New York

Joel Shapiro

The career of Joel Shapiro can be seen to encapsulate two histories, his own and that of post-1970 art, for it coincides with and summarizes many of the issues central to the period. As Roberta Smith writes in the catalogue of this show, it is a highly “representative” career, one which registers with barometric efficacy the demise of Minimalism, the schismatic questions posed by mid-'70s art, and the channelling of the latter, largely under the aegis of psychology and representation, into the art of the current period. This retrospective of 40 sculptures and 16 drawings, organized by the Whitney and scheduled to travel, affords some measure of Shapiro's achievement.

It appears as a constellation of fragments, of small objects and tentative soundings of the possibilities inherent in sculpture. Void of the earliest “process” pieces, from 1968-69, the exhibition begins with Shapiro's plays with different sculptural materials and procedures, with carving, casting, and molding, with hammered metal (200 Blows, 1971) and chiseled stone (Untitled, 1971). Metaphor is added to material in 1972, as Shapiro first shapes clay into ball, then ball into bird, casting the resulting image into bronze. These dense, ambiguous, psychologically loaded forms, exploiting both the allure and the distance of miniature scale, established Shapiro's program; surrounding space enters into the repertory of tractable materials in 1973, with the famous cast-iron bridge. With the modifications soon executed on Shapiro's house form, which is placed either on a shelf or on the floor but always in a position of detachment, the practice of decontextualizing metaphoric or evocative objects and removing them to an abstract yet psychologically charged space becomes clear as a standard practice. Indeed, Shapiro's work always plays upon equivocations—those between abstraction (space, material, monolith, form), representation (world, house, body, weight) and the different motions that channel them back and forth in a seemingly unstoppable flow, or those between object and nonobject, for these forms, for all their clear contours and delineated mass, operate in a wholly situational way. The equivocations are magnified in succeeding years: just as an image is isolated, framed, intensified, and subjected to (subjective) magnifications of scale, so it will be disrupted, cut into, soiled, damaged, and (psychologically) disturbed. Thus the house, a corner cut off, becomes a head, or it becomes deranged by piercing, negative forms; while in a series of works beginning in 1976-77, treelike abstractions of interlocking “limbs” become figures arranged in tenuous positions. Shapiro will play with the specifically sexual investment of the object, making the monolith “read” as both penetration and violation int he incised geometry of Chasm, 1976, and he will work with the psychological ambiguities of painted or pictorial sculpture, watching how configurations advance, recede, misread, or are variously distorted according to the perception of different hues. By the end of the decade joined forms have become evocations of figures in the series of bodies dancing, falling, and otherwise disporting themselves in a range of equivocal states. These states are precarious ones—fragile juxtapositions, for all the weighty power of bronze; juxtapositions which evoke both motion and dislocation, configuring and disfiguring. And the states always threaten to fall back into abstraction—into rectangular forms shaped into constructive arrangements—as if to describe the equivocations separating the body's memory from its embedding in esthetic form.

This show has the virtue of giving an overview of an oeuvre which, like the decade, is riddled with dissension. Yet Shapiro's work contains two overarching paradoxes. One, that while it encapsulates a decade's reaction and reflection on the scope of psychological investment, it returns them to the medium—for these are very much works about the possibilities of sculpture. And the other, that for all the range and brilliance of individual works, it remains a constellation of fragments which never add up to a definitive statement. The kind of personal restlessness that informs this production makes it at once enticing and obscure.

Kate Linker