Oliver Shell, Associate Curator of European Painting & Sculpture
I hadn’t really given Joel Shapiro’s work much thought until I was asked to write a label for his sculpture Untitled, 1985, which returned to the BMA this November after a lengthy period of absence due to ice damage. I had only seen the piece in old photographs taken when it stood in the Levi Sculpture Garden, and then in pieces at the Polich Tallix Foundry in Rock Tavern, New York, where the work has been skillfully restored. So for my label I needed to do some research.
Shapiro’s work was influenced by the geometric sculpture associated with Minimal Art of the 1960s and 70s and shares a vocabulary of hard-edged, industrial forms employed by artists such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris. Shapiro fundamentally challenged the pure abstraction of Minimalism, however, through the re-introduction of figurative qualities that convey a sense of human vitality. Combining beam-like elements and rectangular box shapes (originally of milled wood and later cast in bronze), Shapiro’s works evoke arms, legs, and torsos. These are often arranged in teetering compositions, as is the case with the BMA’s figure, which appears to be falling backwards like a dancer with a dramatic alignment of one raised and one supporting arm. This expressive tendency became especially pronounced in works like the BMA’s, produced shortly after Shapiro spent time at the American Academy in Rome studying sculpture created by the Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
What I have come to admire most in Shapiro’s work is the way he imposed the strictest of limitations on himself, working only with hard-edged right angled units, and yet, by letting the joins and junctures of these elements be angled, a whole universe of possibilities and expressive reconfigurations opened up. Shapiro imbued industrial forms with biological motility and expressive gesture to create a new species of completely hybrid humanoid things. It is hard to limit one’s attention to a single sculpture as his entire body of work becomes an almost infinite series of fascinating relational variations based on a single idea. What you’d think would become stale instead constitutes a creative tour de force.
Now that Untitled, 1985, has returned to the BMA it occupies a very conspicuous spot in the center of a round, elevated, newly constructed island directly in front of the Museum’s reconfigured Zamoiski east entrance.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.
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