Joel Shapiro

Nasher Sculpture Center
May 10, 2016 6:34PM

The work of New York-based artist Joel Shapiro is familiar to many.  The spare, geometric constructions of rectangular forms suggestive of bodies (human or otherwise) in dynamic poses in motion—precariously poised, or stretched to their limits—have been featured in museum exhibitions and collections around the world. Since his first one-person exhibition in 1970, his work has been the subject of nearly 160 solo exhibitions and retrospectives internationally and has been included in prestigious group exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennial, Documenta, and the Venice Biennale. The Nasher Sculpture Center is fortunate to count among its collections six works by Shapiro spanning three decades of his distinguished career.

Visitors to the Nasher this summer could be forgiven, however, for not immediately recognizing the featured exhibition as the work of this renowned artist. Rather than a presentation of individual sculptures, the Nasher exhibition offers a single, site-specific installation conceived specifically for the space of the Renzo Piano-designed galleries. Although made of brightly painted wood—materials Shapiro has employed since the early 1980s—the cubic volumes are irregular. Here, not only do they occupy the floor, they also hover in the air, tethered at different heights and angles within the gallery.

This installation of suspended volumes at the Nasher represents a new development in the artist’s exploration of expanded or disconnected constructions that began around the turn of the new century. Like much of his work, these initially took the form of small sculptures of lightweight wood, but now with the wooden elements tenuously joined by loose, curling wire, sometimes suspended from the ceiling. These maquettes offered complex arrangements of forms in space and freed them from the need of earthbound mounts or supports. More than just complicated arrangements of forms in space, these works looked as if they were collapsing or disintegrating, giving abstract voice to the unsettling tensions of the post-9/11 era. Eventually, these independent sculptures developed into room-sized installations of painted wooden planks of different widths, lengths and colors, suspended by strings at various angles and orientations in space, creating a complex spatial composition that changed as the viewer moved around and through it.

At the Nasher, the flat planks of previous installations have become multifaceted, volumetric forms. The elements are not made of simple boxes but of asymmetrical geometric shapes. Some of them are left tantalizingly open on one or more sides, providing contrasting convex/concave forms that are suggestive of the interiors of the closed elements. Only a few forms occupy the gallery: two seem to sit or recline on the floor, while others are suspended in mid-air or near the ceiling. Despite the relatively open installation, the generous size of the elements gives them a palpable and potentially unsettling presence. Many of them are larger than we are, making them feel looming or imposing, and us, diminutive. The installation generates a curious, other-worldly, constructivist environment.

The emotional impact of the experience should not be discounted. Shapiro has talked about the installation as a kind of dreamscape, or psychological space. This makes sense in light of the work that the artist has been making in gouache on paper recently, several of which have been included at the Nasher and exhibited in spaces adjacent to the installation. Although he has made work on paper in various media throughout his career, the recent gouaches are particularly abstract and atmospheric, loose skeins of color overlapping with inky clouds of black. Shapiro has taken to making pairs or groups of related gouaches by blotting the compositions with clean sheets of paper, creating a mirror image that he then shifts by adding new colors or changing its orientation. What results are abstract compositions suggesting complex spatial qualities. They are also, at turns, mysterious and moody or whimsical and playful. Any mirrored pair is bound to recall Rorschach inkblots. Although powerfully psychological, Shapiro’s gouaches are not symmetrical, nor identically mirrored: they are individual and unique, yet related, as a mother is to her son, or a brother to his sister.

—Jed Morse, Nasher Sculpture Center Chief Curator 

Joel Shapiro is on view from May 7 – August 21, 2016

Nasher Sculpture Center