A selection of five large cast-bronze and painted cast-aluminum sculptures by the American artist Joel Shapiro (born 1941) are installed in the Museum's Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden. The sculptures date from 1989 to the present; three of the five have not previously been exhibited in New York and two are newly created. Shapiro works in the Constructivist tradition, yet some of the sculpture included in this selection is residually figurative.
Shapiro was born in 1941 in New York City and grew up in Queens. His father was an internist and his mother was a microbiologist. After receiving his bachelor's degree from New York University, Shapiro spent two years in southern India as a Peace Corps volunteer, returning to New York in 1967 at the height of the movement known as Minimalism. The following year he enrolled at NYU as a graduate student in art; he obtained his master's degree in 1969.
Shapiro's early work was exhibited almost immediately, so that his education in a variety of materials and methods in sculpture took place in public view. This early work consisted of drawings and paintings, as well as very small cast-iron sculptures (for example, a house shape, a chair shape, a bridge, a coffin, and a bird) installed either on the floor or on shelves that projected from the wall at eye level. Shapiro also showed accumulations of fired clay or carved limestone spheres and ovoid shapes, as well as a horse cast in bronze and abstract wall reliefs in painted and raw wood. These early works were in part responses to the Minimalist "specific objects" of older artists such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre. Shapiro absorbed the Minimalists' essentially geometric vocabulary, which was itself in the tradition of Russian Constructivist sculpture, yet rejected the seeming neutrality of Minimal abstractions, which showed few if any traces of the artist's hand. He intended his works to be read metaphorically, as allusions that drew on the viewer's memories and psychologically charged reactions to an image such as a house.
In 1980 Shapiro made his first nearly lifesize sculpture of the human figure by joining lengths of wooden four-by-fours—a "head," two "arms," and two "legs"—to a slightly wider timber rectangle, the "torso." The figure leaned forward like a bronze dancer by Degas balancing precariously on one limb. Its right arm extended sideways and its left leg thrust backward, it stood on just one leg, which was flush to the floor and anchored invisibly beneath it. A year later Shapiro cast the work in bronze, a material with a long tradition in the history of Western sculpture but by the 1980s discredited in some eyes as old-fashioned. Thus began Shapiro's mature work and a series of figures that refer to the human body (though they do not necessarily include all the body's parts) and that assert themselves vertically in space, usually at the same scale as the human body. Even the twenty-four-foot-tall work here, one of Shapiro's tallest to date, is created from parts that are human in scale.
Shapiro's usual method of making metal sculpture (he also works in wood), including the five objects in this installation, is first to create a small wooden model by joining lengths that are square or rectangular in section with hot glue and a pin gun (a tool that uses compressed air to shoot very thin pins into wood). There are no preparatory sketches; the model is adjusted by trial and error. The model is then constructed at full scale from chunks of sawn wood joined to one another. Next the wood lengths are sand-cast in bronze at a foundry, so that traces of the kerf—the saw marks against the wood grain—remain visible on the exterior surface of the finished bronze. The molds created to cast the bronze have a core built inside them, so that the bronze parts are hollow and only three-eighths of an inch thick. These parts, sometimes reinforced internally by stainless steel, are then bolted (or, more rarely, welded) together to form the nearly finished sculpture. The parts join at different angles. In sculptures from the early and mid-1980s most of the ends of the lengths were finished at forty-five or ninety-degree angles and joined flat on flat. In more recent works some of the ends are cut at more complex and acute angles, so that when the parts are joined the extent of artifice in Shapiro's many cantilevers is emphasized. Once the work is constructed, Shapiro chases the surface to bring out the original pattern of the wood grain and to reduce, yet not erase, traces of the casting process—for example, the sprues, or openings, through which the molten bronze was poured. Sometimes he then applies a light patina or, as in the case of the two cast-aluminum works from 2000–2001 in this installation, covers the entire surface of the work with primer and a coat of vividly colored oil paint.
The viewer is richly rewarded by walking around each sculpture. From changing vantage points the works look very different, from readably figurative to abstract. Sometimes there is clearly just one figure; at other times, there is a suggestion or strong evidence that the limbs or torsos of more than one figure have been joined in a single work.
Over the past decade Shapiro has received a number of commissions to make works for permanent installation in public spaces, including an open area in front of the western facade of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and a major plaza in the city of Orléans, France. His work has also regularly been seen in greensward, in sculpture gardens. This is the first time that his sculpture has been sited far above street level, however, against backdrops—the skyscrapers of the city—which are diminished in architectural scale by their great distance from the sculpture.