Monday, October 1st, 2001

Joel Shapiro Hits the Roof

When it comes to whimsy, exuberance and pizzazz, the sky’s the limit for Joel Shapiro.

Joel Shapiro was born in 1941 and became a bona fide member of the New York avant-garde in the late sixties during the heyday of Minimalism. Five of his sculptures can be seen right now on the tourist-friendly rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although each of these is made from bronze rectangles of varying lengths and widths, Shapiro does not reject the anthropo-morphic basis of most traditional sculpture. His sculpture does not resist symbolic readings, even though his work has a formalist bent. All five works on view are untitled, even the ones that instantly remind us of the human figure. Subjects are evoked, but not always assertively. The welded rectangular blocks somewhat or closely resemble organic forms: trees, roots, human figures. They also represent lines of force, bursts of energy emanating from an invisible source and drifting toward the perimeters.

While it may be that, like seeing shapes in clouds, making correspondences between his sculptures and common objects in the world is cognitively empty, it is nonetheless the case that Shapiro manipulates figuration and plays with our powers of recognition. The reduction of means relates to Shapiro’s poetic worldview. In the early 1900s Suprematists and Cubists painted or drew figures consisting of squares (the pelvis, stomach, chest and shoulders) and rectangles (arms, legs and an emaciated block head). Suprematists used squares, circles and rectangles to create a complex symbolic language. Shapiro’s figures are not inspired by a revolutionary zeal or longing for a philosopher’s paradise. In fact, one of the most interesting things about Shapiro’s work is the way in which the viewer projects human qualities on to geometric structures.

Shapiro emphasizes contingency and the sculptures in this exhibit that do not resemble figures are abstract assemblages reminiscent of the pieces in David Smith’s Cubi series. Smith’s totemic and animated, polished and scumbled stainless-steel sculptures consist of squares and rectangles. Smith, like Shapiro used a limited assortment of shapes to build complex arrangements. The impersonality of Shapiro’s sculptures lends a bit of Easter Island mystery and primitive gusto to them. He provides minimal details and little or no surface texture. The twists and turns made by his forms conjure up cubist simultaneity, and involve the compression of many different points of view.

Barbara Rose, commenting on Post-Minimalist sculpture in her book Autocritique stated that “it lies around passively and dismally, defensively retreating from engagement with the environment rather than actively and aggressively demanding confrontation.” Shapiro avoids the typical pitfalls of Minimalism, aloofness to the point of absurdity, rejection of metaphor, and a pretentious monotonousness, by transforming rectangles into active figures. His block people tumble, run, lurch and leap. They are braced for action or in the midst of doing something, and this activates the space around them. Dan Flavin devised a way to engage the spaces surrounding the art object. His sculptures literally shed light upon the walls, floor and ceiling. They force the viewer to consider the entire context the art object exists in. Shapiro does the same by making forms that are reminiscent of the human figure. Some of the sculptures are assertively humanoid and resemble the crisp black figures on roadsigns. Perhaps they represent “anonymous human units of mass society.” Shapiro countered Minimalist anonymity with figuration and asymmetry. As Max Kozloff stated in his book Cubism/Futurism, “Because we are so egocentric in our nervous, muscular, and social identifications with it, the image of the human body can become a remarkable index of meaning in the work of an artist…” These sculptures also push people away from them because of their explosive quality and the way in which they threaten to topple over. We anxiously await the fall.

Untitled, 2000-1 is painted orange, stands 12 feet tall and is covered with faint striations that disrupt the reflected light and shadows on the sculpture’s surface. The side of the sculpture hidden from direct sunlight is red violet and the striations on the shadow side look like white scars or welts. The side hit by direct sunlight is glowing bright orange and the striations look like black scars or welts. The textures on some of these sculptures, a product of the casting process, look like tread marks or ripples on water. The five components that make up the whole, two L-shaped pieces and a solitary leg or stand, seamlessly attached to a flattened cement pedestal, are welded together and a sensation of precariousness prevails. We can easily imagine an abstract cheerleader, kicking her/his leg up into the air and waving pompoms above their head. We are reminded of people doing leg splits and waving their arms about. Further examination prolongs this animated quality. The geometric appendages appear to shoot outwards. The texture adds to this sense of movement and expansion.

Untitled, 2000-1, a bronze sculpture, painted a warm blue, is a robot man running in place. The “limbs” adhere to the trunk in a disjointed way, and the placement of the individual parts animates the entire figure. This is a compact form. The warm blue surface is smooth and absorbs and reflects the sunlight. The shadow cast by this sculpture upon the cement pedestal looks like a street sign. It appears as if this figure is running and being held back simultaneously. Shapiro suggests movement by positioning the arms and legs in a certain way, in relation to the trunk of the body, and this attracts the viewer’s eyes. We can’t help but imagine the arms and legs continuing their strange arcs.

Untitled, 1991 and Untitled, 1989-90 are squat constructions and the least successful in the exhibit. Unititled, 1989-90, is one large and squarish trunk piece or central segment, and three limb-like rectangles overlapping, rising above or supporting it. It is easy to imagine flesh and bone, a musculature forming around the bronze shoots. The formal elements do not add up. This inconsequential hiccup deserves to be in a corporate park, placed near a water fountain, and ignored by the people traveling to and from their gray cubicles. Although these welded geometric forms remind one of a dancer doing a soft-shoe there is a lackluster arrangement of elements. The overall shape is uninteresting and the formal issues that are addressed do not challenge the viewer. With Untitled, 1991, the rectangles are thick and the structure seems choked by bent forms. There is no investigation of gravitation forces. The pushing and pulling motion is too self contained. The uninteresting placement of the rectangular segments enervates the whole. This is an ugly knot of bronze, similar in appearance to a pile of twisted paper clips.

With Untitled, 1996-99, the tallest sculpture in this exhibit (24′ tall), Shapiro has echoed the structure of a skeletal tree: a segmented, trunk-like column and asymmetrical offshoots dangling precariously in all directions. The whole is explosive and threatening. The precariousness makes us pause. This form walks a fine line. We are never quite sure if the bronze segments are falling to the earth or rising ever higher. Standing beneath it and looking up, it becomes clear that the opposing limbs awkwardly balance one another. The individual parts are welded together in a slightly disjointed fashion. This splayed form has an anxious quality to it.

Shapiro takes a geometric approach to representation and his forms can be treated “symbolically as signs, not as imitations or re-creations.” He deemphasizes textures and surface detail to make the physical being of his forms more direct. The figural sculptures are “alter-egos” mimicking our movements and attributes, but are “incarnated in a form alien to flesh and blood.” Shapiro avoids the “explicit man-the-machine concept” of L├ęger. The content of Shapiro’s work is human energy. He produces “equivalents of man and nature by reenacting their characteristic forms of vitality.” The “humanity” of Shaprio’s figures is restricted to their gestures. Although his attitude towards subject matter is not always clear the groupings of rectangles that resemble figures in this exhibit are celebratory, energetic, poised or in the midst of some action. The floating rectangles of varying sizes, resemble slivers of metal slowly being lifted by a giant magnet in the sky. These sculptures are weightless and springy when viewed from a distance, and as you approach them gravity presses down upon them and they appear more self contained. The Minimalists were obsessed with expunging content, perhaps taking their cue from the literary theory of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Shapiro realized early on that art that lacked metaphorical content would fail to engage the viewer deeply. Shapiro is interested in the flow of energy and entropy. While choosing to avoid sensual curves and rounded surfaces, he yet manages to create compelling symbols of vitality.