Joel Shapiro



Not on display

Joel Shapiro born 1941
Object: 1115 × 1125 × 1950 mm
Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996


Untitled is a large bronze sculpture that sits directly on the floor. The work can be seen as loosely figurative in its resemblance to a human figure lying on its back with its left leg held up in the air, yet it features no indication of a head and its ‘limbs’ vary in scale. It appears to be made up of five discrete geometric shapes but has been cast as a single object. These five forms are mostly connected to each other at non-perpendicular angles or in such a way that their edges do not line up neatly. One of the shapes – a short, truncated cuboid that may represent the figure’s torso – is balanced on a single edge, slightly elevating much of the sculpture off the ground. A sense of movement is evoked by the way in which the longer ‘leg’ tilts back towards the opposite end of the torso-like shape. The work’s surface features considerable variation between light and dark tones. It also bears a wood-grain pattern, although this is less easily visible in darker portions of the sculpture.

This work was created by the American artist Joel Shapiro in 1984. Shapiro began by cutting five cuboids out of wood using a saw, after which he joined these forms together and cast the overall composition in bronze. Shapiro has frequently left his works untitled since the early 1970s (see also Untitled 1972–3, collection of the artist), and when asked about this during an interview in 2007, he stated: ‘I can never come up with one … 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’ (Joel Shapiro and Phong Bui, ‘In Conversation: Joel Shapiro and Phong Bui’, Brooklyn Rail, 4 November 2007,, accessed 28 July 2015).

Untitled is one of a considerable number of works that Shapiro has produced since 1976 which use thick geometric forms to broadly evoke the human form. While all of these works started out as groups of wooden blocks and sometimes remained in that material, from 1980 onwards Shapiro began to cast some of them in other materials, such as bronze and aluminium (see also Untitled 1980–1, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). As the art historian Hendel Teicher has observed, the figurative works Shapiro produced between 1982 and 1986 generally have an especially ambiguous relationship with the human form (Teicher 1998, p.99), and Untitled can be included within this group.

Discussing his figurative sculptures in 1982, Shapiro stated: ‘I am interested in those moments when it appears that a figure is a figure, and other moments when it looks like a bunch of wood stuck together – moments when it simultaneously configures and disfigures’ (Joel Shapiro, ‘Commentaries’, in Whitney Museum of American Art 1982, p.101). Although he made this statement before Untitled was produced, this sculpture seems to exemplify Shapiro’s idea of creating a work that is both a single, cohesive figure and a collection of discrete blocks. The critic Donald Kuspit has argued that all of Shapiro’s sculptures feature this ambiguity, claiming that ‘each part’ of any work ‘has a geometrical self-evidence, whose strong, determinate presence is compromised by its ambiguous – insecure, tenuous – connection with the other parts. The over-all result is an open, inconclusive form’ (Donald Kuspit, ‘Joel Shapiro’s Figurative Constructions’, in Joel Shapiro Roma, exhibition catalogue, American Academy in Rome, Rome 1999, p.88). In Untitled this disjunctive quality is exacerbated by the varied scale of its ‘limbs’, which prevents any concrete interpretation of the work as a coherent body. In 1982 Shapiro also connected his use of bronze casting with this same dynamic of unity and fragmentation. Discussing an earlier figurative sculpture that was cast in bronze (Untitled 1980–1, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), he wrote: ‘Although the piece is very much about joining, I was interested in the unification of it through casting and the insistence on its form through casting. I was adamant about it being cast as one piece’ (Shapiro 1982, p.101).

Discussing Shapiro’s figurative sculptures in 1982, the critic Roberta Smith argued that they generally revolve around a ‘vigorous’ relationship between ‘the horizontal ground plane of the sculpture’ and the ‘vertical position’ adopted by some of its elements (Roberta Smith, ‘Joel Shapiro’, in Whitney Museum of American Art 1982, p.29). Untitled seems to address this dynamic relationship through its raised, vertical ‘leg’ that is balanced by a prone ‘torso’, as well as the elongation of the leg and the slight elevation of the torso from the ground.

Further reading
Joel Shapiro, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1982.
Joel Shapiro, exhibition catalogue, Stedilijk Museum, Amsterdam 1985.
Hendel Teicher, Joel Shapiro: Sculptures and Drawings, New York 1998, reproduced p.115.

David Hodge
July 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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Display caption

This sculpture moves between abstract form and human representation. As Shapiro says, 'I am interested in those moments when it appears that it is a figure and other moments when it looks like a bunch of wood stuck together.' During the 1980's Shapiro assembled pieces of timber and the whole was cast in bronze. The resulting figures have a building block rigidity, rising from or falling into the floor. They are only semi-human with blunt limbs pointing in unexpected directions. The rough featureless surfaces keep us at arm's length from suggesting the figure's emotional state. In fact, the sculpture is bare enough to reveal that reading them as human representation is a reflex on our part, something we cannot help.

Gallery label, August 2004

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