New York

Joel Shapiro

PaceWildenstein 22

There may be no work of art without a “balancing center,” as Rudolf Arnheim has written, but the elegance of Joel Shapiro’s new sculptures lies in their lack thereof. These constructivist balancing acts indeed convey a lack of balance—and the precariousness of all balance. In a number of works, rectangular fragments of varying lengths, densities, and textures shoot off in all directions, dispersing randomly in space with the thrust of Futurist vectors. Each piece seems like an intricate engineering feat, at once free-spirited and carefully planned. One might even say that these works are about decentering: In one sculpture from 2002, a vertical axis—which could be regarded as a device of weight or coherence—is divided against itself into two, with a cluster of smaller oblongs tucked between.

There is an air of great at-oddsness about these sculptures, a sense that they’re about to tear themselves apart or collapse into chaos—that they’re about “de-constructing” as well as constructing, taking apart as much as putting together. This is particularly evident in a two-part piece (2001–2002) that involves white plaster suspended from the ceiling and bronze resting on the floor. The parts, ambiguously figural and purely geometric (like much of Shapiro’s sculpture), have an awkward affinity—but they’re not exactly made for each other. Here Shapiro is pushing the tendency toward entropy for all it’s worth.

In recent years, beginning perhaps with his 1997–98 exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Shapiro has worked in relation to architecture, setting his pieces on the wall in addition to the floor. The large size of the current works—the human figure is no longer their measure—as well as their oddly discombobulated structure seems to challenge space directly. Shapiro, who is usually thought of as a post-Minimalist (in one definition, a Minimalist using simple geometry to expressive-dramatic effect), seems to want to challenge the coordinates of the white cube rather than conform to them as the first Minimalists did (however unconsciously). It is the sculptures’ refusal to conform to a fixed space, as well as their own lack of structural fixedness, that makes them Shapiro’s most innovative, uncanny work in years—all the more because they show more attention to texture than usual.

One quibble about what to me is a curiosity: In one sculpture from 2002–2003, a relatively thick, blondish wooden beam is supported by a very thin, grayish metal crutch. Is this daring or cheating? The effect disconcerts. This particular work strikes me as a clever failure because it violates its own principles: the dramatic use of a few basic units, all materially the same, all abstract bits of geometry. Pull the crutch away and the whole sculpture would collapse. Shapiro is a latter-day Suprematist, but the trick of Suprematism is to make geometrically incommensurate elements seem to cohere dynamically without introducing props that give the tricky game away.

Donald Kuspit