New York

Joel Shapiro

A selection of nine early works by Joel Shapiro was installed in two smaller rooms of Paula Cooper’s several brut Chelsea spaces, a presentation of work so dazzlingly beatific that one wished for its permanent presence as respite from the jangling disorder engulfing us.

In the larger of the two cloistral spaces were seven small works (in certain instances veritable miniatures, measurable in scant inches), each Untitled and dating to the mid-1970s, situated widely apart from one another and mostly set down directly on the floor. Shapiro’s severe little houses are simply seven planes reduced to the elemental iconicity of the tokens in the game of Monopoly. One such work here stood alone, while others took up variant distortions—the lean to, for instance. Miniature houses were also mounted on a low table-like structure and on a flangelike shelf extending from the wall. The works all radiated a sense of sudden freshness following their long absence from view. Ironically, the sculptures’ modest size dramatizes the shifts in scale in their surroundings much as it did when they first appeared, when they stood in stark contrast to the work being made by Mark di Suvero, Forrest Myers, and Robert Grosvenor, among many notables.

The dark metals in which these geometric forms are cast adds to the sense of justly freighted materiality. The sculptures seemed shockingly small in the large well-lit gallery, generating a sense of expansion far greater than the room’s literal dimensions—one that accentuated their reserve and understatement amid the trite and busy work that carpets Chelsea today. Off to the side sat the stunning three-inch-high reduction of a chair from 1974 that looks as if it were conceived by Gerrit Rietveld for a dollhouse designed by Plato.

These works relate to—and must be accounted masterpieces of—the post-Minimalism characteristic of their day, crowning Shapiro’s post-Minimalist phase even as they represent his adieu to that stylistic tendency. Their sculptural force is further drawn out in the emphasis on the horizontal sprawl of the floor, the rejection of socle or base, the studious concentration of weight, and the intense degree of talismanic association they seem to hold in safekeeping.

Immediately prior to the creation of these works, the sculptor—drawn by certain Minimal/Conceptual strategies typical of the advanced art of the time—created pieces that seemed to equate sculpture with fundamental actions: to scoop, to mass, to mound, to compare (say, the differing sizes of disparate materials of like weight). These were but a few of Shapiro’s probing formal gambles, reductive embodiments of virtually verbal predicates. Their relationship to Richard Serra’s early sculpture is self-evident. The contemporary visuality of a Sol LeWitt based on written or oral commands is also germane to the mode, all these artists and many more manifesting the originality rife in the period.

What came next for Shapiro was the phase of work memorialized in this affecting exhibition. And this in turn ended with Shapiro’s capitulation to what, in a sense, sculpture has coded for centuries—the vertical of the human body exercising freely upon the horizontal plane of the earth. That reversion to the human form, even if embodied in an omnipotent Cubo-Futurist tradition, meant that Shapiro’s work concomitantly grew larger, more figuratively suggestive, and more familiarly sculptural. It is in this last mode that the larger production of the sculptor, not to say his fame, has come to rest.

In the smaller white room were two further astonishing works—one, the four-part Untitled of 1971 comprising a rudimentary bridge made of balsa wood (as if by a preadolescent hobbyist), an exquisite hollowed-out shell of a boat, the tiny token of a coffin, and a bronze bird, with each element of this mysterious quartet speaking to the others, touching our emotions as they touched the floor. The other work—seemingly purgative to the artist’s at times unbending high modernist taste—is Untitled, 1974/2010, a disarticulated artist’s mannequin, torn asunder, its joints broken. This poignant violence hints at Shapiro’s own frustration with sculpture’s inevitable figurative fate, which, for good or ill, he was forced to embrace if only because no other course of action seemed possible.

Robert Pincus-Witten