Monday, July 21st, 2014

Disparate Forces Uniting As One: David Shapiro, 1944 to 2014

David Shapiro (1944-2014)

David Shapiro, Savasan 10, 1996.  Carborundum collagraph, siligraph, relief and aquatint on papersheet and image: 8 x 47-1/2 inches.  Courtesy of Dolan/Maxwell
David Shapiro, Savasan 10, 1996. Carborundum collagraph, siligraph, relief and aquatint on papersheet and image: 8 x 47-1/2 inches. Courtesy of Dolan/Maxwell

David Shapiro, who died earlier this year after a long struggle with cancer, was a mentor and friend.  A fellow abstract painter, he was as generous, open, and honest as he was talented and prolific. In the thirty years or so we knew each other, I saw his work grow in depth, expressiveness, and clarity, without conforming to the latest fad, fashion, or “ism” in the art world.

Born in Brooklyn in 1944, Shapiro trained at Pratt Institute and Indiana University, where he earned an MFA in 1968, and attended the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine. He taught at several institutions, including Barnard College and Parsons.

Continuous study and practice of Buddhism greatly influenced his work as well as his daily life.  From Asian art he embraced a great sense of stillness, as well as an appreciation of calligraphy, and a muted sense of color. Yet somehow, to me at least, there was something of New York City in his work, something of the place where so many cultures collide. He was always alert to his immediate surroundings, be that the texture on a wall in raking light, or a pattern of clouds reflecting off a glass building at sunset. The “now” somehow seeped into the ancient.

David Shapiro at work.  Courtesy of David Shapiro Studio
David Shapiro at work. Courtesy of David Shapiro Studio

Shapiro almost always worked in series, the titles of which reflected what he sought to achieve, what he sought to approach. In his Clearing series two adjacent squares speak to each other: dense with open, airy with watery, luminous with solemn. Despite the binary nature of the series the pieces seem to transcend dualism. The series title itself invites different meanings: a clearing in a wood, a clearing of sky, or, better yet, a clearing of mind.

Origin and Return is a large meditative series where each piece contains four distinct parts, a vertical always followed by three squares, woven together to form a unified long horizontal work.  Woven together thick lines may be followed by concentric circles, leading into watery thin lines, and finally two straight lines or a circle, or even meandering thick lines again. Intuition plays a leading role here, not logic or formula.

In the Savasan series (named for the recumbent yoga pose) six squares connect horizontally in both compelling and surprising ways. In Seer, Actor, Knower, Doer verb becomes noun, as four tall verticals join to form a square.

Shapiro sometimes referred to “allostasis” – stability through change – as a goal of his paintings and prints, with seemingly opposite or disparate forces uniting as one. I remember David relating to me how often a brushstroke on the canvas would coincide with the arc of his breath as he painted, outer connecting with inner, spiritual with material. A mark was not only an extension of his body, but of his very essence. He believed in painting as not only as expression of his self, but as a means to understand his non-self, all that wasn’t David Shapiro in the universe. His poise and steadfastness in this regard enabled him to create a body of work over the years that both evolved and held together. He achieved mastery but avoided the facile or the obvious.

Despite a great and sincere modesty, Shapiro had over eighty solo shows in galleries and museums across the United States, as well as in Japan, England, and Canada. In addition to painting and drawing he created more than fifty editions of prints, often selecting Nepalese or Japanese papers of unusual texture to which he frequently added natural elements such as pumice, metal filings, marble dust, and graphite to enrich and enliven the works. His work is represented in many private, corporate, and public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington D.C.; and the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art in Nagoya, Japan.