TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT February 1989

REFERENCE TO BREAKDOWN: JOEL SHAPIRO'S SCULPTURES OF THE '80S

JOEL SHAPIRO’S POSITION AMONG contemporary sculptors is in general an enviable one. He has a distinguished international exhibition record, solid dealer representation that continues to generate sales and commissions, and a body of work that is expanding and maturing free of the taint of cynical strategy. So why write about him now, when critical support for his work has for years been, if not highly vocal, certainly loyal and well-founded?

My reason is that I think Shapiro’s art has begun to become invisible to the art world, despite (or maybe because of) its seemingly wide acceptance. Some viewers, I think, have begun to look upon his sculpture as conservative, because its links to Minimalism remain apparent. To others, his work has a kind of “human” content that would be philosophically insupportable both to a rigorous Minimalist and, in a different sense, to an artist fully in touch with developments today. Shapiro’s sculpture still appears to treat the individual human subject as the embodied vantage point on which any possible understanding of the world ultimately must center. Meanwhile, the art and theory of post-Modernism have evolved the notion that individual subjectivity is a social, even in some sense an industrial construct that we are fools to take personally. Though clearly serious and thoughtful, Shapiro’s work may seem to fall away from Minimalism’s nonreferential specificity without definitively arriving at the new position.

However, the post-Modern shift in the way personal experience is understood—despite its element of truth—does not speak to the problems of selfhood that are rooted in our ineluctable condition of being embodied individually. I see Shapiro’s work as unique in that while it affirms that the forces shaping our subjective responses to the world are elusive and often unlocatable within a field that far outstrips our direct awareness of life, it also does not deny the body as the vehicle of our experience. To this extent, I see Shapiro’s art keeping pace with the philosophical revisions of post-Modernism without stylistic compromise. What makes this possible is something Shapiro has carried forward from the Minimal sculpture of Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra: an emphasis on the diffusion—in several dimensions (spatial, cultural, psychological, linguistic)—of an artwork’s content.

Shapiro criticized Minimal sculpture on what many younger artists now see as its weakest point: its pretenses to the “purity” of abstract form. In his freestanding ’70s works that took the shape of peaked-roof houses or of a generic coffin or couch, Shapiro showed that certain “unitary” forms (to borrow Robert Morris’ term) read representationally, independently of an intention to invest them with referential meaning. These works give equal weight to the artist’s intention and to cultural factors (such as the semiotics of house and furniture design) as determinants of their apparently referential character. Like many of Constantin Brancusi’s works, they are bare enough of suggestive detail to reveal that reading them representationally is a reflex on our part, something we cannot help. By upending the “house” form on one of its roof slopes, or slicing it so it appears to have sunk into the floor, Shapiro showed further that a change in the orientation of a form could add figural ambiguity to it without disturbing its unity: the upended house, for example, becomes a recumbent head, invoking Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse, 1909. And the consubstantiality of “head” and “house” appears to invoke our culture’s belief that the head is the dwelling place of consciousness and therefore the “home base” of personal identity.

The barest sculptures of Andre and Judd confront us with the possibility that the meanings we “discover” in things (art and nonart objects alike) may be the residue of unconscious projections on our part. On the one hand Minimal sculpture presents itself as “specific” in the sense intended by Judd, that is, fully defined physically, and utterly nonreferential. On the other hand, it is all but impossible not to read such apparently inert sculpture as betokening certain definitive possibilities of perceptual experience, and therefore as psychologically referential, in an abstract sort of way. The late-’60s sculpture of Andre and Judd may run the viewer aground on objects of uncompromising starkness, which seem untouchable by language; yet this approach, which is supposed to be antipsychological, presupposes a continuity in the life of the viewer that allows for experiences to be remembered and compared, a continuity which is really that of the subject’s mental life. The blankness and inertia of an Andre floor-plate piece cannot freeze but only at best interrupt the transactions between viewers’ minds and the things outside them, transactions (largely unconscious) by which we try to render the world intelligible and to occupy it emotionally. Still, Minimalist art leaves ambiguous how the projections we make upon it sustain themselves, and whether they are phenomena of individual or collective life or both. It deals with projection implicitly rather than explicitly, and does not acknowledge that this is a psychological process, revised willy-nilly by ongoing interaction between conscious and unconscious, perceptional and cultural factors.

In his early work, Shapiro seems to have wanted to adhere to the formal economy of Minimalism while respecting the fact that in the human domain, there is no mentality without psychology. He revised the unacknowledged representativeness of Minimalist sculpture with forms whose representational character is fully available to the eye. What causes a form to appear representational, however, may still be far to seek. Both by his use of ambiguously significant forms and by the disproportion in his early works between their scale and their psychological presence, Shapiro suggested that there is no intrinsic quality of objects—not even their inanimateness—that qualifies them inherently to serve as psychological furniture and symbolic emotional currency in the play of our lives. As Richard Wollheim poses the question:

What could there be about the world, or what properties could it have, which would make it more plausible for us to project one emotion on to it rather than another, or which would contribute to our experiencing it as of a piece with the emotion projected?
There is no simple way of answering this question, which is what we should expect. What we can say is that the suitability of some part of the world to support projection, its fitness to be the bearer of projective properties, its power to forge correspondences [between form and feeling or meaning], is not something that discloses itself in a flash: it becomes apparent only through trial and error, and all kinds of influence, cultural as well as private, may be assumed to stabilize projection, and thus to mould correspondence.1

The tension in Shapiro’s early quasi-figurative work between the inertia of the object and the suggestiveness of its form acknowledges the instability of things as conveniences of our psychic life.

The incapacity of Minimal work such as Judd’s and Andre’s to serve as a device for articulating to oneself “what it feels like to be in the world” is, Shapiro believes, one of its most serious limitations. In retrospect, the signal quality of most Minimal sculpture appears to be its rejection of all analogy between the art object and its viewers. It may be possible, even unavoidable, to project onto Minimal sculpture meanings and emotional colorations the artists would find intolerable (as certain feminist critics have begun to do), but it is not possible to identify with the objects, to see them as symbols of oneself, as entities undergoing their own experience. They may serve as the furniture of psychic melodrama, but their participation in the play of figments and voices that occupies so much of our inner lives is forced; they are in no sense characters.

Shapiro’s work of the ’70s defined a formal and procedural vocabulary by which he could reanthropomorphize sculpture without pretending that Minimalism had never happened. Many of his sculptures are in some sense characters, and the late-’70s pieces begin to take forms that we cannot but read as figural. However, their anthropomorphism is refracted through layers of irony, ambiguity, and oblique reference. When Shapiro makes a stick figure, for example, his working medium most often is square-sectioned lumber beams resembling those of Carl Andre’s “Element Series,” 1958–64. But where Andre refuses to use any fastening force other than gravity, Shapiro’s beams are often held together by an intricate joinery of dowels, glue, and screws. And when Shapiro casts a complex work in bronze from a wood maquette, it obviously needs welds to secure the precarious configurations among its components.

In 1980, Shapiro made—or made explicit—the sculptural icon that seems the progenitor of much of his work to follow. Poised on one leg, a figure leans forward; the other leg stretches backward, one arm is extended seemingly to counterbalance it, and the other points toward the floor. This untitled piece (assigned the reference number JS 385) is perhaps Shapiro’s most straightforwardly representational sculpture. It evokes both Degas’ ballerina figurines and David Smith’s “Cubi” sculptures, 1961–65, as well as the pictographic symbols on international airport signage. There is something almost Chaplinesque about its teetering angularity, its very literalness seeming to make it comic. Yet what is striking about this figure is not just its anthropomorphism but the apparent timeliness of its representational quality. For we recognize ourselves in it as much by its robotic and generic look as by its part-by-part symbolism of the human body. The piece is like a demonstration of how material specificity is now much more essential to sculpture than referential detail and narrative, which will be projected compulsively by the viewer. The material character of the object is the sculptor’s deconstructive line of defense against that reckless, self-serving psychological process, which is one of the forces that shape the public reality of a work, imposing an accretion of intangible impingements upon its form that the sculptor must parry if he or she hopes to govern the character of the work as art. When the work plays with that process instead of pretending to stand outside it, as Minimalist art pretended, the defense of materiality becomes all the more crucial for its relative attenuation. Because Shapiro understands this intuitively, his work has become a battleground where contend the forces of representation (which include the image-making industries and the psychological habits they induce in us) and the hard facts of physical fabrication and response.

To those who knew Shapiro’s work in the 1970s, seeing this standing figure for the first time came as something of a relief. It was as if he were confessing that anthropomorphic figures had been lurking in many of his pieces that had seemed to be about something else entirely—some of the bronzes, for example, whose shapes are determined by the negative spaces between solid volumes. But once having made anthropomorphism explicit, Shapiro soon began to scramble the anatomy of the figure. His grafting and amputation of limbs, torsos, and heads is not so much symbolically sadistic as it is ruthless toward the viewer’s temptation—or compulsion—to convert every object into an icon that can support an expressive or narrative reading. For given the increased eccentricity of their echoes of the human form, these works are more discouraging than favorable to the reading of a particular element (a wooden or bronze post, a cube) as an arm, a leg, or a head, much less as mutilated ones. An anthropomorphic prototype, Shapiro shows us, is a figment of our viewpoint; it can be invoked effortlessly, but to distance or banish it, to see it dissected and recomposed without suffering spasms of identification, is a distinct sort of constructive effort. This effort his sculpture objectifies. The process of seeing an object iconically, then unseeing it that way, then seeing it iconically again—with no endpoint in view—is what in Shapiro’s art replaces the outright rejection of anthropomorphism in Minimal sculpture. Dispelling human reference from an object—or controlling it—is much easier than bringing under control our tendency to see ourselves reflected in any configuration that remotely parallels the structure of our own physique.

To those who regard Shapiro’s work as retrograde from Minimalism because it incorporates human references, I would reply that the artist has actually refreshed the ethical force of the Minimalist critique of the analogies we make between ourselves and (art) objects. His work raises anew the question of whether we spend psychological energy reflexively projecting human qualities onto symbolic objects only at the expense of our capacity to empathize with each other. Given the number of human images we see every day (in every medium and to every degree of schematism), such an ethical calculus may explain something of our tolerance for ever-more-abstract social relations. Behind our readiness to project human attributes, however figurative, onto symbols may lie some wordless animal craving for company that is more easily satisfied in symbolic terms now than in the hugger-mugger of real social intercourse. And to those who see Shapiro’s sculpture as insufficiently post-Modern, I would say that it actually acknowledges contemporary culture to be a field of manipulative representations no less than does the art of, say, Haim Steinbach or Ashley Bickerton. But because his work, in its choppy anthropomorphism, has a way of accounting for the psychological possibility of manipulative representations, he has not had to forfeit any of the sculptural opportunities his materials and techniques offer in order to make his work responsive to contemporary life as we suffer it.

Whatever their value as “toys of thought” (in Donald Kuspit’s apt phrase)—as devices of the viewer’s or the artist’s self-knowledge—Shapiro’s works succeed as art by being objects that nourish observation. Some decisions are so carefully enfolded in his work as to pass unnoticed, yet they contribute to the way a sculpture sustains interest on the viewer’s part. An example is the way some of the bronzes of the mid ’70s record the impressions of wood grain, reflecting the fact that an object may have gotten its start in wood. A careful look may reveal, however, that the pattern of wood grain on a monolithic cast shape completely contradicts the material integrity of the wood original that the shape leads you to imagine. The effect of surface information contradicting the implication of a solid volume is a way Shapiro hit upon to acknowledge the translative nature of the casting process. The bronze-casting mold has been made from a plaster maquette that was itself poured in a mold made of wood. The plaster takes the grain pattern of the wood members containing it and transfers it to the bronze.

Shapiro has avoided such dissonances in his recent bronzes, confining most of the esthetic action to composition and to niceties of chasing and patina. He continues to give careful consideration to subtle relations between the form a piece takes and the medium in which it is realized. Although many of his works of the 1980s are complex in structure, he is still able to get a maximum of figural implications from a minimum of parts, as in the plaster and bronze versions of Untitled, 1983–84 (JS 584). This work consists of only three elements—two rectangular blocks of different sizes affixed at either end, but on the same side, of a wide rectangular slab. When the piece is set horizontally on the floor, it reads as a landscape—bringing to mind Alberto Giacometti’s spiritually airless City Square II, 1948–49—in which two blank modern buildings sit at opposite ends of a plaza. Tipped up on end, it shows its anthropomorphic (and comic) side as it suggests a male figure staring downward, transfixed by his own erection. Highly charged as both these readings are, they are just a shade more vivid than the view of the piece that sees it as an abstraction. Much of the artistic energy of Shapiro’s sculpture derives from his manipulation of this kind of perceptual and psychological interval between one view of a work and another. Just what property of things or of ourselves is it that keeps us from seeing them under more than one aspect at a time? Shapiro’s art does not contain the answer; it simply rematerializes the question in ever new ways.

The three new bronzes from 1987–88 by which Shapiro was represented in last year’s Carnegie International Exhibition were well chosen in that they show how his artistic reach can extend in several directions at once. One piece (JS 839) is an untitled structure of rectangular volumes that may be read narratively as two headless, “armed” torsos that share a common “leg” and appear to be struggling over who does the walking. The second piece (Untitled, JS 790) is a single rectangular beam held aloft—far above eye level—by three thin splayed struts that claim a wide turf of floor space. The struts are welded to the “block” of bronze at what appear to be three points of minimum structural strength. Almost out of habit, one looks for a way to read this work figurally, but it is adamantly abstract, almost formalistic in fact, in its focus on keeping a mass elevated. The weakness of the piece is that it has no internal tension but that of the spindly struts, which bow slightly under the weight they suspend.

The third piece is a bronze cast from a plaster original (Untitled, JS 793). Standing upright on a tall vertical shaft is a crude torso, or two roughly modeled triangular masses jammed together apex to apex. They recall both the structural units of Brancusi’s Endless Column, 1938 (in silhouette), and (in tactile terms) the violent abbreviations of Rodin’s late plaster-based bronzes. In its resemblance to a dressmaker’s dummy, the work suggests itself as a female figure, and may even bring to mind Marcel Jean’s surrealist icon Horoscope, 1937. Seemingly inert to the imagination at first, it becomes more disturbing the longer you look at it. The energy of its modeling just barely keeps it from collapsing into misogyny in the way it appears to hold a female form upright upon a stick, like a barbaric symbol of military conquest.

For me, the work that attests most clearly to the self-renewal by which Shapiro’s work appears to grow is an enigmatic piece from 1986–87 (Untitled, JS 823). Here as in many works of the mid ’80s, Shapiro lets a bronze element show its hollowness, and flaunts more openly and comically than usual his defiance of the Minimalist precept that a structural relationship in sculpture ought to make its own logic manifest. In Minimalist terms, the structure of this bronze could hardly be more arbitrary. The base element of the piece—which really does read as a base at moments—is an upright “torso,” open at the top, that supports a pair of teetering rectangular volumes on one corner. From its dark interior a pole rises to support another rectangular polyhedron. Is the uppermost element a “head”? Is it the “blossom” in an abstracted floral still life? Is the pole to be seen as an active ingredient in the work, or just as a device necessary to sustain a certain spatial relationship of geometric elements? No answers are available in the work itself; it remains a dissembling, half-assembled puzzle, full of affinities and references to Shapiro’s own previous work, with nods toward Smith’s “Cubi” sculptures and toward those chilling Giacometti heads that sit atop slender stakes. More than any other recent work by Shapiro that I’ve seen, this piece epitomizes the way his sculpture holds its ground by articulating itself through breaks and ellipses that adamantly mismatch the language we have for describing them.

Kenneth Baker is a contributing editor of Artforum and the art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. His book Minimalism: Art of Circumstance will be published by Abbeville Press, New York, in March.

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NOTE

1. Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art, Princeton: at the University Press, 1988, p. 83.