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A. Moret - Writer and Art Critic

Joel Shapiro- For Your Art (December 2009)

A. Moret interviews Joel Shapiro at Gemini G.E.L. on November 24, 2009 hours before the opening of his show “Boat, Bird, Mother and Child.” A. Moret: I’m curious about your transition from sculptures to silkscreens.  What inspired the change in mediums?

Joel Shapiro: I’ve always made drawings but the drawings were never related to the sculpture in terms of intent.  So if I was dealing with spatial situations, I would draw boundaries on the page that would refer to larger and bigger spaces, smaller space and in a certain way the drawings I could realize things that were difficult to realize in sculpture. I think sculpture became much more immediate and about grabbing stuff in the present tense and joining it together finding the configuration, inverting the configuration chopping up and removing a certain pieces until I found some form that satisfied whatever I was trying to pursue.   And what you’re trying to pursue in art is difficult to articulate. A lot of my sculptures are really organized by grabbing materials around me.  Chunks of wood lying around the studio, sometimes I cut them, sometimes its scrap, I might make up a whole battery of wood that’s lying around and synthesize volumes that interest me. And instead of making drawings I started to cut up pieces of paper, cardboard, mostly school kids stuff with oak tags which is what we called them when I was in school, kind of hot cheap colors. And I found that by doing that by using staples and tape I could actually come up with configurations of the drawing that I felt had the freedom and liveliness and I think many of those studies I used as a basis for the silk-screens.

AM:  What type of paper did you use for the collage component of the silkscreen?

JS:  I think it’s all printed on one type of paper, I think it’s Fabriano and then we matched colors and made up colors.  I cut the shapes and ofcourse the collage elements were silk-screened and I tried to keep it as a true and in a way it really worked.  I think the problem is to generate a real vital, lively form that maintains its vibrancy and the silkscreen has an immediacy and emphaticness that really engaged me.

AM:  In working with the printmakers did you feel the same degree of immediacy with the silkscreens as you did with the sculptures?

JS: Silkscreen has this immediacy because it’s the direct application of pigment or paint to flat surface.  It really seems to me that the collages I would do, really leant itself to a series of prints and they sort of deal with forms and space.  They’re very close to the sculpture.  There’s no sculpture that looks like this, but I think in terms of, there’s more common vitality.

AM:  To that end I would imagine is that your dealing with geometric shapes devoid of sexuality or individuality but they are about abstraction and about how shapes interact.

JS:  There’s no new shape to make, but there’s definitely recombination of shapes that make something new or individual, so I think the anonymity of the surface interests me.  Some of the surfaces are double printed.  They have texture.  But I just don’t think that the only invention is to put these things together so that they identify something that’s meaningful to me as the artist and hopefully it’s meaningful to somebody else. You can’t invent a shape, not that I think there’s nothing to invent, everything is out there somewhere, some place, and it’s about how you pull it together to find some manifestation of some inner self.

AM:  Is it a re-appropriation of the shape?

JS:  I don’t think there’s any re-appropriation.  I think it’s the combination- art is the about the combination of known reference into something new.  No one is going to invent the figure, but it’s the context that you see it in.  I don’t think that there’s any appropriation because you can’t appropriate a triangle (laughs).

AM: I think what I love most about your new body of work, and maybe this is because I’m a writer and I gravitate toward words, is your decision to use of the same title for each piece with a single letter as the distinguishing characteristic.

JS: I think you could take the simplest language and when you put it together in some way it can express something that has some reference.  I recently did one that looks like Moby Dick that looks a giant whale.  It’s not an articulated intention and it’s not about secondary imagery but I do think that you come up with references that mean something that are based on your experience unknown or known.  I mean otherwise why would one bother doing it? It has a parallel in poetry.  I’m cutting paper, moving paper, pulling paper away, taping it together, stapling it and all of the sudden I come up with a figuration that I find arresting.  I don’t even know what it’s about until I keep looking at it, but I do know at that point that it’s maybe a little advanced visually in terms of the development of the work and I think at that point you sit back and look at it.  I think this batch of work happens to have a lot of bird, mother, boat, child and they have this kind of child-like quality that every artist wants because that’s when you’re the least inhibited.

AM:  There’s a playfulness and infinite exploration.

JS:  Yeah.  And it can be very deep, when you hit on some profound condition.  I don’t know if I do that, but it’s possible.  The artists I love are Miro and Calder.  I like really playful stuff.  I think Calder has this- he retains his hand in the work regardless of the size.  He’s one of the few sculptors who can make a large outdoor piece that still has a sense that the individual wasn’t lost in production.

AM:  I would like to follow up on this notion of an idea getting lost in production-do you normally have an assistant when you’re making sculptures?

JS:  Well I tend to- not when I’m making studies.  I would tend to work alone, but if I need another set of hands I would definitely call my assistant.  But I tend to put stuff together with a hand saw, I have this pile of wood like you have letters and then I’ll stick it together with a pin gun, very delicate, shoots these 1 30 second pins and I could put these connections.  But I’m more interested in tangential connections, things that are almost falling apart.  Then if you want to make it larger, then I really do need an assistant.  But I find an assistant inhibiting in the initial aspect of discovering or making something, including when I made these drawings or collages that were the basis of these prints, no assistant was around.

AM:  I wanted to go to a point there’s a review from Christopher Knight who reviewed your show at LA Louver.  He felt unlike Modernist sculptors, you use gravity toward your advantage and they were part of the piece and I also felt your new silk-screens exhibited that quality.

JS: The problem with gravity is its pervasive and it conditions, it doesn’t in language or maybe it does, I’m sure it does, it does, I don’t know enough about language.  Just the tabletop, the plane of the table is a support for the interview that we’re doing.  Imagine if you’re building something on a tabletop, what interests me more than gravity is to what extent architecture effects the organization of the form.  To use the tabletop or the floor as a place where you begin to put things together, really conditions the way you perceive the form and what it means versus somehow creating something where you’re extending form into space as an extension of thought and that the thought overwhelms the gravitational organization of architecture or how that’s imposed.  Does that make sense? It’s a difficult concept and I think it’s a really important aspect of making sculpture where the kind of thought, or what you’re driving at or what you’re trying to illicit is more in your mind and less on the ground or something, that’s incorrect.  Degas, his sculpture which is great sculpture, he’s a great painter but the sculpture is really radical and transformative because it is about this projection of the thought of dance and in a way its as if the forms magically extend to the ground rather than being built from the ground up.  Rodin builds from the ground up, but he likes the solidity of geometry and all the security it provides.  The particular sculpture Christopher was referring to was a piece that I remember putting it together and somehow I had all these shapes and somehow I was trying to get them so they were not interconnected, so it wasn’t facet to facet which is the way most architectures build, it wasn’t about one beam finding the most pragmatic connection.  It wasn’t about pragmatism at all, it was about trying to capture this burst of energy and moving this form around and wrapping this chaotic form up in something else.  I may have inverted the form.  I don’t think I inverted at that time, so sometimes I’ll turn stuff around so the meaning entirely changes.  Gravity is this real condition, gravity in architecture and what I mean by architecture is the perpendicularity of a wall, the flatness of the floor and we’re always negotiating through that.

AM:  And what about the architecture of the silkscreen?

JS:  Well you have the architecture of the page.  The page is a rectangle and it’s flat so I think in these configurations I was trying not to think about the page and I was trying not to think about flatness and I was trying to make these forms in references to the forms themselves.  Many of them originally I started with a piece of a paper kind of overwhelm the paper, so I tape them down one sheet and before I knew it the form was expanding beyond the paper itself and even though many of them are contained within the sheet I think they have some reference outside of the page.  If I did that, even a little bit of that, I’m glad I did that.  I think that kind of play with not allowing to work beyond the convention established by the situation you encounter is interesting.

AM:  I had the opportunity to speak with June Wayne several weeks ago about the trials and tribulations of printmaking.

JS:  Oh it’s hard.  Of course if you’re invited to make prints in a place like Gemini it’s great because you’re working with the most skilled people who don’t interfere in the process, they’re just enabling you to realize that it’s possible. The form is anywhere, there’s no artistry in cutting those forms.  There is massive artistry in printing those forms, I think it’s very hard to do, it may not be hard to do with a knife and scissor but with a silkscreen I think it’s hard work.