Joel Shapiro

Teaching Page

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Joel Shapiro, Untitled, 1991. Bronze, 66 x 72 x 36 inches (figure); 21 x 26 x 36 inches (house). © 2018 Joel Shapiro / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Wojtek Naczas. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

This teaching page provides concise analysis of the featured work of art, background information on the artist, key ideas, discussion questions, online resources for additional learning and exploration. A high-resolution image of Untitled is available for educational use.

The Art

Joel Shapiro’s untitled sculpture from 1991 is composed of two parts—an angular, geometric form tilting over the floor, and a small house-shaped object attached to a wall nearby. The structure on the floor is human-sized, made from rectangular shapes that allude to limbs and a torso and evoke a reeling figure without a head. The figure doesn’t appear heavy or static like many traditional sculptures, but seems airborne as if running, dancing, or falling in mid-air. The small scale of the house inverts the “normal” ratio of small human to bigger house, making it appear as if the house is receding from the space occupied by the figure.

What is the relationship between house and figure? There aren’t any hints about identity or gender, so the figure seems to represent any person suspended in the midst of movement. It might be running toward a home or memories of home, reeling in play sheltered by a protective home, or stumbling in a lonely space left from the retreating safety of the house. The distance between the two parts of the sculpture, as well as the small scale of the house, suggest both perspective and movement and call to mind withdrawal, longing, and impending loss. Any interpretation is acceptable, as Joel Shapiro intended his sculpture to evoke emotions or memories in the viewer.

This sculpture is made from bronze. Shapiro started by making a small model, joining lengths of wood with hot glue and a pin gun (a tool that uses compressed air to shoot thin pins into wood). He made adjustments to his model and then translated it into a full-size wood sculpture using sawn wood rectangles. He took the model to a foundry where it was sand-cast in bronze, using specially made molds that had a built-in core. The resulting bronze beams are hollow and only three-eighths of an inch thick. They retain evidence of the model’s wood surfaces because the molten bronze flowed into and recorded the lines of the grain. Then the bronze parts were bolted together and the artist “chased” the surface; that is, he used hand tools like hammers to bring out the wood grain marks in the malleable metal. The beams are distinguished by variations in color due to cooling and oxidizing of the bronze after casting.

This two-part sculpture has been exhibited in different arrangements in different locations—sometimes the house has been placed on the ground, for example. Joel Shapiro created it while he was developing his ideas for an installation in the plaza of the United States Holocaust Museum in New York City. His intent for the installation was to signify the tragic loss of life and security from Nazi genocide during World War II. He wanted to create a large sculpture that would communicate precariousness and collapse as well as rise and recovery. Titled Loss and Regeneration, a departure from Shapiro’s usual pattern of not naming his works, the work at the Holocaust Museum is composed of an eight-foot high house form on the ground that appears to be tumbling away from a twenty-four-foot high figural form. In the smaller, 1991 untitled sculpture, the placement of the house on the wall lends an ambiguous impression of both suspension and recession.

THE ARTIST

Born in 1941, Joel Shapiro grew up in the Queens neighborhood of New York City. After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University (NYU), Shapiro spent two years in southern India as a Peace Corps volunteer. He became acquainted with Indian sculpture, which he described as “generous outpourings of work, representing the whole range of human experience.” This encounter had a defining influence on Shapiro’s decision for a career and on his approach to art. “Being away from my own culture and immersed in another, and seemingly free from my own history, was a very present and liberating experience...it heightened my sense of the hugeness and variety of life in general, but also the possibility of actually becoming an artist became very real to me for the first time.” When Shapiro returned to New York in 1967, the Minimalist art movement was at its height, and its emphasis on geometric form influenced his early ideas about sculpture. The following year he enrolled at NYU as a graduate student in art and earned his Master of Arts degree in 1969. He won early critical acclaim for his small-scale works that had an implied human presence, such as sculptures of houses and chairs, and which were intended to draw on viewers’ memories and emotional associations. He is best known for his larger, geometric sculptures that ascend in vertical space, usually in a scale relative to the human body.

KEY IDEAS

  • Abstract geometric construction that evokes a human figure and a domestic form
  • Dynamic sculpture conveying movement and balance
  • Spatial as well as emotional relationships implied by human scale
  • Absence of titling to enable viewer interpretation

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Joel Shapiro’s 1991 sculpture is made up of two parts. What geometric shapes do you see? What building blocks of art are present here (line, shape, color, light, texture, space)? What might you say about each?
  2. What makes the tilting form seem like a figure? What makes it appear abstract? What are some words to describe opposites that are conveyed by this form, such as balanced and precarious? What else?
  3. Joel Shapiro has said, “Liveliness is my goal. That’s what I want. I want lively work.” Sculpture is a complex medium in which to express liveliness. What are some reasons for this? What kinds of liveliness has Shapiro conveyed in this sculpture? What movement can you describe? What are some lively words to describe what you see?
  4. What are your ideas about a connection between the house and the larger form? How would the house seem different if it were on the ground instead of on the wall? Try to name some feelings that could arise from thinking about relationships between the two parts.
  5. Develop a story about the house shape and the figure shape. What’s happening? What could happen next?
  6. Change is always happening to living things and to the world around, even though there are also counterbalancing forces to keep things stable and in equilibrium. How does Shapiro’s sculpture express contrasting forces? 
  7. Scale means the size of an object (a whole) in relationship to another object (another whole). In art the size relationship between an object and the human body is significant. Joel Shapiro has described the concept of scale as “A very active thing that's changing and altering as time unfolds, consciously or unconsciously,” and as, “a relationship of size and an experience. You can have something small that has big scale.” In what ways is the house attached to the wall an illustration of scale? If the house is meant to represent a home, what are some things you would say about trying to represent the emotional size or “scale” of a home?

 

RESOURCES

On the Artist

Video of Shapiro sculptures at Denver Art Museum
Video of Joel Shapiro describing an installation at Rice Gallery
Shapiro's Pace Gallery profile
Video of Shapiro and Curator Jed Morse in conversation (audio transcription available here)
Shapiro talks to Michéle Gerber Klein of BOMB Magazine

On the Art

Video showing how bronze is made through casting
Educational website on scale and proportion in art

Related Content

Article on Shapiro's relationship to Minimalism in Cultured Mag
Definitions and examples of contemporary sculpture (Tate Modern)