The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

JOEL SHAPIRO Sculpture and Drawings, 1969-1972

On View
Craig F. Starr Gallery
February 1 – March 23, 2013
New York

The Craig F. Starr Gallery routinely squeezes significant exhibitions of postwar American art into their small townhouse space on East 73rd Street. The recent show of Joel Shapiro’s early sculptures and drawings made between 1969 and 1972 is no exception.  Using their uniquely laid out space in a characteristically effective manner, the gallery selected two major bodies of work from this period to spotlight—drawings Shapiro made by repeatedly pressing his inked finger on to various sized pieces of paper, and fired clay objects that are the result of Shapiro’s elementary manipulations of that material into balls, sticks, curves, etc.

Joel Shapiro, “Two Hands Forming,” 1971. Fired clay, 93 units. Collection of the artist.

In his fingerprint drawings Shapiro makes an instrument of his finger by repeatedly making marks across expanses of paper of various sizes, ranging from the intimate to the monumental. Some works are spare, in that the individual marks are isolated from one another. Others are darkly atmospheric, with marks interpenetrating in an apparently random fashion to suggest chiaroscuro modeling. Ultimately, however, any quality that might read as pictorial is upended by the underlying presence of the finger print, whose indexical materiality becomes the work’s final subject. The clay sculptures evince a similar process, in which Shapiro limited himself to manipulating a ball of clay via the application of a single exercise. One work he rolled with only one hand, while another was worked with two hands simultaneously. The resulting works refer back to the processes that generated them, but without degenerating into either a facile expression of the artist’s dexterity, or a cold conceptualism devoid of aesthetic value.

Joel Shapiro, “Untitled,” 1969-70. Ink on paper. 17 ½ x 17 ½”. Private Collection, Dallas.

At first glance, it appears that at this inaugural moment of his career, Shapiro was still in the process of working out his relationship to the most significant art of his time—postminimalism.  It is tempting to discount the works on view as examples of Shapiro’s inevitable coming-of-age passage through the most recognizable aspects of the postminimal aesthetic—serial arrangements, process made self-evident, and a concern with the corporeal. To do so would contextualize this early work as an experimental prolegomena to the real achievement of Shapiro’s signature miniaturized and balanced sculptures of the mid-1970s. 

Yet these works had a far greater impact on me than they would have if they had simply been didactic derivatives of canonical postminimal work—for example, the hand and body prints in Jasper Johns and Robert Morris’s programmatic process drawings (the former are part of the gallery’s latest exhibition), Eva Hesse’s fragile tubular latex structures, or Richard Serra’s manipulations of lead. As Richard Shiff discusses in his excellent catalogue essay, Shapiro’s “feeling about” with materials and process was neither simply programmatic, nor excessively fanciful. Instead, it is clear that Shapiro was sensitive to one of the central questions governing the best postminimal work—which is to say, how does one reconcile the human body with a rigorous system whose logic it cannot help but surpass? Even at the beginning of his career, Shapiro was an important participant in postminimalism, rather than merely a student of its major practitioners.

Joel Shapiro, “Untitled,” 1969. Ink on numbered graph paper. 7 13/16 x 9 15/16”. Private Collection.

Like Morris, Hesse, and Serra, Shapiro’s early work has a meaningful relation to the direct, phenomenological language established by minimalism, while progressing that language in the service of specific, rather than abstract and generalized, corporeal experiences. By the late 1960s, the human body had become an unavoidable lens for artistic production. Minimalism’s phenomenological approach had raised the viewer’s awareness of his or her corporeality to an unprecedented level. But of equal importance is how the body also became, in this moment, the fraught subject of discourse around such socially charged issues as race, gender, sexuality, and war. In the context of late 1960s and early 1970s American culture, the overriding concern with phenomenological experience, both within and outside of the artworld, meant that artists of a younger generation, like Shapiro, could not help but tackle them head on.

5 E. 73rd St. // NY, NY


Alex Bacon

Alex Bacon is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curated Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

All Issues