New York

Joel Shapiro

The use of categories in analysis and description of art objects is often necessary, for parallels and influences are noticed, prototypes discovered, and common metaphors claimed. But it is essential to distinguish between the use of these terms in writing about art history, when the finitude of a life or work can be safely bracketed, and its use in contemporary criticism, where they behave too frequently like opaque systems which obscure the particular. It is ultimately not the rough groupings which yield insight, but the individual work.

The problem of blanket categorization can be seen in the treatment of what is called “Conceptual art.” For example, the works of Terry Fox, Mel Bochner, and Joel Shapiro are all termed “Conceptual” although one’s experience of each show reveals absolutely no connections between them in concept or execution. Terry Fox’s hospital room at Reese Palley is a frightening mise-en-scène equipped with props and sound. What remains of concept or intention not brought to fruition in the work is unnecessary and interesting only as a psychological key into Fox himself. Since idea is suffused in realization, the term “Conceptual” does not seem useful.

The term seems to have more justification in connection with Joel Shapiro who shows work about the processes of “forming,” “carving,” and “constructing.” In the first category, there are five groupings on the floor—stacked sausage shapes of clay, squeezed with one hand; balls shaped roughly with both hands; balls, formed as regularly as possible with both hands; balls formed with the hands but tooled afterwards; and a final group of perfectly cast balls. In the category of carving, Shapiro has made spheres like ostrich eggs out of pine, granite, limestone, and marble. The construction problem involves tepees of wire, one a tall bare cone, the other low-lying and covered with plaster of paris and gauze.

The arrangement of these objects on the floor, in neat piles and rows, brings up what appears to be a contradiction in this and other art where the information concerning the premises of the work is necessary for complete understanding. Shapiro’s pieces are about the processes he uses as the constant in experiments with a variety of materials. With him, as with Richard Serra, the process is akin to verbing, the transitive state between substantive things—“standing,” “leaning,” “falling,” “carving,” “molding,” “constructing.” But the transitive state is a directional flow: it is the relationship between things and cannot be objectified. Because Serra used materials so raw, brutal, and irregular that they seemed in themselves part of a process, there was no contradiction between the materials and the means of expression. He kept his metaphor alive. But Shapiro’s pieces seem to be posited on the floor like relics or shells, to be evaluated as objects, artily placed next to each other. One loses the feeling of the process as stream. The works are static illustrations like those in a “How-to-do-it” manual to be animated in one’s mind. Consequently, it seems that Shapiro has confused intention and intentionality, assuming that the first is enough to bring about the second. He is forced to explain what does not appear in the work. The information stands in the way of the image. The concept is not fully experienced in the object itself, giving the work a suggestion of fraudulence, as if it is trying to push something over on the viewer. In a sense, the physical work becomes an apology for the idea.

Lizzie Borden