New York

Joel Shapiro

The poignant ambivalence between a very stark kind of representationalism and a more formal, if no less awkward, abstraction evident in all of Joel Shapiro’s mature work has never been better or more accurately articulated than in these five recent sculptures. He forces the stick figure through a rich variety of allusive combinations, comparable in its imagination to the transformations he devised for a compressed house form in the ’70s. If the house could be thought to embody and exploit the architectural analogues inherent in much Minimalist sculpture, the stick figure seems an equally adept distillation of the expressionist outburst that has come in the wake of Minimalism. Yet in both cases Shapiro’s work remains anomalous, the house for its puzzling nonconformist miniaturization in a time of expansiveness, the figure for its gestural restraint and reticence in a generally overbearing age.

It is something of a shock, then, to see how large some of these figures have become, two of them being over 6 feet tall. Of these a cast-bronze piece made up of an extremely long torso with two appendages, so torqued as to make the whole piece seem about to fall, struck me as the better; knowing it to have been commissioned for an outdoor site in California ameliorates my mixed reaction to it, since a natural as opposed to an architectural setting should more easily accommodate its radical attenuation. Here both pieces were so confined as to be almost illegible, and I mean that more as a tribute to the attentiveness Shapiro’s work demands than as a comment on its installation in this show.

Three other pieces are more consistent with the scale we have come to expect in Shapiro’s sculptures. For me, a nailed-together wooden piece about 4 1/2 feet high, with a thick central core, an outstretched leg, and a small, blocky, slightly askew head, seemed the most eloquent. Leaning forward at a seemingly insupportable angle, this piece showed how distinctly nonanatomical Shapiro’s figures can be. They are psychological rather than physical portraits—the kind of characterizations one might expect from the mentally disturbed. Mass and the angles of mass are conferred with more raw meaning than we balanced people usually ascribe to them. Their precariousness—many of the most memorable of these pieces seem to teeter—may in itself say something about what “balance” can mean these days.

In another short cast-bronze piece Shapiro inverts the supremacy of mind over body, putting the head between the legs and truncating the arms and neck. The other cast piece here, in iron, made a similar inversion: a small rhomboid, it sported three outgrowths—two arms and a head and neck?—that seemed interchangeably positioned.

Shapiro’s significance in the group of younger American artists who came into their own during the last decade is by now widely acknowledged and relatively well understood. That his recent work may catalyze sculpture in the way that his earlier pieces did, through their candor and seriousness of purpose, is only now becoming evident.

Richard Armstrong