New York

Joel Shapiro

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

I’d guess the size of the gallery showing Joel Shapiro’s lilliputian sculptures is about 3500 square feet with 17-foot ceilings. Showing only five tiny things—two on the floor and three on the wall—that’s about 1200 cubic feet per sculpture—the size of an apartment. Unless you’re a dedicated Minimalist looking for less, or you’ve great eyesight, you could be in and out of the gallery without knowing the show was on—as a friend of mine did. Shapiro sculpture—no less interesting for being small—is also meta-art because by its quirky scale and figuration it’s a snub to the continuing tradition of 19th-century monumental sculpture. Jumping formal and conceptual categories intent on transforming ideas into things, or “thingification” as Marx disparagingly called it, the tradition stresses doing it big. Shapiro flouts this macho tradition of big space-occupying sculpture. I enjoy Shapiro’s rejection of hairy-chested sculpture. His wall stands and hand porcelains, his move away from abstract monumentality to diminutive figuration, violate as much as they extend his earlier work. What are you to make of his finger-scale, casually made, cast-iron chair, or hand-scale, roughly carved wooden horse with a backward seated rider, or his arm-scale, cast-iron house with its crazy stretched front path—parodying his wall stands?

The doll’s house look of Shapiro’s sculpture in company, although not in line with Robert Graham’s wee nude dolls or Ira Joel Haber’s Surrealist environments, is belied by Shapiro’s continuing Brancusi-like concern with materials, as well as his attitude to abstraction and figuration. Perhaps this comes across best in Shapiro’s Untitled (House). The small house directly on the floor has, unlike Brancusi, no base, although Shapiro, fascinated by bases, uses them singularly on the wall, both as stands and plaques. The house is a good example of the identity of an object challenged by material, shape, surface—and language. You expect the material under its blackened surface to be wood or light metal. You’re surprised to find it’s not. It’s cast-iron, and weighs a ton. You read its shape as a house; equally you read it as a segment of metal—possibly a Minimal structure posing as a house? Tension exists between the two shape readings. You know it’s cast-iron, but its surface tells you something else. Identity is challenged by patina. And linguistically you locate meaning where you like. Call it a house, and it’s a house; call it a girder, and it’s a girder. Ditto with Shapiro’s other pieces. I like his sculptures’ insistence not only on themselves, but also on their environment. In true democratic fashion, they underline the beauty of other things in the world. Thirty-five hundred square feet of sanded wood floor and 60,000 cubic feet of air are perhaps the only two large-scale indoor sculptures I can happily live with at the present.

––James Collins