Joel Shapiro first came to widespread public attention in the early 1970s at a time when it seemed sculpture needed to redefine itself after the Minimalist and Conceptual extremes of high modernism. His small, simplified, representational sculptures of everyday objects such as houses, chairs, and ladders struck an immediate sympathetic note, and he had his first solo show in 1970. His work was exhibited in a solo show at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art in 1976, at the Venice Biennial in 1976, and at Documenta in 1977, and by 1982 he’d had his first survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Since then Shapiro has become one of the most widely exhibited American sculptors, and he has spent decades patiently exploring a geometrical sculptural language that sits almost precisely at the intersection of abstraction and figuration. His latest exhibition is at PaceWildenstein 22nd Street until January 19.
Joel, you entered the art world at a very dynamic time. What was it like?
The late 60s were remarkably active and exciting, and everyone was experimenting with form and getting rid of assumptions about how to make art. Painters were investigating the bridge between painting and sculpture—by using shaped canvases and making painting less illusionistic and more real—and sculptors were trying to make sculpture that was more painterly. There was this active crossover that was very fertile. I think to some extent it was a big reaction against Pop art, and very much fired by the political climate of the time. We were in the throes of the Vietnam War; there was a lot of protest, and radicality was valorized. People were expected to challenge and question.
It seems that your work is better able to connect with a history of sculpture now than at the beginning of your career. When your very small pieces were first shown, they were understood as Conceptual art.
That’s true, but I was always involved with the historic notion of making sculpture. And I think all sculpture has a conceptual basis—essentially it’s the projection of thought into the world. Even my early work—the small chair and the small house—was exploring what sculpture could be. The scale was radical, but what was interesting about it was its insistence on intimacy, in public. That is still the driving force behind my work; without it, the work would have no life. Vitality of form is still something that I pursue.
Your work walks a fine line between representation and abstraction.
Well, it’s very hard to figure out what pure abstraction is. The most abstract work is work that is just the material itself, like Carl Andre’s—and essentially that’s not abstract, it’s just literal. It is what it is.
Real abstraction is extremely difficult. Russian Constructivism had an extreme level of abstraction, but it was politically supported. I know very few artists who can sustain the faith to make abstract work. There has to be a collective notion or a collective aspiration. That’s why there were so many manifestos of abstraction: They had to have them. Otherwise it just melts down.
Don’t you think that the artists slightly preceding you were making truly abstract work? I’m thinking of people who were influenced by Clement Greenberg or became Minimalists.
I think Greenberg’s literalization of abstraction so that it became flat was very peculiar. But there was an inevitable deductive logic to it, and I think it manifested itself in a lot of sculpture. On the other hand I see the history of Minimalism as a history of relief: It’s all about the wall and the presumption that the wall is a plane, or a page. It doesn’t really challenge a lot of notions about space. There are more expansive possibilities that I’m interested in investigating.
I’m interested in form. Form is a surrogate for the individual artist, and form as a reflection of the artist is always there, even in the most abstract work. There is a figural component in all work, even the most arch-Minimalism. Maybe you don’t see it, but I do. I see it as a metaphor for the artist’s mind and body and sense of self.
Inevitably anthropomorphism enters into this. It’s very hard to do work that’s not referential. I’m more than willing to admit the figure and then dissolve it and deal with architectural references, but for me, it’s about wanting a more complete sense of expression. And I found that it was very simple: As long as I was literally joining pieces together, where one facet was cut and stuck together with another facet, there was meaning and expressive potential.
Where does that expressive potential derive from?
An artist’s vehicle of expression is form, but there has to be some meaning. Whether a piece is paint or wood, or looks like wood but is actually bronze, if the configuration really nails something down and elicits some kind of human thought or experience, that’s great. Every once in a while you get this great gift where it all falls together, and there’s a moment where all of this experience gets synthesized and there’s a real feeling of ecstasy. That’s the great reward of working.
It’s such a simple process, but it’s so difficult. The moments of real actualization of a thought in a form are few and far between. It doesn’t happen with every work. It can’t. Nobody’s hitting home runs all the time.
You make it sound extremely risky.
I’m willing to take risks. I get frightened when my work looks flat or dead. If you have someone there looking at it and they hate it, it can happen. All of a sudden it dissolves. It looks like a bunch of sticks! The more I work the more I realize how art can be enduring and fragile at the same time.
Do you think that’s true of all art?
Really great art has profundity and mystery. When you walk into a museum and see the greatest work, like a Van der Weyden or the Monets at the Orangerie, it would be hard not to be moved by the elation of the experience. It’s riveting. I find it so powerful that I can’t look at it for long.
But can you compare contemporary work with that?
These are ancient values and I think they hold true even for the most radical work.