George Segal: Sacrifice of Isaac 1973
George Segal's (1914–2000) sculpture, Sacrifice of Isaac, depicts the figures of Abraham and Isaac at the defining moment of the biblical story. Abraham's figure is alert. His arms are stretched next to his body. His right hand holds a kitchen knife in place of the slaughtering knife in the biblical story, while his left hand is fisted. His head is upright, and he looks at Isaac, who is lying at his feet. The figures are installed on a rock-like plaster base. The sculpture freezes the moments preceding the decisive act or the moment immediately following it.
The work was originally commissioned by the Tel Aviv Literature and Art Foundation for a project to install sculptures throughout the city. In homage to his father and his affinity with the stories of the Bible, Segal chose the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac as his subject. In May 1973 the sculpture was exhibited for the first time in the plaza of Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium.
Segal, a leading American Pop artist in the 1960s, became known for his life-size white plaster sculptures, many of which were displayed in the public sphere. His uniqueness lay in his multi-figured compositions, which capture a contemporary moment of life while corresponding with the tradition of classical sculpture. The decision to create his sculptures from plaster—a material usually used for molds rather than the final work—exposes them to the ravages of time, indicating their fragility, both physically and metaphorically.
Five months after the sculpture's installation, the Yom Kippur (1973) War broke out, inevitably charging the work with political and social meanings. The image of the Binding of Isaac became a signifier of the winds of war. The sight of the father, about to sacrifice his son, was likened to the families sacrificing their sons in battle, an analogy that struck a raw nerve. In 1977, the sculpture was donated to Tel Aviv Museum of Art's Modern Art Collection.
Segal's models for the sculpture were his friend, artist Menashe Kadishman (1932–2015), who had already established his status as a successful artist in Israel and the world, and his son, Ben. A video documenting Kadishman's sculpture of the Sacrifice of Isaac installed in the Museum's entrance plaza, is screened on the wall at the entrance to the gallery. Kadishman's version of the Sacrifice was created in the context of the 1982 Lebanon War, and presents a reversal between Isaac and the ram: in his version the sons are killed in battle, and there is no ram to save them.
Segal's sculpture became linked with the Yom Kippur War. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of that war, and following comprehensive conservation work, it is now on display.
Funding for the conservation of this artwork was generously provided through a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.