Joel Shapiro

Joel Shapiro began making sculpture in the late 1960s, at a time when minimal art and art theory still held sway. The critical view prevailing then was that serious sculpture must be neither figurative nor decorative, and that its material nature must be undisguised. Shapiro found these aesthetic principles compelling because of the resistance they offered his ambitions: they implied reduction and simplification, so he would try to conform to them while giving sculpture a new kind of complication. The untitled cast iron piece shown here is a good example of his approach.

At a glance, this sculpture appears to represent a chair. In fact, it is a chair that appears representational only because its small scale renders it useless as furniture. To look closely at this work, you have to bend over or squat down to its level (it is just over seven inches tall). You may notice that the world looks very different at knee level from the way you normally experience it. With that observation, you may appreciate your normal eye-level unfamiliarly as a distinct position in space. By thus invoking the viewer's own sense of embodiment, Shapiro continues in a novel way the tradition of Western sculpture's preoccupation with the human form. Even a photograph shows how the work's small size highlights the scale relations of everything around it, and the viewer's own bodily scale as well.

Traditionally, free-standing sculpture has developed its meaning in terms of views that change as we move around it. Shapiro's piece is so simple in form that moving around it yields no surprises, for he has oriented our perception of changing views to the verticality of our standing posture. (And the views that change are our ways of seeing the work's context, not only the thing itself.) It is by getting us to walk close, stoop to look, stand again, and decide whether we're seeing a chair or the figure of a chair that the work provides for our experience of changing views.

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