Joel Shapiro favors human-sized work. “I’ve tried to avoid the colossal,” the artist remarked when I visited his studio. “I always think of parts that correspond to our own dimensions. Another big issue in sculpture is how you join things together and how that influences the nature of the form.” His publicly sited works are both abstract and slightly figurative. In a way, his art mediates between architecture and the viewer. He is continually experimenting with ways to balance and put together off-center, asymmetrical compositions.
Some new directions in his work are forms that levitate in space. These recently received rave reviews at the Paula Cooper Gallery, New York (January 25 – February 22), at Rice University in Houston, and at L. A. Louver. Shapiro’s 2014 exhibitions include the Musée d’Art Moderne de Saint-Etienne (January 17 through May) and new drawings at The Pace Gallery, New York (May). Shapiro’s works play with the elements of art: color, scale, balance, perception, tension, mass, weight, and gravity. The artist exposes contradictions as he engages viewers.
Joel Shapiro’s studio hums with activities guided by his ideas. It spans two floors of a brick building that used to supply electricity to trolleys. On the day I visited, the top studio looked like a giant exhibition area with many, many models – some leaning against walls, some mounted on tables, some suspended – chattering to each other and showing off their brightly-painted parts. The white horizontal files, small power tools, paint, and supply areas neatly bordered the vast art space with a library and archive in an adjoining space.
On the first floor, several assistants and larger power tools were concentrated in one work area, and in the center was a small supply of wood beams, mostly spruce, and larger sculpture in progress. Another area held a suspended, torqued, curving board, an installation model for a show at Rice University in Houston (now past), and an architectural model of a gallery space for an upcoming show.
Last year, Joel Shapiro received The Cristobal Gabarron Foundation International Art Award and was featured in an exhibition of twenty original prints donated to FAPE, the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies. Shapiro was the first artist FAPE invited to create a site-specific sculpture — for a U.S. Embassy in Ottowa in 1998. In March, 2013, his newest sculpture for FAPE, sited in front of the new Skidmore, Owings & Merrill U. S. Consulate building in Guangzhou, China, was unveiled. For this project, Shapiro worked closely with architect Craig Hartman; the new building is located across the street from Zaha Hadid’s new opera house. Guangzhou, the third largest city in China, is known, among other things, as the point of departure for any Chinese child adopted by American parents. Shapiro’s forward-bending bright aquamarine sculpture titled Now is about twenty-two feet high.
Shapiro mentioned some challenges of making public sculpture: “Memorials touch on a collective consciousness and, generally, are about the dead. I did a piece (Loss and Regeneration) for the (US) Holocaust Museum that had some relevance to collective memory. I don’t think that’s the issue today [for the FAPE commission at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou]. I wanted to make a sculpture that was lively, vibrant, and in the present tense – a metaphor for the human spirit – a work that can provide moments of ecstasy and relief. I think it’s remarkable that there were no constraints on the part of the State Department.” The welded aluminum work was fabricated by KC Fabricators in Gardiner, New York.
On the top floor of the studio is a small dining and living area with a stunning view of the Queensboro Bridge. As I walk back to the subway on noisy, truck-jammed streets past mostly windowless and/or rundown industrial spaces, the contrast is striking. Shapiro’s workplace was an oasis of ideas, colors, light, movement, and open space.