In Conversation

Joel Shapiro with Phong Bui

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

A few days before the new body of work was brought to PaceWildenstein on 22nd Street for his new exhibition, “Joel Shapiro: New Sculpture,” which will be on view from November 2, 2007 to January 19, 2008, the artist welcomed Rail Publisher Phong Bui to his Long Island studio to talk about his life and work.

Phong Bui (Rail): I know that you grew up during and after the Second World War in Sunnyside, Queens, then a leftist, well-educated neighborhood. Would you recount a little from your early years?

Joel Shapiro: I was born on September 27, 1941.

Rail: Nine weeks and a few days before Pearl Harbor.

Shapiro: My father enlisted in the army, so we moved to Weatherford, Texas for the duration of the war where he was the chief of medical services at a large army base, and my mother started a nursery school there. After that, the family came back to New York and my parents bought a small semi-attached house in Sunnyside Gardens. My father set up his practice on the ground floor of the house. The Sunnyside Gardens are now landmarked. It was a planned community, developed I think in the ’20s, that had large shared rear courtyards and architecture that expressed utopian ideals of social reform. It was pretty and had a delicate sense of scale. It attracted a considerable number of artists, radicals, and intellectuals. It was an optimistic, idealizing time. Think of the Bliss Street elevated station. It was an enclave of liberal thought surrounded by a very conservative and phobic archdiocese. In the fourth grade, my teacher was literally removed from the class and dismissed for being a communist. It was also a contentious and polarized time.

Rail: Were your parents communists?

Shapiro: My parents were FDR democrats, very liberal, pragmatic and too individualistic to join the CP. They were not ideologues but were very sympathetic to liberal and progressive causes. I went to a red diaper camp in the late ’40s that I hated. I don’t think my hatred was based on politics, though [Laughs]. I hated being away from home.

Rail: Both of your parents went to N.Y.U. Your mother was a biologist and your father was an internal specialist who once had Bob (Robert) Thompson, the New York State Chairman of the Communist National Committee, as his patient.

"Untitled" (2002-2007). Bronze. 13' 4 1/16" × 27' 9 1/2" × 1/16". Courtesy of the artist and PaceWildenstein. Photo by Phong Bui.

Shapiro: Thompson was his patient and his friend. I remember him as a very charismatic presence. He had a daughter who I recall I thought was very pretty. Thompson was attacked and badly stabbed with a knife. I’m sure it was in the evening, it was late. He came to my father’s office for help. My father sutured the wound. The FBI came there the next day grilling my dad on why he had helped him. “Why did you take care of him?” and my father responded, “The man was bleeding to death, and it is my obligation as a physician to tend to his needs.”

Rail: When Thompson died in 1966, the Pentagon refused to bury him in Arlington Cemetery, despite the fact that he was a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross during World War II. The only one who stood up for him in the Senate was Robert Kennedy.

Shapiro: That’s right. He was on the lam for a long time. I vaguely recall reading about it. I hope Kennedy prevailed.

Rail: You also went to N.Y.U.?

Shapiro: Yes, but I went there because I was deeply confused. I mean there was this idea that I should be a physician, which I wasn’t at all interested in. The only thing I was any good at was making art.

Rail: Didn’t you even go into therapy to reconfirm your own desires to become an artist?

Shapiro: [Laughs] That was one reason. But more than that, it was my experience in the Peace Corps after college when I lived in Southern India for two years from 1965 to 1967.

Rail: I recently spoke to Martin Puryear about his Peace Corps experience in Sierra Leone, which was a decidedly profound turning point in his life as an artist as well. In addition to learning how to work with basic hand tools and the carpentry techniques of local craftsmen, it gave him the opportunity to see America from a different perspective. What did your Peace Corps experience do for you during your stay there?

Shapiro: First of all, it was a free period, socially fluid and visually exciting for me because I had no preconception about anything. Secondly, it was a real shock to see a whole new world so radically different from my own. I was stationed in Andhra Pradesh. Our group had been trained to teach some new, more efficient, sustainable and productive agricultural techniques and we worked with already established training institutes that were set up by Gandhi to make villages more self sufficient. We moved every three months to different regions within the state. Then I embarked on a photo survey of traditional handcraft practice and for that project I could more or less travel at will. Plus we were far removed from Peace Corps headquarters and therefore quite independent from central authority. Volunteers were much more heavily scrutinized in the North. The experience as a whole gave me a chance to get out of New York and away from my family, 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.

Rail: That’s when you came back and enrolled in N.Y.U. for graduate school.

Shapiro: Only because I could talk my way into graduate school without a B.F.A. [Laughs] I took classes with Irving (Sandler) who reminds me of this every time I see him [Laughs]. I also studied with James Wines and John Opper, among others. Opper was a sensitive and serious artist who I sensed disapproved of me since I was rambunctious and a loud mouth. He was a very thoughtful guy.

Graduate school was okay. I enjoyed the discourse. I was busy in my studio. Amy Snider and I were married at the time and we lived in a loft between Bleecker and Great Jones on Broadway.

Rail: And you were working in the Jewish Museum as an exhibition technician?

Shapiro: Kynaston McShine hired me, and I worked with Harvey Quaytman and Allen Cole. We helped install exhibitions, did menial jobs; polishing ritual silver was one that was sort of satisfying. It was a great job, actually. In those days the programs there were very cutting edge. I needed the money and it was fun to be around art and other artists. It was lively. As I recall the pay was good, just under four dollars an hour. I did it for a year or two.

Rail: Was there any particular show at the Jewish Museum that had a significant impact on your early formation?

Shapiro: The Yves Klein exhibition was radical and, as I recall, a lot of the pictures were beat-up but very beautiful and convincing.

Rail: What others early exhibitions do you recall?

Shapiro: A year before I left for India, I saw Robert Morris’ show at the Green Gallery, probably around 1964, which totally baffled and puzzled me. It really resonated in my mind for a while. Of course I saw tremendous sculpture in India, which was the antithesis of Morris, but the austerity of that exhibition remained with me.

Rail: How so?

Shapiro: It was, I believe, a group of rectilinear forms made of plywood and painted gray. It had the possibility of overturning everything I knew about art up to that point. Anyway, I was making sculptures out of lead and magnesium, sort of pairing the same weight of the two materials but different sizes. Bob Littman visited me one day and really liked what I was doing and mentioned it to Marcia Tucker, who soon came to see the works. That’s how she included me in the “Anti-Illusion” show at the Whitney.

Rail: Was the inclusion of your work in “Anti-Illusion” your first public show?

Shapiro: Yeah. I was anxious and frightened since it was the first time I had exhibited work. I circumscribed the work within a rectangle out of sheer anxiety. It was not really what I was doing in my studio. The studio work was wilder and the overall form more the result of the material. It was a radical group of artists who happened to live in a radical time. None of us were very sure of what people would think of the work.

Rail: Could you describe the shift from using random accumulations of ephemeral materials (from what I’ve seen in reproductions), such as nylon stapled onto the wall, grease, beeswax and graphite, applied with rather agitated and all-over scribbling, and the more calming repetition of fingerprints, all of which were included in “Anti-Illusion,” then there was a dramatic progression that took place in your next two one-person shows at Paula Cooper, in 1970 and 1972? The reason why I’m asking is that they were so distinctively different from each other.

Shapiro: In my own way I think I was finding new form in the studio. The common denominator to some extent is that I felt there was no real invention of form that I could rely on consistently. I was doing a lot of different things and was unwilling to commit to any one way of working. I refused to circumscribe the work by a set standard or rule. I wanted to strip myself of any kind of assumption about the work in this process of making.

But in making those pieces for the “Anti-Illusion” show, I tried to set up and function within a given parameter. I can now see that my actual studio practice was toned down in public—the result of my anxiety, timidity. The same thing was also true with my first show at Paula, where I set up 16 wooden shelves, forcing an intimate reading of various materials placed on different shelves.

Rail: And they were identical in size and placed in regular intervals, installed below eye-level?

Shapiro: Right. With the second show, I tried using my hands as a means of organization. I wasn’t at all thinking of the three configurations—the sphere, cylinder, and cone—as the three classic models that were so often associated with Cézanne’s way of seeing objects in nature. I was simply trying to make the forms and exhibit them as if they could become simply artifacts. They certainly related to my previous experience in India and again, it’s only now that I can see that relationship more clearly–cow dung patties on the wall, conic displays of pigment and spice, meat hung on racks in the market, stores of bangles, endless rolls of fabric. All raw material.

Rail: It’s interesting to me because the first two shows were the only times that you made reference to the use of serialization.

Shapiro: That’s true. Another manifestation of anxiety, which existed among many artists of my generation. In my case, I didn’t particularly think of serialization as only a device, but as a way of ordering thought and transferring the responsibility from the individual to an external structure. But in general, as much as my first three shows drastically differed, I think the positive tie between them was that I revealed my willingness to experiment in public and learn to discipline myself.

Rail: How do you see your work of that period in relation to both Eve Hesse and Mel Bochner?

Shapiro: I don’t really, although I admire them both. Mel’s work for instance is both seriously and playfully invested in language and its relationship to perception and visual experience. I, however, could never deal with language. I mean it’s the antithesis of what I felt comfortable with then and now. I think it all has to do with my father who was such a very well-read, well-spoken and perceptive guy. So, being Mr. anti-Oedipus, I gravitated to more visceral and sensual activities—the non-verbal. Besides, I just wasn’t interested in pre-setting limits on what was possible.

Rail: Looking back now, would you agree that when Alanna Heiss invited you to do an installation at the Clocktower, which was actually the inaugural show in 1973, that in some ways pointed to a new beginning of your mature work?

Shapiro: They were small sculptures that referred to stuff in the real world. Absolutely. The exhibition was a big deal, and I really worked like crazy to make the pieces. The central piece in the exhibition was a small bridge, machined from a block of cast iron. I had this tiny ladder made out of basswood leaning against the right wall near the door. The prior spring, I showed a cluster of small images on the floor at Paula’s gallery—a coffin, a bridge, and a bird, along with a boat-like form. That stuff was tentative and delicate. The iron bridge insisted on itself. Later on, I exhibited an insane piece with dismembered body parts—torn apart little wooden artist’s mannequins, all strewn on the floor. Now that piece seems to be eerily prescient of my work of the last six years. That was at the Clocktower.

Rail: Well, you have the floor from which you can spring forth and elevate, which is how I think of your work up to now.

Shapiro: Yeah. It was an interesting show because it really transformed that huge space. And Alanna was great. She just let me do whatever I wanted to with that space. I knew at that point that I couldn’t go on and find images in the world and use them as the basis for my work any more. But at the same time, I was compelled to look at and deal with them from entirely different points of view. Nevertheless, I was interested in how they would hold up in space, how form is identified in space. Space is what’s really important to me in what seems to be an open territory that I’ve carved out for my work.

Rail: But your interest in space has a great deal to do with scale, a subject which we often perceive as a way for us to comprehend not only the judgment of size or proportion but a set of perceptions we instinctively formulate using our bodies as references. I think of your monolithic motif, especially of the house, as having a strong gestalt quality in that on one hand there’s a spatial or temporal proximity that induces the mind to perceive it in relation to its surroundings, while on the other hand I see it as a complete volumetric structure on the surface. I’m uncertain of the internal volume that is hidden below the surface. Therefore, the notion of life-size doesn’t quite exist. Life-size is at most our own size, but you don’t see yourself. This predicament is similar in Giacometti’s work in that what appears in the so-called “field of vision” is not a measurable concept, because when we say that an object takes up less space in our field of vision, we mean that its form is not strong enough to force us to see it sharply. In the end, its size cannot be separated from its distance; it’s an integral part of it, and vice-versa.

Shapiro: That’s a good description. I think they insisted on their own obdurate sense of self, in spite of the space surrounding but at the same time they’re a part of it. At the simplest, you make something with your hand, and it’s a projection of a thought that gets extended into the common ground of a gallery space, for instance. But at the same time, they have a kind of psychological narrative to them, although I’ve always felt that they’ve never been properly installed.

Rail: As we’ve talked about scale, your works in the early ’70s were neither big, like Richard Serra, nor motivated by an interest in the systematic and serialization, like Carl Andre. I was wondering, if when you were making those monolithic pieces, was it a visceral process or were you thinking of the work in reference to your contemporaries?

Shapiro: I was trying to make the work in relationship to myself. Clearly I didn’t invent the house or chair as images, but my own insistence on the size, and on casting it from wood to metal, do evoke a certain meaning that I’m trying to convey. Above all, they definitely dealt with space. I mean, as much as they assumed a kind of horizontality, predicated by the floor, they’re also meant to be placed in relationship to the perception of the wall of the room. What’s new and exciting in the new big piece is that it’s no longer dictated by the effect of gravity on form, but rather the effect of gravity on the organization of the form, which springs off in different directions away from any fixed axis. In other words, it really breaks away from the figure as much as from the ground. So it is unlike Andre’s work, where the density and weight is totally complicit with architecture. I mean, characteristic of minimalism, it accepts architecture as a basic premise. Most of it fits comfortable in the history of relief. This does not apply to Serra’s work, because his pieces obfuscate architecture to some extent. Same thing can be said of Smithson, because he reached right into the landscape. I’ve never been out to see Michael Heizer’s “City” in Garden Valley, Nevada, so I can’t say much about what he’s been working on. But the insistence on the work being real in the world is really obsessive and impressive. It’s this act of faith that I definitely don’t have.

Rail: Well, all of their work has a great affinity towards Pollock, or at least in trying to expand his legacy; whereas, in your work, I feel it has more to do with you not feeling comfortable being caught in the crossroad between the end point of minimalism and the beginning of Conceptualism, therefore it reveals your psychological and aesthetic dilemmas. Is that a fair description?

Shapiro: I thought my best source was my own perception, rather than working in somebody else’s. There are lots of artists who I thought about, I was clearly influenced by Carl Andre and Donald Judd whose work I could understand on some levels enough to synthesize and transform it into my own vocabulary.

Rail: I think the spatial content is similarly revealed in the evolution of your drawings. One can detect the changes from the early to mid-’70s, where the construction of lines of the same thickness are drawn within vertical and horizontal framework, though by the late ’70s into the ’80s, as the lines varied in thickness and began to move off the constrained framework, they became less static and more active, in a way giving birth to the figure. Yet one feels there’s a formal interplay in terms of how the form came into being, and various attempts of justifying their presence spatially, with traces of previous lines which create palimpsests as an organic part of the revising process. I also wonder whether you make drawings before, during or after the sculpture?

Shapiro: I make drawings in all different stages simultaneously. But to add to what you’ve just said, I was aware of my capacity to engender space, particularly the space between myself and the object. There was a certain depth in some of those drawings, as if I were trying to find a graphic equivalent to capture that atmospheric mental state that exists, for instance, in Rothko’s paintings.

Rail: I’m not so sure if I see that relationship between your space and Rothko’s space, simply because his pertains to the sublime, whereas yours is more concrete and physical.

Shapiro: Yes, but what I meant was that I was trying to correspond more with moments of elation, where you feel like you could take off and transcend these moments into your own language as best as you know how. I certainly don’t think I was involved with the sublime, but I was interested to make this declarative space through depth, and a sense of struggle.

Rail: You mean there is a great deal of visceral feeling for space, but you have to get the form to be assertive and legible, otherwise it refers to too much of the anxiety that is so identified with Giacometti’s existential angst or Abstract Expressionist’s spatial trembling as in de Kooning’s…

Shapiro: Don’t you think being doubtful is good?

Rail: Absolutely. It’s necessary for growth, as long as you’re constantly working it out. Do you work your ideas or your doubt out in drawing?

Shapiro: I haven’t been drawing lately—partly because I’ve been so involved playing with the so-called models-the little maquettes. This work has become so fluid. It’s like my three-dimensional equivalent of drawing. I used to often draw rather than deal with the difficult logistics of building stuff. Plus the drawing could have an intimate immediacy that at times I sensed the sculpture lacked. Now I feel at ease making these 3-D studies. I throw them up in the air, hang them up with strings, cut or break them apart, then put them back together with a pin-gun. Whatever way I can to generate a fluid form. Making them larger and free is tough but not insurmountable. Ichiro Kato helps me in this process.

Early on, I elevated large wooden beams up in the air on several ladders of different heights, or I would get my assistants to hold them up so I could screw them together as quickly as I could. It was crazy, in that I utilized the most expedient way possible to get this thing suspended, which was and still is my way of getting away from being rigid.

Rail: You know between 1918 to 1921, Rodchenko made 32 wood sculptures; the last 18 were called “Spatial Construction,” which was a series of wooden forms of equal width and thickness, but with varying length. It’s quite brilliant that he was able to build them out of these identical shapes, with all kinds of construction for various systems, types, applications, and so on. I wonder if you were aware of that body of work, or have a certain affinity towards other Constructivist artists?

Shapiro: Even though Constructivism had a great deal to do with its political agenda, which I’m not that invested in, their level of faith in pure abstraction is amazing. They had taken aspects of Picasso’s Cubism, which is full of domestic references, very bourgeois in content really, and carried them on to such a radical and profound degree. I think abstraction is simply an act of tremendous faith and very difficult and painful to sustain. Actually, I had a talk about this subject with Ellsworth (Kelly) a week ago, and I said to him, “The plight of abstraction is really hard, because it’s so psychologically demanding.” He had said that Bob (Robert) Ryman had told some other painters that abstraction is only the beginning. It was just in its early stages. I really admire both of their work, because of their abilities to sustain that level of abstraction for so long is not an easy task. I have great admiration for abstract painters since it is such a difficult and under appreciated task. I agree it is a totally under investigated form. It requires faith, belief and conviction. It also seems that the public is now so conditioned to a mediated experience that it cannot deal with raw stuff.

Rail: Well, same thing with Malevich who truly believed that his work was similar to icon painting. Anyway, besides Ellsworth Kelly and Bob Ryman, I’d think of Myron Stout’s painting in a similar light.

Shapiro: I agree, and he worked in isolation. Myron was a delicate soul. I think he shied away from attention. He was another kind of austere and spiritual artist.

Rail: In any case would you regard the new piece as a summation, at least up to the point of what you’ve been doing in the last two decades, especially with the break from the figure?

Shapiro: I think so. Although the reference to the figure is still there. Perhaps it’s less overt than it’s been in the past. But absolutely, I think in these new pieces I try to synthesize everything I’ve done prior, partly because I’m getting to that age. [Laughs] It’s not so much a summation as it exists just to utilize whatever you know and make the best thing you can, especially with the big piece. First of all, the foundry that I’ve worked with for many years recently went under. We brought all the old patterns back to the studio. We had truckloads of patterns, and I was looking at that model and I said, let’s build this. Let’s just take the old patterns and cannibalize them. We used what we could via ripping and rejoining the timbers, mostly fir and mahogany. Brandt Junceau, another sculptor, did most of the pattern re-joining. Then my main concern, aside from worrying that the work might not hold together, was to capture the different sense of time in each section of the work. Patrick Strzelec is another sculptor and we worked hard together to make sure each connection was true to the original. The model was cobbled together from disparate elements that had been conceived and built at different times.

I’ve been trying to make the form in the air. I made it in my hand with the pin gun, turned it around to every possible angle. I was very conscious of not making it in relationship to the ground, even though one half is on the ground in a kind of fallen over sort of way, the other part really explodes upward. It’s like the differences between Degas and Rodin. I mean Degas is so refined and elegant in his projection of form into space, whereas Rodin builds from the ground up. In other words, Rodin’s sculpture is so weighty as opposed to Degas’, which is light. So in my own way, I try to construct this piece in relation to its parts rather than in relation to the ground or the surrounding architecture.

Rail: It reminds me of Bruegel’s painting, “The Blind Leading the Blind,” in which in its increased spatial intervals the seven blind men pulling each other from the left and stumble into a ditch to the right of the canvas. I’ve always admired this painting, if you count the blind men’s sticks as parts of the precarious structure of the painting as a whole.

Shapiro: [Laughs] You know the whole thing is this crazy structure in that it all relies on the one just off vertical element in the middle. That element is reinforced with a stainless tube. Engineering is important in work of this size.

I feel like I’ve been working for so long to have finally built up this moment of discovery that I can get the work off the floor and be more playful in the air.

Rail: Like what Guston once said, “So much preparation for a few moments of innocence—of desperate play. To learn how to unlearn.”

Shapiro: That’s so true for every one of us who work so hard in order to experience those brief and fleeting realizations.

Rail: Do you feel that you have some strong affinities with Elizabeth (Murray) in the sense that you both seem to work with and against the trend of your time, moving back and forth between abstraction and representation?

Shapiro: Definitely, there’s a tremendous affinity between us. I know that Elizabeth would have loved this new piece—and yes, Elizabeth and I knew each other for a long time, and we were both very conscious of what was going on around us, while never abandoning our inner drive. It’s incredible to watch the way Elizabeth deals with the tough issues in her paintings. She’s so intensely devoted to her vision as a painter. So in a sense, it doesn’t matter whether or not she employs both abstract form and representational motifs in her painting, it was simply a matter of necessity. I feel the same way, really. So does Ellen (Phelan), my wife.

Rail: One last question: With the exception of maybe two or three pieces, why is all of your work untitled?

Shapiro: [Laughs] Because I can never come up with one. And, as I said earlier, because of my father being so articulate, therefore I tend to hesitate with language. Other than “Chasm” (1976), which was given by Rosalind Krauss, and a few commissioned works give where I was compelled to give titles. Also whatever moniker I might give the work, it just always seems so low and ordinary. I’m not much of a poet. Form is its own language.

Rail: That’s a very good reason. At least you don’t have to look in books for random associations like the Surrealists did for their titles.

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Phong Bui

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