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Rising above convention with Joel Shapiro’s bronzes

September 17, 2018

When “Joel Shapiro: The Bronzes” opens with a reception at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on Saturday, even the artist himself will be seeing many of the monumental sculptures together for the first time.

“I look forward to the show. I just booked my ticket,” said Shapiro, whose studio is in New York City. “I want to get there before it gets cold,” he added with a laugh.

Shapiro — whose work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and many others — will give a talk at MMOCA during the show’s opening event.

“Joel Shapiro: The Bronzes” will run Sept. 23 until mid-January at the free-admission museum.

More than four years in the making, “Joel Shapiro: The Bronzes” will fill the entire 8,200-square-foot second floor gallery at MMOCA.

“Joel has a wonderful and illustrious career,” said MMOCA director Stephen Fleischman, “but I think of the bronzes as being a very complete way of looking at his artistic practice.

“He’s worked in bronze for many decades, from the early part of his career to the present. And although he’s done two-dimensional work – he’s done drawings, on rare occasions he’s made prints, and he’s more recently done lots of sculptures in wood — there hasn’t been a major gathering of his bronze works for decades.”

Some of the enormous sculptures were formerly exhibited in outdoor settings; some have never been seen by the public at all.

“I think Steve and I were both interested in seeing them inside,” Shapiro said.

Typical of Shapiro’s work, the sculptures use bold geometric forms in ways that seem to defy gravity and create movement. The color of each work is different, but what the viewer sees is the many and varied shades of bronze, not the brightly colored forms of some of Shapiro’s other recently displayed work.

In Madison, “I was not interested in doing a retrospective. I had two exhibitions recently, one at Yale University Art Gallery, and at the Kunstmuseum in Winterthur (Switzerland), a retrospective of a kind of softer side of the work, a more tentative aspect of the work,” the artist said.

“So (at MMOCA) I was interested in doing this. This is sort of timely for me. I haven’t really looked at these bronzes in a group in quite a while,” he said.

“Basically, the work I’ve been showing lately – I’ve been doing a lot of installations, which is more about paint and things suspended from the ceiling and the wall, so there’s a lot of interaction going on in the space,” Shapiro said.

“I think to some extent I’m taking that approach and applying it to this exhibition, so there will be a lot of interaction in the space. The work is different heights and different scales, so it’ll be – hopefully – sort of symphonic, so the pieces play with each other.”

The 15 works that make up the show, many larger than life, were created between 1983 and 2015.

“They span a century,” Shapiro, 76, said again with a laugh. “They start in the 20th and they go into the 21st. One can look at it like that.”

An internal track

The huge works arrived at the MMOCA loading dock in early September, disassembled and secured to wooden pallets. Forklifts were used to remove each pallet from the bed of a semi-trailer truck, and the sculptures were painstakingly reassembled last week in the gallery by MMOCA staff and workers from Findorff Construction.

Shapiro’s work uses space and geometry to give the abstract forms their energy.

“What I’ve been trying to do is make form animate, to make it engaging and alive,” Shapiro explained.

“I think one interesting thing about showing the work indoors is that the work is constructed out of planes, mostly, so it uses an architectural convention of flatness in a certain way. So you get a big scale change, between, say, the wall of the museum and the flat plane of the sculpture.”

The forms themselves are all vastly different.

“Some are more somber, and some are more reflective and self-reflective,” Shapiro said. “Some are kind of joyful – they’re all different.

“You know – synthesizing one’s experience into form is hard to talk about. I think that’s in the end what artists do: You don’t even know what you’re doing when you’re working. But there’s this internal track you’re on. I think you sort of take the experience around you and translate it into form.”

‘Tossing form off the floor’

Shapiro is intrigued by “tossing form off the floor,” as he puts it. That’s a departure from the convention of sculpture starting on the floor or tabletop and rising from there, Fleischman said.

“One of the things that he’s done during his career is try to figure out different ways to make a piece grow without using a pedestal,” Fleischman said. “Joel has thought about other ways of keeping things human in their approach-ability.”

As a result, Shapiro’s work “is like a frozen moment in time, because the figures seem to be moving, rising up, collapsing,” Fleischman said. “The work involves a lot of different dualities or tensions within it. Like most good art, you can view it different ways. You can see things in a positive light – a figure striding forward – or you can see it as a figure out of balance, out of whack, about to fall on its face.”

Shapiro does not give titles to most of his sculptures. That gives viewers “as much room as possible to make their own conclusions about the work,” Fleischman said.

Seeing up close

MMOCA expects “Joel Shapiro: The Bronzes” to draw audiences from well outside Madison.

“He’s a very important artist. He’s one of the most important artists that’s bridged the 20th and 21st century,” Fleischman said.

There is no replacement for seeing the bronzes up close to witness their scale and examine their surfaces, he said. Telltale signs of the artist’s patterns — used to make the forms from which the metal sculptures were cast — are there.

“I think the surfaces are really important,” Shapiro agreed.

“If the casting is done properly, you have that memory, you have that reference back to where it came from. The surface is really playful and interesting. It generates a kind of activity, perceptually, that engages you.”

“I’m willfully trying to break convention, not comply with convention,” Shapiro said.

“I think to some extent I use conventional means, which I think is more interesting. There’s nothing radical about bronze or plaster or sand-casting. But … if the input is more radical, you come up with an interesting situation — and I think that is sort of what the work’s about.”

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