Michael Davis on Joel Shapiro

Joel Shapiro, Untitled, 1969, ink on numbered graph paper, 7 13/16 x 9 15/16 inches (19.8 x 25.2 cm). © 2013 Joel Shapiro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Photo: Ellen McDermott
Joel Shapiro, Untitled, 1969, ink on numbered graph paper, 7 13/16 x 9 15/16 inches (19.8 x 25.2 cm). © 2013 Joel Shapiro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Photo: Ellen McDermott

Known primarily for his sculpture and formalist style, the artist Joel Shapiro explores in this drawing a different approach–mark-making. Untitled, from 1969, is one of a series of fingerprint works that Shapiro made during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dating to relatively early in his career, these drawings suggest the exploration of new materials and techniques by an artist who has yet to settle fully into a primary method of expression.

Regarding his fingerprint works, the artist has said said, “I was interested in mark–making. Not using an instrument, but using my finger to make the mark, was very emphatic and direct and there was nothing mediating the image. It was factual. Rather than sit around and make fingerprints that became some other image, the fingerprint–the mark–was an image of itself. So I sort of really didn’t care what it ended up looking like. I was more interested in the process of doing it.”1

The work that results is an example of such experimentation with process from early in Shapiro’s career. Even in this drawing, however, one can discern the sculptor at work. Shapiro has taken a literally “hands-on” approach, forming the image with his own skin, much like he would sculpt a malleable material such as clay.

Untitled features marks that are non-illusionistic yet instantly evocative. It is imbued with an almost childlike excitement, reminiscent of the fascination often observed in children completely engrossed in making their marks on anything they can. Making fingerprints is the first way most children create art. The pride that comes with this activity tends to wear off as children mature, but here Shapiro legitimizes it, advancing those early expressions of creativity into something more structured. That structure is reinforced in this drawing in particular through the use of graph paper. We can read the grid as a symbol of the uniform structure that people often apply to their lives as they age. Shapiro’s juxtaposition of this rigidity with his own fingerprints may recall the childhood desire to claim ownership over objects, to make things one’s own–a desire that develops over time yet still resides within every individual. Every once in a while, Shapiro’s fingerprints stray from the grid. Every once in a while, we all like to make a mark outside the lines.

1. Joel Shapiro, “MoMA2000: Open Ends (1960-2000)” (audio program excerpt, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 28 September 2000 to 4 March 2001), http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A5373&page_number=1&template_id=1&sort_order=1.

Joel Shapiro Biography

Joel Shapiro (b. 1941, New York, NY) received his BA and MA degrees from New York University. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1998), was honored with the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture (2005), and was elected to membership in the National Academy (2012). Since his first exhibition at the Paul Cooper Gallery (1970), his work has been the subject of many one-person shows and retrospectives throughout the world, including recently at: Pace Gallery, New York (2010, 2014); Galerie Karsten Greve, Köln (2010); the Museum Ludwig, Köln (2011); Rice University Art Gallery, Houston (2012); Craig F. Starr Gallery, New York (2013); Galerie Karsten Greve, Paris (2014); and Portland Art Museum, Oregon (2014). Shapiro’s work can be found in numerous public collections such as: The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Tate Gallery, London; and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Prominent commissions include: Loss and Regeneration for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC; Conjunction by the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE) for the United States Embassy, Ottawa, Canada; Verge for 23 Savile Row, London; For Jennifer by the Denver Art Museum; and Now by FAPE for the U.S. Consulate, Guangzhou, China. Shapiro lives and works in New York City.
Michael Davis Biography
Michael Davis resides in Shizuoka City, Japan, where he is an adviser for the Shizuoka City Board of Education. He has lived and worked in Japan for the last four years, but previously studied Art History and Fine Arts Management at the University of Richmond in Virginia.