by Drew Martin
I took these pictures of George Segal's The Commuters two days ago at 6:30 a.m. after an hour bus ride from my northern New Jersey town. I have been commuting to and from work in New York by train for the past fifteen years so I do not often make my way through Port Authority, where the sculpture was installed in 1980. I remember this as a kid from the mid 80s and not much has changed, not even my comprehension of it. When you see it with young eyes, you get it: tired people waiting, and waiting for a bus that might never come. It has been 34 years and this trio is still waiting at the door of a gate with a clock set at 3 p.m. under "Next Departure."
The time should be set at 7 or 8 p.m. unless Segal meant it to remain as a broken clock. Despite having so many long hours of commute under my belt, I do not see the sculpture differently, although now it does seem more like a cruel joke. The perfect thing about this is that it is in the center of Port Authority, arguably one of the worst places to be in Manhattan.
I guess a New Yorker would say these white zombies are so sad looking because they have to return to New Jersey. While someone from New Jersey would say that they are beat up after a day in New York. Since I live in New Jersey, as did Segal, I am going to go with the latter.
Segal's sculptures are all about body posture. His subjects' eyes for all of his sculptures are always closed because he took their forms by making casts of them with plastered gauze so the models had to close their eyes. In this instance the closed eyes are otherworldly. It is as if these commuters are dreaming of being in another place. Or perhaps they have died and yet they still have to wait to get to the afterlife. Maybe Segal saw the gates at the Port Authority as the Gates of Hell.
The sculptures are actually made from bronze and have a white patina to retain the plaster gauze look. Segal's conceptualizing about this process is a play on cast: a cast of characters, a cast for a broken limb, and to cast bronze. These total body casts were his way of showing that humans are fragile and broken. These commuters certainly are broken people.
I won't see the sculpture today. In a couple minutes I will jump on my bike and ride into Manhattan for work.