New York

Joel Shapiro

Unless I am missing something, Joel Shapiro’s new little wood reliefs, like his recent largish charcoal drawings, rather leave in their dust the view that his main achievement is the inflecting of Minimalism with “memory,” thereby signaling “shift” in “modernist sensibility” to take in “the stuff of psychology.” (The terms are Rosalind Krauss’s.) Besides invoking an awfully limited notion of “the stuff of psychology”what isn’t psychological? when you come to think of it—this view has depended heavily on Shapiro’s use of recognizable images, almost entirely absent from this show. (There were six drawings manipulating a “house” schema, with an effect much more Cubistic than housey.) Phrased more modestly, in simple terms of intimacy and a “personal” feel, it is a view that might yet be stretched to cover the new work, but its very generality would still be mocked by the particularity of, especially, the reliefs, which are like small worlds unto themselves. “Modernist sensibility” belongs to another rhetorical class than the laconic, quiet vernacular of these objects, whose confident intricacies seem to challenge the viewer to come up with equally sharp, untrammeled responses.

The 15 reliefs in the show were individually distinct enough to seem less a series than a family, some of them distant relations. The greatest number comprised two or three sandwiched, mostly irregular polygonal blocks, with the largest usually in front (making the frontal view the least informative) and the top and/or bottom of the rear one usually horizontal (making a firm relation to floor and ceiling). Members of this group were unitized and given their own “personalities” by being painted single, widely varied colors; none was more than 6 inches wide or high or more than 3 1/2 inches deep. The formal dynamic of these pieces tended to be enclosed and compact, isolating them on the wall and in the viewer’s space. (One looks more around and into than at them.) Other, unpainted wood reliefs tended to be a little bit bigger and more open frontally; they also seemed oddly less “material” than the painted ones, more cerebral, more hospitable to imaginative projections of figure and gesture. Two quite complex pieces (the newest), made of many fragments of wood scrap, slanted off the wall with Constructivistic brio and, if not just witty asides, may presage a new kinesthetic lyricism in Shapiro’s work (a move that might appropriately entail much larger size).

What Sanford Schwartz wrote of Shapiro in 1976 still applies: “Shifting about in a variety of styles and mixing them as he goes, Shapiro works at an angle from everybody else.” One might even add: at an angle from himself. For the number of surefire qualities left out of his new work—evocative imagery, Minimalist density and aggression, the sheer strength of cast metal—is quite as impressive as the increased formal complexity and the opened dialogue with Constructivism. Even the very mildness of the reliefs is jolting, mildness being a quality one would never have associated with Shapiro, whose expressive tone has almost always been tough and edgy. (The drawings, with their big black bars and smudges, maintain that tone.) In effect, he seems to be demonstrating that the spirit of playfulness in his work has never really needed combative and surrealistic overtones to bolster its seriousness; the spirit itself is serious enough. For me, the reliefs have the mental aroma of a Klee title: “Taking a Line for a Walk.” They have that suggestion of an occult but friendly mastery, so assured that it can lay out its tricks without thereby seeming the least bit less mysterious. Though hardly as dramatic as his past sculptures, Shapiro’s wood reliefs, by their utter stylistic poise, reinforce one’s growing sense that he is, in fact, a master.

Peter Schjeldahl