PRINT Summer 1978

On Joel Shapiro’s Sculptures and Drawings

LOOKING AT JOEL SHAPIRO’S SCULPTURES involves a lot of walking, and certain paths—usually ones uncharacteristic of moving in a gallery—prove to be the most informative. There is little to be gained from a Shapiro piece by shuffling past it once or twice like a shopper, or by boldly striding up to transfix it with a penetrating stare. Standing still, you scan the polished plain from which these remote objects rise in low relief as if you were reading a map; walking, you are within the map.

Shapiro’s sculptures make the boundaries of the exhibition space into their own “frame” so that the viewer is encouraged to approach the pieces by means of diminishing circumvolutions. The boundary is thus reiterated, and comes to be seen in retrospect as a circumstantial limit to contemplation as well as to circumvolution, suggestive of a parameter of signification. Shapiro’s pieces gradually build in the course of their apperception an implacable tension with their conventional urban interior setting.

Accordingly, Shapiro’s point of departure is comparable to those of Robert Morris and Robert Smithson. All three sculptors require mobility of the viewer to fulfill the signifying process. To experience their work is literally to follow a trajectory that connects the initial pathos generated by the work—one’s sensations and expectations—with the reconstitution of this pathos as a self-objectification—a looking back at one’s self, a recognition of limits. The eye as a passive organ of sensation becomes an organ of revision. The narrative moves intermittently, like a machine kept in motion by a series of jolts from our motor functions.

In Smithson’s Rocks and Mirror Square II (1969) or Morris’ Voice (1974), the effect of inversions, redoublings and intricate puns throws into relief the preexisting structures of cognition. In a similar fashion, the Shapiro piece known as 75 lbs., consisting of a 6-foot-long magnesium beam adjacent to a 10-inch lead beam of equivalent weight, alternates between the suppression and reassertion of the work’s physical properties in such a way that empirical description comes to have value only as a narrative surrogate. The dimensions of the two beams encourage this: both are 5 inches in width, so that when the 10-inch beam is placed next to the first 10 inches of the longer beam, the result suggests a square. This arrangement also has the effect of separating the first 10 inches of the (longer) magnesium beam from the rest of its length; moreover, this excluded length emphasizes the “absent” length of the lead beam. This relationship invites an abstract extension of the lead beam to correspond in length to the magnesium beam. Ultimately the two-beams piece is about the hypothetical compression which seems to occur between the end of the short beam and what is left of the long beam.

Without prior knowledge of the work’s title (according to Shapiro, all his work should be untitled),1 the viewer cannot determine equivalence (although, significantly, it may be suspected) until he/she is close enough to identify the particular materials composing the beams. Even then, it is highly unlikely that the exact weight could be determined; hence, the notion of equivalence has rhetorical value only. The beams themselves function as an empty sign, yet they are the first elements to evoke pathos. Our desire to particularize or personalize this expression—the temptation actually to lift the beams, as if to prove their equivalence conclusively—is a digressive activity given the work’s overall signification. (Likewise, in Voice, we are tempted to speak out and interrupt; or in Rocks and Mirror Square II we can’t completely follow the reflection of a hand moving a rock from one side of a mirror to the other.) Digressive, but not irrelevant, for it is in the nature of digression to call into question the epistemological structure of the work in which it occurs. Thus, there is a noticeable disjunction between what is known about the work’s empirical properties (that, for example, lead cannot be described as “magnesium compressed”) and the equally emphatic sensation of compression produced by the contiguity and common features of the beams. While the tangible elements of the sculpture function in a rhetorical and self-concealing manner, the “missing length” of lead is charged with a conflict between the sensible and the intelligible. Insofar as neither of these terms is allowed to become a substitute for the other, the space resists closure by the metaphorical, insisting on the alternation between these two contradictory modes. We are, however, tempted to idealize this space by granting it the interiority usually accorded to a fiction. The physical “absence” of the remaining length of lead beam implies an antecedent wholeness that never existed. Standing over and looking down onto the work reduces it to the two-dimensionality of a drawing, depriving the beams of their mass and volume and thereby undermining the conditions under which the discrepancy in length became significant in the first place.

Defining the difference in length is revealed to be no more than the projection of a conventional notation: drawing. Both this act of figuration and the initial notion of equivalence coincide with one of the few moments in the experience of the sculpture when the viewer is most likely to be physically immobile. Furthermore, these are also the moments when the literal aspects of the work—that it weighs 75 pounds, for example—are most suppressed. By necessitating a constant revision, the work resists internalization, since its meaning can never long be fixed in any one image of it. The heightening of one signifying element within the work at the expense of another is experienced as a succession of points-of-view, each completing and replacing the other. What becomes critical is the point at which we as viewers insert and remove ourselves from this process—whether we are content to stand in the doorway and accept the apparent coherence of the piece from afar, or approach it just enough to appropriate it as a distillation of familiar experiences, or whether we become aware of the willful complacency behind the parameters of everyday cognition and expression. If, as Nietzsche says in The Will to Power, “our most sacred convictions, the unchanging elements in our supreme values, are judgments of our muscles,” then Shapiro’s beams of magnesium and lead indicate that the limits or constraints on our judgments are no less substantial when they are revealed to be institutional rather than simply physical.

The above sculpture is also worth considering as paradigmatic for most of Shapiro’s work before the coffin maquettes in 1971. Generally speaking, Shapiro’s earlier work demonstrates a preoccupation with the relation of the work’s ontogeny (the image of labor in artistic production) to the conditions of representation (its accessibility). And like much of the best sculpture at the time, Shapiro’s work contained an emphatic critique of the idea of sculpture-as-presence, i.e. as a permanent object which is the culmination of all possible permutations and substitutions of its elements or devices (the classical notion of the organic unity of the artwork). Shapiro’s strategy in his early work uses the intuitive process (the psychological reflex) as a means of explicating and qualifying individual volition. Shapiro uses an enclosure whose given semiotic function is both fixed and concealed, a container which can be identified, by its difference, with the actual space of narration. From the outset, the insistent horizontality of the sculptures is immediately anomalous when viewed within the context of “the enclosing grid of urban space.”2 By Shapiro’s work (and through Smithson’s) we can legitimately distinguish gallery-sculpture as a distinct genre.

In 1970–71, Shapiro undertook a systematic exhaustion of the possibilities afforded by the plasticity of his materials, a strategy that was implemented most succinctly in dropped clay pieces and forged copper works where the step-by-step deformation of a copper brick into a sort of tubular horseshoe is documented. The work’s deceptively discursive mode of presentation gives the impression of a precise re-presentation of some logical, quantifiable process. Initially, we become so involved in the stages that we do not think to question the somewhat arbitrary premises. This realization may be further delayed by the figurative process to which the work is subjected: on the one hand, our vicarious desire to identify with the anthropomorphic force which shaped the “progression”; on the other hand, our idealization of the lumps of copper as representing successive temporal stages of an “original” copper brick. However appealing this little fiction may be, it gives way if we step back far enough to see all 24 units without turning the head. (Again, the literal properties of the piece prevent a metaphorical resolution.) The specific number of stages doesn’t matter; the order of their making is not necessarily the order of their presentation. The quantifiability of the progression is revealed to be only a manner of speaking, and the logic that seemed so fundamental must be reconsidered as a synthetically derived semiotic determination.

Shapiro’s quiet, craftsmanlike manipulation of materials in the sculpture of this period is an ironic articulation of the pretensions to absolute presence in traditional sculpture. The rhetorical mode of address of the two-beam piece is equally characteristic of the stacks and clusters of clay, wood and stone spheres. Without the title as a short-cut, the three more or less equivalent clusters of clay spheres formerly known as Hand-Formed/Tooled/Cast oblige a close examination and comparison of three types of surfaces whose differences become apparent enough as we move from one cluster to the next. What is not so immediate is an awareness of the particular processes involved. Instead, perceiving the differences points to the pre-given values which prefigure the mechanical process. Consequently, because of the work’s rhetorical articulation, what becomes most striking is “ . . . the way the object was formed and experienced from outside-in.”3 As individual units, the clay spheres are empty signs; their disposition in clusters makes them seem like relics; indeed, they assume significance only for the marks they bear as evidence of anterior gestures.

It is the exteriorizing function of these gestures which is so remarkable. Shapiro’s use of gesture here—both in the actual shaping of the units and in their presentation—cannot be interpreted as a kind of compensatory promise of interiority: however anthropomorphic the mark, the object still refuses anthropomorphic presence. The sheer number of spheres, representing repetitions of each type of gesture, and their configuration in clusters, prevents the sense of specificity necessary for establishing intent. Hand-forming, tooling and casting come to be seen as typical gestures in response to the material; their semantic values are represented as a thing apart. The relative degrees of impersonality attributed to the manipulations of the clay are revealed to be a figurative projection. Although that is tolerated as a digression, in the end, there is little in the literal disposition of the work which would give any priority to such a reading.

This is not to say, however, that there is anything arbitrary or random about Shapiro’s compositions. The rhetorical mode does not serve to articulate the innocence of its material; on the contrary, it is tendentious in its very expression. In the piece once called One Hand Forming/Two Hand Forming (1971), the essential strategies of the two-beam piece and the three clusters of clay spheres are combined. The gestures involved—as we imagine them through the tactility of the different surfaces and through the mental act of compressing the egg-shaped clay pieces into spheres—are ruses, means of implicating us in the disruption of the assumed continuity of our psychological processes. Perception, consciousness and the unconscious are not, of course, quantifiably distinct stages, but the revision necessitated by the alternation of contradictory aspects of a Shapiro piece temporarily arrests meaning at various levels: levels produced by different combinations of psychical forces (as in the shifting values of the metal beams’ discrepancy of length). The narrative is built on a dispassionate enumeration of the work’s semiotic values as covalent qualities. Through our realization that, for example, the figurative qualities attached to the manipulation of the clay spheres are not inherently any more meaningful than knowing the precise number of spheres, we can begin to sense the otherness of the psychological categories of everyday life.

Still, for the work to cohere, we must experience some sort of restoration of contact between the various psychical levels. Discussing David Smith’s sculpture, Shapiro points out that, in several of Smith’s works, one can sense the position of the artist’s shoulder through the configuration of certain pieces. By this, I do not take Shapiro to mean that Smith is giving his sculpture “a personal touch.” It is not a matter of making the sculpture more intimate or sympathetic. And it is not the reproduction of the position of the artist’s shoulder; rather, it is particular evidence of a characteristic gesture. Within the context of a given work, it serves as a reference point from which the work’s scale is derived. Far from being fixed or absolute, this reference point suggests the contingency of both the narrative stance and that of the viewer. What Shapiro is remarking upon in Smith’s work is a sense of scale which is experienced inductively. While still insisting on the discontinuity of levels of meaning in the work, this sense of scale reconstitutes as a seemingly autonomous (i.e. impersonal) act of volition the system of relations within the work.

If there is any shortcoming in the Shapiro pieces I have discussed so far, it is in their tentative articulation of scale. Shapiro, it seems, was not unaware of this problem, for he addressed it directly in his 1970 shelf installation: equal lengths of wood shelving, all placed a few inches below eye level on adjoining walls. The shelves had only studio junk on them, in order to emphasize their pregiven, semiotic function as supports for objects—or translated into pictorial terms, as grounds on which to place figures.4 But without object/figures to justify the shelves’ presence, the shelves increasingly appear as willful obstacles, whether in sculptural or pictorial space. Approaching them, we gradually orient ourselves to them as if to a horizon line. This convention is ironically informed with the literal manner in which the placement of the shelves seems to “sever” the viewer’s body and head. This threatening projection is sublimated as an extension of the drawing-elements of the sculpture: the shelves’ edges, for example, are thus viewed metaphorically, as lines on a two-dimensional plane. The resulting line disrupts the intactness of the surface, dividing the wall-plane and, in designating two distinct areas, providing mechanical preconditions for the attribution of scale. Reconstituted as the materialization of a two-dimensional mark, the shelf defamiliarizes its pregiven semiotic function.

Conversely, to identify the shelf primarily as a support—to insist upon it as a literal quality—challenges the status of the mark that would delineate scale. Through the play of these elements, the shelf piece defines a narrative space for itself which, if we are adequately to account for it, must be seen as discontinuous with common space. Until this disjunction makes itself felt, the sense of scale remains latent. Instead of the harmonious ordering of figures on a ground with which the viewer identifies, Shapiro’s shelves convey the experience of scale as essentially a symbolic process: the imaginary depth associated with the conventional articulations of scale is emptied and compressed, manifesting a sense of scale first of all as the disruption of a two-dimensional surface.

Here we can begin to understand how the drawing elements in Shapiro’s work serve to deconstruct the iconographic aspects of his sculptures. Rendered in its contingency as the product of the (pre-)figurative act of drawing, scale in Shapiro’s work is based on the convergence of drawing as a notational system and drawing as the accumulation of anthropomorphic marks. Since the time of Alberti and Ghiberti, the most prevalent mode of esthetic experience has been based upon the use of a human figure as a representational measure; now a Shapiro sculpture (like a Brecht play) “measures the man” next to his other, in relation to his kind.

In obviating the customary distinction between the indicative and expressive functions of the drawn mark, scale could still be experienced as a system of symbolic relations without necessarily being derived from the vicarious experience of surface withheld. To this end, the 1972 drawing of a triangle containing irregular rows of horizontal marks (charcoal and conte on paper, 381/4 by 24 inches) further resumes several strategies already noted in previous sculptures. Here again is the stacking procedure which frustrates precise quantification, only now attention is focused on our subsequent desire to contain or limit the accumulation of potential signifiers. In this way, we may begin to suspect that the shape by which we identified the figure in the first place was actually drawn around the already existing rows of marks. (Whether or not this was indeed the case doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it offers itself as a possible reading.) This line which circumscribes but does contain serves as the gesture which delimits an interior space without the refuge of interiority.

There is a new twist as well: the horizontal marks grow more faint toward the top of the triangle (actually, they are partially erased), giving the impression of perspective. I would argue, however, that this is more the effect of the line which circumscribes the marks—that triangle whose ontological status in the drawing has already been questioned. Although the marks are sparse and concentrated in the upper half, the drawing fully engages its ground and orders the space around it: e.g. the bottom row of marks forms a horizon line, while the overextension of the circumscribing line beyond the triangle’s apex discourages the anticipated resolution of a vanishing point. The figure itself fits very neatly into the scope of a single focus, but what we are actually seeing is a coolly schematic rendering of the very activity that we are engaged in. Our gaze is thus reified and turned back on itself, located in turn and circumscribed with greater authority within the literal edges of the drawing’s ground. In the end, the desire to establish an adequate sense of scale is what keeps us at arm’s length—just far enough away to be able to see the figure and the drawing’s bottom edge at the same time.

Looking back to some of Shapiro’s earliest work, it becomes apparent that the simultaneously self-reflexive and other-referential role of drawing is a crucial strategy right from the start. In 1968–69, Shapiro had affixed strands of nylon monofilaments to the wall in various rectilinear configurations. The surface resembled a fabric that had become unwoven and tangled, suggesting a totality “not of a piece,” i.e. the work appeared to have a palpable depth yet lacked, in the strict sense, a homogeneous surface plane. Most significant for our purposes, however, is the fact that the strands are initially perceived in their materiality. Only when we consider the intactness of the surface as a protective seal for an interior space do we begin to consider the strands metaphorically, as marks on a ground. As drawn lines, the filaments are temporarily reconciled with their conditions of presentation (their rectilinear pictorial format). We are not allowed to engage in this act of figuration purely on a formal level, for this is but one aspect of the connotative repleteness promised by the drawing. Instead, the would-be mark is reconstituted in its materiality through its anthropomorphic suggestiveness: the filaments’ resemblance to human hair—sparking, perhaps, intimations of violence—invites a tactile verification that inevitably reaffirms the literal qualities of the nylon monofilaments. As is characteristic of all of Shapiro’s subsequent work, the drawing elements of the nylon monofilament pieces construct a sequence for reading which declares itself to be an artifice (Barthes, in S/Z, called this the “proairetic sequence”). If we look away and then reconsider the work, the sequence will be repeated without ever fixing conclusively the relationship between connotative levels.

When drawing itself is the issue, it can no longer maintain its purely nominative function. Whereas in his sculpture the drawing elements are a pretext, Shapiro’s actual drawings at any given point in his career preface his sculpture in the manner of an author’s gloss which gets read first. Moreover, it is well worth noting that Shapiro’s drawings (excluding studies or working sketches) are consistently much larger than his sculptures, from the 1969 ink-on-rag-paper drawing (6 by 101/2 feet) to his most recent charcoal drawings (averaging about 31/2 feet on their longest side). To the extent that drawing represents by definition a more obvious and rigidly specific internalization of a symbolic system than does sculpture, Shapiro’s drawings are propaedeutic to his sculpture. For example, a grease and graphite on paper drawing (18 by 23 inches, 1968) refers to the nylon monofilament pieces by inverting their premises: here we readily identify the mark, but it is an absence, a subtraction from the surface, throwing into relief the accumulations of grease and graphite. In considering the marks as absence, we postulate a prefigurative, undisturbed ground, which is to say that the ground only exists for us as an act of figuration. The marks themselves are plentiful and “empty.” The drawing exists at the brink of self-effacement; the metaphorical value of the mark is strained to the point of catachresis. Almost without realizing it, we retrieve a sense of the drawing’s real ontogeny—that calculating gesture with which the surface was applied in preparation for its violation.

In comparing the sequence for reading the nylon monofilament pieces with that of the grease and graphite drawing, I am indicating more than just the generic distinction between sculpture and drawing. Of course, we recognize “surface” in the former as the absolute difference between what it excludes from what it contains, while “surface” in the latter is, as we have seen, the elaboration of its ground. Despite this essential distinction, however, it is the manipulation of surface in Shapiro’s drawings and his sculptures before the 1971 coffin maquette which serves to delay and defer the determination of scale. By structuring the experience of scale as the materialization of a system of symbolic relations, Shapiro is making an object which mediates between its viewers, rather than one which can be appropriated by those imaginary projections of an audience seeking little more than the image of a similar being “behind” (within) the work. Accordingly, Shapiro recognized the need for a more precise and aggressive articulation of scale. Given the existing cultural proclivities for narcissism, it became increasingly important to create an object which, in demonstrating the distinction between the exceptional and the eccentric, was immediately recognizable as the former. What was at stake was the symbolic status of sculpture’s interior spaces—that hollowness which is always at least implied—as signs for full presence. By insisting on the exteriorizing function of the gesture, Shapiro’s earlier work addressed, albeit indirectly, the issue of sculpture-as-presence. In an appropriately mocking fashion, beginning with the coffin maquette of 1971, Shapiro sought to lay this tired presence to rest.

What we are doing here is once again to replace a topological way of representing things by a dynamic one. . . . Nevertheless, I consider it expedient and justifiable to continue to make use of the figurative image of the two systems.

In his well-known poem “Anecdote of the Jar,”5 Wallace Stevens uses a jar in much the same way that Shapiro uses a coffin, a house, a chair or an open cube. Stevens begins by taking a recognizable, ready-at-hand object and contrives to make it strange by placing it within a symbolic locale (Tennessee). The structure of the initial statement suggests a relationship of scale which is, empirically speaking, incongruous or even absurd. And yet, rather remotely, we can conceive with effort of the jar existing within a space (perhaps contiguous to our own) which is circumscribed by state boundaries—if we are willing to grant this institutional parameter the status of a real object.

This initial dilemma is deferred by the revision offered by the second line: the jar is given a specific site but redefined in its specificity by the abstraction of an obvious physical characteristic—roundness—as if to distinguish between its literal properties and its pregiven significance (which seems to lie elsewhere, “outside” the poem). The figurative image “round” structures the landscape by which it is necessarily contained and defined. Analogously, the acoustic image “round” generates by its repetition the structure of the poem. Projecting ourselves into the space of the depicted landscape, we become an object of the narrative; alternately, not having found a comfortable place for ourselves within the narrative, we return to a contemplation of the poem as an object (it is, after all, an anecdote).

Midway through the poem, the two modes converge: the designation “jar” is reconstituted within the landscape, recapturing its metonym “round,” needing the metonym nevertheless to make its mark (figurative and acoustic) on its newly acquired “ground.” By now, the jar’s former connotative power has been immobilized, even though its reinsertion at the center of the poem coincides with the moment when, based on the centripetal momentum exerted by the object on the hill, we would be closest to the jar. What we are faced with, then, is a center which declares its absence throughout the rest of the poem. The figurative and acoustic image of “air” replaces (g)round for the next three lines, with successively more specific allusions to emptiness: “port in air”6 evokes an empty presence; similarly, “everywhere” is an empty statement, a hyperbolic reminder of the poem’s problematic topology; and finally, the jar itself is “grey and bare”—blank, its features eroded. The jagged syntax and self-effacing semantic structure of the last two lines completes the process.

The jar systematically levels the surrounding wilderness as it orders the landscape and gives it shape, stopping only at that boundary of the state of Tennessee which remains epistemologically inaccessible. Not coincidentally, such an institutional parameter resembles the one which frames the poem as well. Throughout Stevens’ poem any mention of the jar’s most salient characteristic as a jar remains immanent and unspoken. At no point is the jar’s inside described; when it is alluded to (as in allusions to emptiness), the references are attenuated, thinly disguised anthropomorphisms. And yet, the entire poem could be considered to have been composed from displacements of the narrator’s initial suppression of the jar’s essential property. Another way of saying this would be: because of the reader’s assumptions about jars, the jar retains its signifying potential (while losing its indexical properties)—it holds its shape—despite the stress of its context. To oversimplify somewhat, it is this conflict between our basic assumptions and the narrator’s description of the “jar” which infuses the landscapes with a sense of strangeness, so that we question its verisimilitude as it comes into being only to have it destroyed at the point at which we would want to preserve it as it stands.

Shapiro’s maquette for a coffin (pine and Italian poplar, 1971) possesses an Inside which is similarly inconceivable, forbidden by the narrative. The fact that the coffin is literally hollow further complicates the determination of scale: as a container it is subjected to our imaginary projections at the expense of its social significance; that is, the former sense ignores the container’s cultural identity while the latter sense makes any attempts at projection undesirable. Struggling to regain our remote vantage point, we are afforded a rare view, for in alternating moments we may compare the coffin as a container for an individual’s corpse and the coffin as an emblem of Death.

A similar dialectic informs the other pieces of this series; a boat, a bridge and a bird (all from 1972) are used as shapes which are archetypal in their familiarity but which remain at odds with the equally archetypal experience of sculpture as sculpture. In Shapiro’s coffin maquette, as in Stevens’ “Anecdote,” the extension and elaboration of an initially inadequate system of scale results in the breakdown of the primacy of the object’s iconographic aspect. Another example: Shapiro’s bridge, functioning as a device whose purpose it is to conjoin two separate spaces, leads us to a consideration of a division where we know one doesn’t exist; in moving around the bridge, we tend to locate ourselves as being on one side of it or the other. We allow (temporarily) this artifice as we would a motif in music or literature. Like the jar in its setting, Shapiro’s pieces increasingly necessitate the extension of their space of presentation, as ordered delineations, and it is this literalization of a synthetic topography which becomes the central motif of Shapiro’s later work. In a word (allowing for the motif’s historical resonances), the motif is that of landscape.7 Not landscape as an iconographic system or as an embodiment of the pathetic fallacy; rather, it is only the paradigm of viewing characteristic of landscape—the materialization of a cultural archetype—which is narratively efficacious. Through the elaboration and eventual exhaustion of the landscape motif, Shapiro’s sculptures create a disequilibrium in their physical settings that ultimately makes the viewer aware of “the enclosing grid of urban space.”

With this in mind, it follows that the sense of scale enforced by the first representational pieces would have a more overtly polemical effect on the viewer. Walking between the pieces of this installation, the viewer feels as out of place as a Gulliver among Lilliputians, especially because the space is not homogeneous, derived as it is from representations based on different relations of scale. Perhaps because the works’ literal properties are overwhelmed by the potency of the archetypal character of these images, the coffin and companion works seem to exist in an ideal space, not so much challenging their epistemological predicament as transcending it.

In the sculptures which followed in 1973–74 the images were equally archetypal, only now they were archetypes of the quotidian—a ladder, a chair, a table, a couch—thereby avoiding much of the misdirected pathos of the previous series. Instead of simply displacing the viewer, these pieces antagonized him/her with their arrogant uselessness and the way they “took dominion everywhere.” When rendered in bass wood, these objects appear all the more useless in their obvious fragility. They are not just maquettes in preparation for the “real” work, but models after the fact—to borrow Brecht’s term, quotations. Rendered in cast iron, the sheer planes and crisp edges of the chair (1974) or table (same year) define a rigid gridding structure for the pieces which emphasizes their literal properties as shapes. Thus the chair comes to be seen as the selective suppression of surface planes in a stack of two cubes. Together, they articulate two opposite forms of interiority: below, the “legs” define an enclosure, a space which is nominally exclusive; above, the “seat” and “seat back” suggest a receptacle, which is nominally inclusive.

The same is true of Shapiro’s couch, as we compare the openness of the upper rectangle (with its utilitarian significance) to the hollowness of the lower one (with its figurative richness). Only through the detachment obliged by such formalism—as well as through the remoteness of scale—can we make immanent in the object the limits of its social designation. As for the role of the sculpture’s drawing elements, nothing could be more indicative of the sculptor’s shift in emphasis: in the coffin, bridge, etc. pieces, the drawing elements were subsumed within the iconography of the images so that it became impossible to disengage the nominative act (a means for socialization) from the act of figuration (a means of appropriation or internalization by individuals). In the subsequent pieces, the drawing elements comprise, once again, a functionally discrete artifice of viewing, in which the (social) act of recognizing a standard motif precedes the (individual) act of figuration; this is punctuated, as always, by our enumeration of the work’s literal properties.

The landscape motif is developed as the field of play upon which this sequence unfolds, generated by the connotations of scale and actualized by the circumambulatory nature of our approach. The aim of the motif in any medium is to locate the viewer/reader/listener in relation to the signifying process of the narrative; however, as “Anecdote of a Jar” demonstrates, in some cases the elaboration of the motif also involves the dislocation of the whole within its setting or frame. In the representational pieces discussed so far, the ability of the landscape motif simultaneously to locate the viewer and dislocate the space of narration is based on those revisions which elicit the viewer’s social reflexes. In his iron and plaster houses of 1974–75, Shapiro took matters one step further: by developing the semiotic values characteristic of his motif he redefined the role of the psychologically reflexive in the experience of sculpture.

Keeping in mind that the landscape motif simulates a realm of exteriority, it is worth reconsidering Rosalind Krauss’ interpretation of Shapiro’s houses:

What I am describing, then, is a kind of paradox by which we are shown an object—the house—whose simplest, most fundamental meaning is about entry and habitation. But we are shown it by way of a set of formal manipulations that establish this thing as unapproachable, distant, remote. And it is from the terms of this paradox that the psychological meaning of these works emerges. For the psychological matrix within which a forever-distant image exists is memory. . . . There are two levels of the psychological at work here, then: the first, which involves the emotive content surrounding the image of the house; the second, which locates the formal structure of the psychological function of recall.8

Krauss’ analysis is an accurate representation of what I would consider to be only one moment in the overall narrative sequence of a work, corresponding to the act of figuration. The generalizing capacity of memory does not account for the affective range produced by the different materials and configurations used to represent the image “house.” To be sure, as Krauss explains it, a strategy such as the reverse perspective in the cast iron house on its shelf “becomes a sign for the impossibility of ‘entering into’ the object’s space.”9 But why bronze in some cases, and cast iron and plaster in others? Why are some houses on shelves, some on a base or table, while others sit on the floor?

Some important clues may be found in the often overlooked middle term in Shapiro’s oeuvre: his paintings, many of which were done in 1971, at the same time as the coffin maquette. Using oils on canvas or linen and stretchers rarely more than 14 inches long on a side, Shapiro achieves a compositional density through the involution of the edge or frame by diagonal lines and oblique planes which seem momentarily to freeze a set of dynamic spatial relations. Moreover, this compositional principle produces a sense of impenetrable density evoked by earthy colors. There is also a way in which the nature of this surface is best understood when considered as an aerial view of a terraced landscape, so that the paintings dislocate the viewer from the conventional vertical axis and encourage a horizontal stance antithetical to pictorialism.10 The net effect, however, is quite precise: the compositional density and surface tension point to the inadequacy of the frame, implying that the edge is but another sign (perhaps the most telling) of narrative volition. The images seem cropped, excerpted from a preexisting system of spatial relations, but it is because these images are cropped that they cohere. Their immanent meaning reveals the difference implicit in their formal presentation and prevents recourse to an anterior wholeness.

Yet there is an insistent solidity to the shapes in Shapiro’s painting which can only imply volume. But, as with Cézanne, it is the experience of depth deferred or even forbidden—consider, for example, Cézanne’s paintings of the bend in the road or the Chateau Noir. Cropping as a compositional device has a signifying potential at all levels: what we assume to be hidden may not exist at all.11

In a sculptural context, Shapiro uses cropping to disrupt the traditional dichotomy of Inside and Outside as psychological categories. Recalling the methodology of his 1972 drawing of hash-marks contained by a triangle, Shapiro’s cast iron house on a shelf (1973–74) resists the intentionality that customarily inheres within the interiority of a gaze or individual point of view. The fusion of house and ground as one unit emphasizes the sense in which this particularly proprietary point of view is objectified as but one discrete moment in the morphology of the landscape (reconstituting the original meaning of landscape as “a tract of land”). Presented for examination on a chipboard base, it is a point of view from which we should like to disassociate ourselves, as if to say, “that’s not the way I remembered it.” In contrast, the bronze house on a shelf, with its machined look and attached vertical plumb, underscores the exclusive character of a single point of view in its expropriation of those fragments which are potentially useful to it. Because of this, both shelf pieces seem to me to be more concerned with the point at which an experience becomes a memory than with the function of recall (as Krauss suggested), since the aim of the pieces is to make us aware of the suppression of the image’s context.

Shapiro’s houses on shelves are solid masses so as to suspend the possibility of any interiority besides the symbolic space delimited by an isolated point of view. The houses on the floor, however, are hollow, but their physical interior is so inaccessible that it can only be conceived of symbolically. The inconceivability of this interior as a receptacle for signification insures the object’s other-referentiality, locating us once more in the realm of exteriority—the landscape—where cathexis is extended only to be deferred. As long as the image of the house is iconographically intact (the 1974 bronze, or the larger cast iron piece of the same year) we can look at these sculptures, and exclaim along with Proust’s Marcel, “Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!”

But when the image is cropped—a corner of the house removed (cast and machined bronze, 1974)—the ideality of the memory is called into question. Following the methodology established in the two-beam piece, we gain access to a palliated inside, an interiority arrived at through the act of figuration and therefore qualified by the inaccessible hollowness of the object itself. As a signifier of interiority, the interior angle formed by the “missing” corner does not fit into any of the existing epistemological definitions of Inside and Outside. In the cast iron half-houses, determining interiority becomes an even more explicitly pathos-laden enterprise, particularly at those vantage points from which the “missing” half can be inferred. Clearly, our epistemological framework is inadequate.

It is, therefore, not simply a matter of turning the Inside out. Krauss does not convince me when she argues that the privacy of memory is challenged by the sculptures’ placement in “space-at-large.” By that formulation, an empty beer bottle left on the floor of Penn Station would also have the ability to challenge the privacy of our memories. If, as Derrida claims, “the ideal virginity of the present is constituted by the work of memory,”12 then in order to overthrow the myth of sculpture-as-presence, it is not enough merely to relocate the remembered image in a nonpersonal space. The field of play itself must first be radicalized, informed with the failure of the conventional way of knowing to sustain the presence of the Inside. It is the otherness of the room-cum-landscape which de-familiarizes for us the conditions surrounding the mutually contradictory moments of memory and cognition, providing us with the distance necessary to observe this interplay as the machinations of a self-perpetuating system.

Using cropping as the predominant trope meant a further dismantling of the inside-outside dichotomy. Furthermore, the contingency of any given point of view within the pseudo-landscape became even more crucial. In this way, the cast iron corner piece (1975) and the open (and empty) polygons of the same year dramatize the need for an esthetic reformulation of psychological functions beyond the usual metaphors for interiority. In his charcoal on paper drawings from 1975 through those in his most recent show, Shapiro rehearsed the possibilities of such a reformulation. A comparison between the 1975 drawings and the most recent ones documents the development of a repertoire of techniques for dividing and ordering a space in a manner which avoids symbolic closure. The field’s system of relations appears nonhierarchical insofar as we can consider any given zone of the drawing as the basic morphological unit from which the whole can be derived. But the boundaries themselves are far from univocal in their articulation; different classes of marks—solid charcoal bands, erased bands, dense accumulations of smudges, empty spaces—serve the same function at different moments. By choosing to trace the development of one class of delineator, we automatically define for ourselves a point of view by which we think we can account for the whole. The elaboration of one class, however, invokes the the elaboration of the next when, for example, the solid band is suddenly erased, and the erasure itself is smudged. As each successive reading establishes its own hierarchy of significant marks, we are increasingly inclined to look to the drawing’s edge for reassurance, as if it could provide a definitive limit to the proliferation of our uncertainty.

We may consider these drawings as maps for Shapiro’s most recent sculptures. Still more revealing is a working sketch which depicts a polygon derived from a set of perpendiculars traversed by a diagonal; rather than inking in the shape itself, Shapiro defined the shade from the outside. The recent bronze works follow this economical compositional principle, with each piece possessing at least one interior right angle as well as a hollow inside formed by the space between the diagonals and right angles. Of course, the precise nature of the coordinates is not immediately apparent. From a distance, the viewer orients himself by means of one of the right angles, figuratively extending the vertical faces of the object to structure the surrounding topography. As the sculpture begins to locate us within the system of relations which it defines, the object itself appears to lose its primacy as a signifying element. In a piece that resembles two wedges at right angles to each other, the fact that the object is actually composed of one right interior angle skewed within another forces us to regard the sculpture itself as the disjunction between disparate points of view. The sculpture’s presence is qualified by the materiality of the relations which it engendered; its inside is no more and no less than the interpolation of those delineating elements which locate the viewer. In the nunc stans during which we finally grasp the structure of the work and our own place in the narrative, we can also see its institutional parameters convulsed by the contradictions of our enterprise.

Marc Fields



1. Because titles influence the work’s order of reading, and because the sequencing of the narrative is so crucial an issue in Shapiro’s sculpture, it is imperative to forego that as much as possible.

2. A phrase coined by Robert Morris in “Aligned with Nazca,” Artforum, October 1975.

3. Rosalind Krauss, museum catalog for an exhibition of Shapiro’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, III., Sept. 11 through Nov. 7, 1976.

4. Shapiro says that this piece was quite unpopular. In many ways it can be considered as the direct precursor of the little chairs and tables in its refusal to be useful in a conventional sense.

5. I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was grey and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

From The Palm at the End of the Mind, Selected Poems and a Play by Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens, New York: Random House, 1972.

6. “Port” means a formal bearing; but it can also refer to an aperture at the end of a cylinder (mechanical engineering).

7. It is worth noting here that in literature the landscape was incorporated as a feature of the narrative at a time (during the early part of the 19th century) when the “country”—more accurately, the people of the country—was generally identified as an entity which threatened and antagonized the bourgeois way of life. Writing in the shadow of the mid-century proletarian uprisings, Flaubert rejected the romantic’s self-protective pathetic fallacy and recognized in the landscape an exertion of forces which served to level intentionality. In his novels, the detailed rendering of a landscape interrupts the narrative and retards the elaboration of the “essential” events. The “otherness” which these landscapes evoke in us has its historical basis in the displacement of class resentments onto less threatening and more practicable images. Obviously, this topic deserves fuller treatment elsewhere.

8. Krauss, ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. The recent bronze and iron wall pieces are clearly prefigured by these paintings.

11. Cézanne played on this by depicting the faces of the chateau through dense foliage and at a distance, in a manner which negated their volumetric capacity, implying that what is not shown is in ruins, when in fact the building was just unfinished.

12. Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” French Freud, Yale French Studies, 1972.