You won’t believe what I saw upon entering the 57th Street branch of PaceWildenstein Gallery: A collector (given the pricey cut of his jib, he had to be a collector) rapping his knuckles against a big, white sculpture by Joel Shapiro. He was encouraged-or, at least, not discouraged-to do so by a Pace attendant eager, no doubt, to curry favor and make a sale.
I can’t blame the guy for giving the Shapiro a knock or two. The artist’s blocky minimalist figures have, in recent years, become increasingly agitated and off-kilter. The sculptures at PaceWildenstein-all of which were created during the last four years-elaborate on this tendency, at times to an almost pugilistic degree. Perhaps the collector, apprehensive that a potential investment might tumble over during a high wind, felt that a check on its durability was called for-like kicking the tires of a new car.
Truth be told, not a few of Mr. Shapiro’s pieces couldn’t survive a high wind. Though many of the 31 sculptures reiterate Mr. Shapiro’s longstanding commitment to a distilled and hieratic art, it’s the rickety work that will raise eyebrows.
Cobbled together from lumberyard leftovers, wire and a clatter of nails, and painted with a bright and brash kindergarten palette, the assemblages are notably lacking in tautness. Mr. Shapiro’s signature totems are defined by rigid, elemental gestures; the new, smaller pieces literally hang loose. This casual quality is reinforced by an all-over-the-place installation redolent of the works-in-progress spirit of the studio. The absence of resolution, of decisions meted out to the nth degree, is a marked change from what we have come to expect from Mr. Shapiro.
Or is it? The press release informs us that the new sculptures are Mr. Shapiro’s response to “alterations of the cultural and psychological landscape.” What these “alterations” might be is never made clear or decisive, and the work isn’t as changed as Mr. Shapiro and his dealer would like us to believe. The dribbles of paint, the awkward accumulations of nails, the jerry-rigged joints, the exuberance and whimsy-you can’t help but grit your teeth at the willfulness of it all. Mr. Shapiro is always striving for effect, even at his sloppiest. The would-be classicist donning the mask of a slacker? Come on. Mr. Shapiro can pretend, but he can’t convince. Risk is beyond his ken.
Perhaps the “alterations” that Mr. Shapiro is responding to relate to an art scene increasingly geared toward artists fresh out of school, high on adrenaline and out to conquer the world. Mr. Shapiro may be eager to tap into that energy: Who doesn’t want an infusion of zip and zing? But if the new work is a reaction to 9/11 (the time frame of the show would seem to imply that this is the case), then the message isn’t getting through-unless, that is, showy irresolution counts as a viable response to historical fact. Still and all, I enjoyed the Shapiro show, if only for the sense-however self-consciously it’s put into place-that we’ve been made privy to the inner workings of the artist’s mind.
Joel Shapiro: Work in Wood, Plaster and Bronze: 2001-2005 is at PaceWildenstein, 32 East 57th Street, until April 16.
Corporate culture is ubiquitous and at times deserving of our ire. To complain about the taste governing Contemporary Voices: Works from the UBS Collection, a selection of art culled from the boardrooms of the Swiss financial service (most of it a promised gift to the Museum of Modern Art), is to engage in observations that are predictable and redundant, if often accurate.
We shouldn’t expect a deeply considered aesthetic from a company that looks expressly to the market for building a collection of art. (Unless, of course, you want to argue that the market is its aesthetic.) Anyone who keeps half an eye on the art world will recognize how mainstream and tame the UBS collection is. There isn’t a thing in it that hasn’t been given the nod by Christie’s, The New York Times or MoMA itself. Susan Rothenberg, Gerhard Richter, Donald Judd, Christopher Wool and Bruce Nauman-ho hum, another raft of run-of-the-mill masterpieces.
But you know what? Sometimes the market is right. Not all of the time-in fact, for very little of the time. (Maybe it’s better to say that sometimes the market is not wrong.) Certainly the good stuff that got past the consultants at UBS-beginning with In the Studio (1975), a prime example of Philip Guston’s late style-stands out because it’s the individual exception to the innocuous rule. Maybe, one naïvely hopes, that was MoMA’s ultimate game plan: culling the gems from a profusion of dreck, and consigning the rest to the storage racks or the auction block.
If that’s so, pieces by Richard Diebenkorn and Bill Jensen-featured in the catalog but not in the exhibition-would enrich the permanent collection. The same goes for Untitled III (1982) by Willem de Kooning, an “Alzheimer’s Painting” that is engaged and coherent enough to belie the tag. Other pieces to add to the list are: Howard Hodgkin’s In Bed in Venice (1984-88), Neo Rauch’s Wound (1998) and an untitled 1990 watercolor by Jasper Johns, the most agreeable thing this perpetually overrated artist has put his hand to. Admittedly, I’m seeing the glass as one-tenth full rather than nine-tenths empty. That’s the kind of small optimistic gesture you need to make in order to get through Contemporary Voices awake and in one piece.
Contemporary Voices: Works from the UBS Collection is at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, until April 25.