An Artist Who Never Strayed From His Vision

Harold Shapinsky kept his paintings under a bed, now he's doing one-man shows

HAROLD SHAPINSKY made a surprisingly big impression on me. Surprising because I figure that the world is jammed full of Shapinskys. That out there are millions of people who have just done what they loved doing just because they loved doing it even though no one else noticed. I didn't talk to him for much more than an hour, but talking to him impressed me more than his paintings. And it wasn't what he said, and it wasn't that his paintings didn't make an impression, because he said good things, and makes wonderful paintings. No, what impressed me about Harold Shapinsky, and really made me appreciate his paintings and understand them so much more, was what he didn't say. Harold Shapinsky is a 65-year-old man who had been living and painting in Brooklyn, New York, in obscurity until six years ago when he was ``discovered'' and given his first one-person show, in London. He had been working all of his life in a style he evolved as a young man which at the same time was changing the face of the art world: Abstract Expressionism, characterized briefly as a form of painting which emphasized gesture in an effort to define the flatness and realness of color and shape as a more integrated realization of the painted space. While the work of its recognized pioneers, giants like Pollack, De Kooning, Gorky, and Rothko, continue to cast a huge shadow over the art world, Abstract Expressionism has long ago been absorbed into the strictures of art history.

WHEN something or someone comes along that asks us to reexamine with fresh eyes what we have accepted as law, we are naturally skeptical. We look at this kind of work usually under the watchful gaze of museum guards; how can we be expected to take it seriously as the life work of someone whom we have never heard of, who has been storing it under his bed? In describing Harold Shapinsky's work, people talk about how it has the passion and appearance of a De Kooning. Perhaps the appearance, but not the passion. I am a great admirer of De Kooning's work, however this work is really quite different beyond the stylistic similarities. Whatever it is that makes this work tick, it is worlds apart. And that is what makes it so interesting.

Apparently this work has caused something of a stir because of how closely the dates correspond to the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. I don't know why this should come as such a surprise. One, that the paintings were done at the same time, and two, that they are ``good.'' And that no one has ever heard of or seen the work. You don't have to spend much time in the so-called art world to discover that exposure and fame are almost as much of a mystery as art itself. Talking with Mr. Shapinsky, however, explains a lot. He is a shy and quiet man. But that doesn't explain it all. We have to ask, Why the attention now? and Why, if he never wanted it, would he accept it now? It's still a mystery.

So after all this time he has just had his first solo exhibition in New York, at the Helander Gallery. It was a small retrospective of the last 30 years of his work. Included werepaintings done in the last year. Happily these recent paintings are as lovely as any of the others; the man has not lost it. Any surprise? Not really. Not when you consider that he never seems to have strayed. There are differences, of course, but somehow there is something wonderfully the same, something constant, something remarkably true. Harold Shapinsky has held strong his faith in his vision, when all around him the world has changed, and challenged such virtue.

What he pioneered in the spirit of the future 40 years ago is already in mothballs. And yet his paintings possess the authenticity of the real thing because they are the real thing. Harold Shapinsky is still painting Abstract Expressionist works that have all of the life that they had back then because he still believes in the form. Everybody is acting like this is some kind of missing link. Well it is, and talking to Mr. Shapinsky I found out why.

IT would be a mistake to sum these paintings up as some kind of ``expressionism.'' Expressionism comes and goes. These paintings possess something more profound and lasting than passion. Their very existence is proof of that, and so is their vitality. I prefer to think of them as having a great deal of light instead of fire, in that light suggests a slow and enduring flame. The light is the thing I sense very strongly in the paintings. It is an impossible thing to put a finger on. It's just there. It is the kind of light that shines naturally in the art of children. Which says a lot. Children make art as plain as sunshine. You can't say much about it. It is all one. A pure and whole expression of life. Which may explain why this work has failed to produce much ``adult'' response. There isn't enough self-conscious artifice for critics to sink their teeth into.

That's the thing. I could hear it in myself as I talked to Harold Shapinsky. The negativity. The bitterness in the guise of criticism. I found no harbor in him for the expression of any such thoughts. None. It hit me like a hammer while I was talking to him. All of a sudden I saw it in the paintings. The acceptance. The positiveness. I was ashamed. But awed, and humbled. Something to admire and remember. Harold Shapinsky had nothing negative to say, and that said it all.

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