New York

Joel Shapiro

The five sculptures in Joel Shapiro’s previous exhibition often functioned as tiny points upon which pivoted enormous volumes of empty space. His recent show contained 18 sculptures. This immediately suggests a change: space is now drawn more closely toward, and into, his sculpture than before. The new pieces encompass interior space in many different ways; it is implied, partially glimpsed or openly displayed. They seem larger in size, and some of them really are, but mainly the scale is clearer, which makes them appear bigger. The piece in his previous exhibition most involved with interior space was a house at the end of a bar (all cast iron) on a wood shelf mounted perpendicular to the wall. The house, like some of Cézanne’s, had inverse perspective; the end toward the wall was larger than the end facing the viewer. This strange warp suggested that Shapiro preferred to exclude us from his volumes and also that he saw the house as a malleable form that he could explore, changing its meaning and its abstractness to suit his purposes. This exhibition is concerned with that exploration and with increasingly accessible volumes.

In contrast to much recent American sculpture’s tensile, economic delineation of static space, Shapiro’s small sculptures suck space into the solids. They seem condensed, not reduced, from something larger and almost involve too much material for the amount of space they occupy. (You get the feeling that a Shapiro weighs about the same as a good-sized Judd or Andre.) And although its small size creates a certain intimacy, his work also has a presence out of proportion to its size; it is not ingratiating, the way a small sculpture can be. Shapiro condenses both volume and material into the same spot, setting up an ambiguous kind of tension and an implied violence. Looking at a Shapiro is sometimes like contemplating a bomb; it doesn’t look threatening, but you know it is powerful. The explosion may take place in your mind, in a mental more than a real space, but the hypothesis itself is too potent to take lightly. This kind of violence was explicit in a piece in his last show: a figure seated backwards on a horse, small and crudely carved in wood, mounted on the wall and sprayed (defaced, it seemed) with green paint. But now the violence is not acted out; it exists as formal pressure. The density of Shapiro’s materials, the seamless wholeness of his cast forms and the life-sized physicality of his surfaces all contribute to the psychological grip of his sculpture.

The warped house is again present: at the end of a bronze bar, sans shelf, with another plane jutting down at the viewer’s end (another complication and obstruction of vision); and out in the open, on a relatively vast plane of cast iron raised off the floor by a low, elegant wood table. A larger, more geometrically precise house shape, divided into separate “half house” shapes, sits on the floor. Nearby is a similar work consisting of only one half, a shape which, in isolation, is simply a chunk of cast. iron with its top sliced at an angle. Two other pieces employ larger versions of this shape on its side, the former “roof” now sloping to the floor, removing it completely from the original image. One of these, four crude chunks of cast iron shoved together to form a square with slanted sides, is Shapiro’s biggest, roughest use of the metal to date. The piece is somewhat lumpen and vague, too completely volumeless, imageless and untouched, but it indicates that he is considering and will soon manage larger sizes.

In fact, a piece like this is probably necessary for such a move; it seems that Shapiro, at different stages, is always developing out of some kind of lumpishness, gradually imbuing chunks of solid material with an image, a surface or a volume. To the other extreme is the house on the plane which seems a little too smooth, maybe a shade too completely resolved. But perhaps this piece is the summation of Shapiro’s isolated floor images: a fuller, more complete, autonomous version, carrying its own floor with it in a statement of isolation which is somewhat strengthened by being removed from our own space. These two pieces, one which begins, one which seems to finish something, mark other polarities in this exhibition. They indicate the limits within which Shapiro achieves an enticing diversity of surfaces—he makes you see surface in sculpture as it is usually seen in painting, varying from work to work, despite the consistent material.

They also mark the emotional extremes of the show: from obdurate intractability to a fine, almost fragile reverberation. Somewhere in between, and perhaps more indicative of Shapiro’s compressed tightness, is a piece which might have evolved from thinking about the interior of the house, rather than its archetypal outline: a squat block of cast iron, ground to metallic silver in places, on a white plaster base (another kind of density). The cast iron ceases to be a block as soon as you notice two openings, one slightly smaller than the other, on adjacent sides. More than indicating a tiny door and window, the openings imply an inaccessible L-shaped passage; the conflict of material density and space is like mental constipation, trying to have two things in the same space. In two open, thick-edged pieces, Shapiro explores and expands this L-shaped space, while another is simply an open square. And he takes this openness even further in two pieces open on two sides as well as the top. These “corners,” one square and thick, the other lighter and rectangular, imply extension; they look like fragments, respectively, of an enormous cube and a long, low trough. The notion of extension or incompleteness adds a new quality to the dense centeredness of Shapiro’s forms and yet another kind of space to the interplay between closed and open volumes recurrent throughout this new work.

In general, there is an expansive, open-ended quality to this exhibition; it is full of possibilities. Shapiro’s work has always been emotionally varied and, usually, emotionally credible, but now his feelings are held down, or together, or related to, a new formal coherence and matched by a new diversity of surface and scale within this coherence. In some ways Shapiro has traditionally “sculptural” ambitions for his art, reflected in his casting of iron, the actual and emotional weightiness of his forms. And yet he hardly ignores recent developments: his pieces (like some of David Rabinowitch’s) lack “parts” in the conventional sense, and he seems more and more involved with his own eccentric version of the equilibrium between material and space which is one of postwar America’s contributions to the history of sculpture.

Roberta Smith