New York

Joel Shapiro

Paradoxically, the Holocaust seems to have given new life to Joel Shapiro’s sculptures. This is perhaps most evident in the intense color and disturbing forms of the glorious drawings, meant to be preliminary studies but strong in their own right. Shapiro’s sculpture had begun to look increasingly like a dry, formal exercise in which the minimum of simple geometrical means no longer worked to maximum expressive effect. Without the former tension between abstraction and figuration, the sculptures seemed dogmatically static, that is, they read neither as evocative mannequins nor as pure constructions, but as mannered versions of both.

But then Shapiro received a commission from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. which seems to have deeply excited his imagination, restoring the insight that originally sparked his art: the awareness of the anxiety inherent to the dialectic of abstraction and representation that comes from the ultimate impossibility of integrating them convincingly, combined with the sense that independently each is less expressive than when it confronts and wrestles with the other. This is an insight which subverts purity even as it acknowledges it.

Indeed, the figure, its abstractness freshened by its elongation, like a “theoretical” (and no doubt theatrical) reprise of the emaciated bodies of the Holocaust victims, became doubly intense. It seemed freshly to embody the old, immanent contradiction between figurative expression and abstract construction, and to be strained to the breaking point by external history. Both tensions add to its symbolic weight, and are reflected in its almost zigzag (self-contradictory) line, suggesting that it is being pulled in opposite directions, and finally almost torn apart. The freshly driven figure, which seems, through the sublime abstraction that makes it anonymous, to transcend anxiety in the very act of articulating it, is Shapiro’s psychic self-portrait in all but name. The artist is, in fact, Jewish, and the Holocaust commission must have triggered identification with the victims, which his sculptures seem to work through.

Shapiro also literally shows his “balls,” in various (sometimes intriguing) molecular configurations. But these seem more like formal experimentation than expressive innovation. Thus they are regressive compared to the figures which eloquently solve the age-old problem of how art can deal with irreparable suffering without turning it into an esthetically seductive image that either undermines or exploits its pathos—an image that in effect tries to imagine the unimaginable but gruesomely real. Abstraction at its best, as in Shapiro’s figures, conveys the unimaginable in the act of immortalizing it, which is to make it doubly unimaginable. The apparently infinitely self-extending and writhing, instinctive geometry of the figures conveys unimaginable suffering without turning it into a subliminally charming image.

In achieving this, Shapiro’s figures provide something increasingly rare—an art based not on contempt, but on empathy. In Shapiro’s humanistic abstraction, empathy does not compromise the austerity of abstraction by sentimentalizing it into facilely communicative form, and abstraction furthers rather than inhibits attunement to suffering. Indeed, the disintegration that Shapiro’s abstraction articulates is evident in the broken geometry, as full of voids as of solids, and in the precarious equilibrium/disequilibrium of the figure. In this sense, these figures are as universal as they are Jewish.

Donald Kuspit