta points out, those moments when no one is looking.
“At the outset, I never intended to make a series of photographs of George Segal,” says Lokuta, who teaches photography at Kean University. “I simply wanted to meet the artist whose work I looked at in museums, read about, and admired. He was my favorite sculptor, making works that truly spoke to me. I knew immediately that he was a socially conscious and a very compassionate person. He was interested in the human condition, and that was reflected in his work.”
Segal’s artistic interests went beyond sculpture to include painting and drawing. He was also an avid amateur photographer before meeting Lokuta and an admirer of photographer Robert Frank. Before long, Lokuta had given Segal a Leica M6 35mm camera, the same model he used, and shared what he knew. Segal made thousands of photographs, some appearing in exhibitions and others in a book about his photographic work. Segal later used mural-size enlargements of his photographs as backgrounds for his sculpture.
Meanwhile, Lokuta had become not only an able assistant, but also a competent model. The figure in The Homeless (1989) and one of the figures in Depression Bread Line (Segal being another of the five) is the photographer himself. The two men quickly were founders of their own mutual admiration society, each man learning from the other and seeing the similarities in creating their art. “I’m quite sure that we had an impact on each other,” says Lokuta. “In my case, it was about ideas and concepts. We had long conversations about not only his ideas, but also those of other major artists. It was exciting to be involved in those discussions.”
The two men would visit museums together, walk the streets of New York City, and grab meals at New Jersey diners. “I had a wonderful friend,” says Lokuta. “He was full of humanity, compassion, and tireless devotion to his art and to his family— one of the most sensitive and intellectual human beings I have ever known. I hope that the photographs of George Segal speak to a universal message of friendship, creativity, and a more compassionate attitude toward others.” •