Since 1993, the Galerie Karsten Greve has had representing the work of Joel Shapiro (born in 1941 on New York). For his new exhibition in our Paris location, the gallery unveil a range of pieces that were created especially for the occasion.
Celebrated as one of the most important sculptors of his generation, Joel Shapiro started doing gallery shows in the 1970s, and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago held his first museum solo show in 1976. At various stages over the past forty years, his work was featured in over 150 solo exhibitions — especially at the Metropolitan Museum in 2001 and at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne in 2011. Numerous public commissions have also punctuated his career, in particular one he did for the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington. In 2013 the United States awarded him the prestigious National Art Award for Outstanding Achievement. His works have become part of numerous museum collections worldwide: the MoMA, Whitney Museum and Met in New York, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Tate Gallery in London.
By using the iconic materials of modern sculpture — wood, plaster, bronze — Joel Shapiro makes these work for their own shape and to their own potential. He starts off with a shape that almost never strays from its orthogonal original — the basic shape for his sculptures often being a simple rectangular block — which he breaks down according to the limits of his imagination, through playing with the possibilities inherent in the chosen material. Therefore for the artist, wood has a more playful temperament that is more readily accessible. In order to create small, energy-filled studies he uses wood, sometimes scraps, that he puts together according to their pre-existing shapes and angles that both influence the end result and guide the artists’ hand. Working instinctively and quickly, these assemblies give a very ‘in-the-now’ feeling to the work. For the artist it appears to be important to leave visible traces of the creative process in the work itself: streaks of glue, visible nails, junctures that give birth to the work of art, the wood grain itself. Thanks to a simple geometry and the absence of any pedestal or support, Joel Shapiro’s sculpture can be likened to Minimalist Art. However, a focus on mankind, and a willingness to let the imperfections of manual work remain visible, place a sort of gap between his approach and that of minimalist artists such as Carl Andre or Donald Judd who favour smooth materials where no trace of human work or intervention is permitted.
When his models become full-size, all spontaneity moves aside and calculation and measurement step in. Wood is restricted to hollow rectangular blocks, often replaced with bronze. In Shapiro’s hands, this metal — which is mainly associated with a solemn monumentality — acquires an overarching humour and a particular delicacy, especially in his early pieces. In his sculptures, the artist displays his skill in masterfully arranging figures unfurling into three-dimensional space; yet whilst not sacrificing the expressive power within, nor allowing technical issues to take over. Since the beginnings of his artistic explorations in the late 1970s, he has been putting together pieces that border on figurative but where the interplay between the density of the shapes and materials stands in striking contrast to the aerial lightness of humanoid compositions, balancing precariously, seeming to defy the laws of gravity, like dancers frozen in space. In his own words, Shapiro’s works are: “seeking synthesis between shape and colour”. Pure colours play a predominant role because they introduce a new perception of shape and give to sculpture an uncertain physicality. Black gives a more dense appearance to wood whereas blue gives a more airy appearance to the bronze works. Red might be more energetic, whereas brown more earthy.
Shapiro plays with balance by having the works unfurl into space or by having them work in tandem with their surroundings — imposing figures are set directly on the ground and playful sculptures dangle from the wall — and all of these convey Joel Shapiro’s primary aesthetic concern, namely: the fundamental relationship between the pieces themselves and the space around them. This exploration reaches a turning point in 1997 during his exposition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Faced with a monumental building, Shapiro decides to challenge our common conception of space and, for the first time, he spreads his works out across the entire exhibition space, from floor to ceiling, on walls and floors. By occupying the space with dynamic figures, Joel Shapiro invites the public to question our own place in the surroundings and he toys with our perceptions of proportion: treading along similar lines as Modernist theories. Each one of us may interpret the figures as they wish: figuratively, or totally abstract. Because for Shapiro they: “do not claim to be anything else than an object occupying space”.