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Exhibition notes.

"Joel Shapiro on the Roof" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. May 1-October 31, 2001

"Joel Shapiro: Recent Sculpture and Drawings" at PaceWildenstein, New York. April 27-May 26, 2001

Much of the art of the twentieth century has attempted to reconcile the figurative and the abstract; Joel Shapiro is one of the few to do so in three dimensions. Atop the Metropolitan Museum, five of his spindly objects are on view throughout the summer, set against the verdant backdrop of Central Park and, beyond, the notched curtain of the city itself. This show marks the first time his sculpture has been situated high above the street, and it's appropriate became Shapiro sees his work not "as an extension of architecture but in healthy opposition." As he said in a recent interview, "I'm not interested in the floor, wall, or tabletop as a pattern, a template, as a basis of form ... the corollary of painting being limited by format is sculpture's acquiescence to any architecture." What he is interested in is the human figure.

One of the first works one sees upon stepping out onto the Met roof, Untitled (2000-01), is a life-sized figure, in cast aluminum painted blue, of a person walking, its long rectangular blocks serving as the torso and limbs. Balanced precariously on the right leg, with the left in the air high-stepping or marching, arms flung vigorously before and behind, the walker, with its teetering, motile energy, is a perfect example of Shapiro's sculptural work. The tallest work at the Met is twenty-four feet high--also cast in aluminum and painted, though red--but still relies on Shapiro's typical cantilevering to anchor its five limb-and-torso-like blocks: it looks like a gymnast poised on one arm, his legs and the other arm held above. The other three works in the show are cast in bronze, two of which have a similarly vertical organization, while the fifth, Untitled (1991), stretches out more horizontally.

Whether twenty-four feet or only inches high, recognizably figural or not, all of Shapiro's sculptures employ parts that are human in scale. He works by making small wooden models joined together with glue and metal pins, then, after arriving at the right form, casting a full-scale work. At PaceWildenstein's thorough and sightly exhibition, many small-sized works could be seen alongside the larger sculptures. Though cast in bronze, the small works retain the wood grain of the original models, admitting a glimpse of their genesis in the studio.

Angular and spare, Shapiro's sculpture has clear affinities with Constructivism, &spite the fact that he tends to use the more traditional medium of bronze. The highly designed graphic and abstract qualities one associates with Constructivism are evident, too, in the seven remarkable drawings on view at PaceWildenstein. Employing overlapping rectangular and square blocks of pastel and charcoal, the drawings seem almost a throwback to early modernist abstraction. Splashes, smudges, and stray marks enliven the white areas of paper, saving the hard-edged geometries of the rectangular blocks from overly graphic inertness. On paper, Shapiro can indulge his surprising facility with color, using the overlapping red, blue, black, brown, and pink shapes to suggest the shallow depths beneath the picture's literal plane as a compositional principle instead of the more human forms that organize the sculptures.

The sculptures at PaceWildenstein, though endlessly inventive and playful, were nevertheless all cast in bronze. Due to their colors, the drawings recalled the two painted aluminum sculptures on the Met roof. Shapiro has only recently begun painting his sculptural work. Adding color to his three-dimensional work certainly opens fecund new avenues for his sculptural enterprises, and one hopes he will continue in this direction. These two shows prove Shapiro a master of visual space in all its dimensions, so much so that the underlying struggle between figuration and abstraction recedes to the background, allowing us to bask in the pure pleasure of beholding his creations.

"Sidney Tillim: Recent Paintings" at Trans Hudson Gallery, New York. April 10-May 12, 2001

Taken together, the eight paintings in Sidney Tillim's recent show comprise a sly, highly intellectualized challenge to our understanding of history and history painting. How successfully any one of the works might stand on its own is less clear. These are somewhat crudely executed, faintly Hopperesque exercises in a representational vein. They are primarily forceful as a group commentary on how we experience history in our daily lives. Some of them, such as David Cone's No-Hitter (1999-2000) and Modern Crime, or The Death of Irene Silverman (2001), take their subjects directly from contemporary news stories. The others reimagine scenes from films: Chariots of Fire, American Beauty, and Johnny Guitar, among them.

A critic as well as an artist, Tillim at seventy-six seems to be playing a postmodern game, culling images (postmodern theorists would use the flat-footed term "appropriation" here) from popular culture and serving them up again in another medium--oil or acrylic paint--but such a characterization hardly gets at the interest of Tillim's gambit. The Cone and Silverman paintings--depicting, respectively, a perfectly pitched baseball game of July 18, 1999, and the swindle and murder of Irene Silverman by a mother-and-son team--make the point that the moments from history that have the most significance for us today are distinctly less elevated and less edifying than those depicted by the history painters of the past. His Sunday painter's treatment of them, which, strangely enough is in no way displeasing despite its offhand manner, hammers the point home: for us, history has a diminished presence.

The other six canvases ask us to accept the fact that popular culture, film in this case, has the same standing as history for contemporary viewers and that we are likely to recall scenes from films as history. In fact, these images are given the status of history precisely because they are recalled or reimagined; the artist did not copy film stills. I've not seen all the films to which Tillim alludes, but I've seen enough of them to know that he has not recreated the scenes verbatim.

American Beauty (2000): a young blond woman in a skirt sits, with her shirt open and her breasts visible, on a couch covered with a yellow, floral patterned fabric in a wood-paneled room, while, next to her, a young dark-haired man walks past, his back to us. The pair do not look much like the actors in the film, and the scene, though it has elements that are similar to those in American Beauty--a suburban setting, a dark-haired young man and blond-haired young woman--did not take place in the film. An outtake perhaps, but more likely an image from the film distorted by memory, as moments of recent history tend to be distorted.

In part, what makes the show so engaging is the paradox offered by its means and thrust: the unrefined technique Tillim employs in painting these works belies the extremely sophisticated arguments about history and art that the show makes. Unfortunately, any one of these paintings (with the possible exception of Modern Crime, the centerpiece) would, on its own, be cut off from the cumulative argument of the whole, leaving it, like history in this show, considerably reduced in stature.

Daniel Kunitz writes about art regularly for The New Criterion.
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Title Annotation:"Joel Shapiro on the Roof" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Author:Kunitz, Daniel
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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