Artist: Joel Shapiro (American, b. 1941)
Materials: cast bronze
Provenance: Purchased by the Governors State University Foundation
Joel Shapiro grew up in New York City, obtained a degree from NYU and spent two years in the Peace Corps before attending graduate school. He earned his MFA in 1969 from NYU.
Shapiro entered the art world at the height of the movement commonly termed Minimalism. Artists such as Donald Judd, Richard Serra, and Carl Andre had stripped sculpture of its content, eliminating any trace of their hand in its creation and often choosing industrially-oriented materials for their works.
Shapiro absorbed and then reacted against this Puritanical formalism. He was picked up immediately by Paula Cooper's gallery who exhibited his small, cast iron, iconic forms such as a house, a car, or a coffin—many times directly on the floor. Shapiro bucked the aesthetic moment by creating plain objects whose forms resonated with psychological meaning. He worked the surface to demonstrate the presence of the artist’s hand.
In 1980, he began to create works using 4x4 inch timbers of wood. These pieces explored a tenuous line between abstraction and figuration, alluding to the human form but never defining it. In a further response to the concrete materiality of Minimalism, he began to cast these works in bronze, an alloyed material of ancient origin associated in the 1980s more with memorial sculpture than avant garde art.
This untitled piece from 1982 is an intimate example of a series that Shapiro has explored for over 25 years. The viewer may initially see a group of cubist-influenced, oblong abstract forms. Soon, a figure with arms outstretched (or is it an energetic break-dancer, spinning on his head?) emerges. Shapiro reveals a deft hand, playing skillfully with our expectations of abstract sculpture.