Joel Shapiro

By Kuspit, Donald | Artforum International, November 1993 | Go to article overview

Joel Shapiro


Kuspit, Donald, Artforum International


Paradoxically, the Holocaust seems to have given new life to Joel Shapiro's sculptures. This is perhaps most evident in the intense color and disturbing forms of the glorious drawings, meant to be preliminary studies but strong in their own right. Shapiro's sculpture had begun to look increasingly like a dry, formal exercise in which the minimum of simple geometrical means no longer worked to maximum expressive effect. Without the former tension between abstraction and figuration, the sculptures seemed dogmatically static, that is, they read neither as evocative mannequins nor as pure constructions, but as mannered versions of both.

But then Shapiro received a commission from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. which seems to have deeply excited his imagination, restoring the insight that originally sparked his art: the awareness of the anxiety inherent to the dialectic of abstraction and representation that comes from the ultimate impossibility of integrating them convincingly, combined with the sense that independently each is less expressive than when it confronts and wrestles with the other. This is an insight which subverts purity even as it acknowledges it.

Indeed, the figure, its abstractness freshened by its elongation, like a "theoretical" (and no doubt theatrical) reprise of the emaciated bodies of the Holocaust victims, became doubly intense. It seemed freshly to embody the old, immanent contradiction between figurative expression and abstract construction, and to be strained to the breaking point by external history. Both tensions add to its symbolic weight, and are reflected in its almost zigzag (self-contradictory) line, suggesting that it is being pulled in opposite directions, and finally almost torn apart. The freshly driven figure, which seems, through the sublime abstraction that makes it anonymous, to transcend anxiety in the very act of articulating it, is Shapiro's psychic self-portrait in all but name. …

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