BALTIMORE -- If you had to pin a label on New York sculptor Joel Shapiro you could call him a magical minimalist. The sculptures he is showing at the Baltimore Museum of Art are modernist, Manhattanesque, reductionist, enchanted. The magic happens all at once.
You're looking at a piece composed of three, or five, or seven, connected blocks of wood or bronze. You've seen such forms before. You're thinking, as you think you should, gray and formal thoughts of additive assemblage, emptiness and Euclid, when suddenly the spell takes hold. All at once -- there's someone there!
That beam's become a human leg, that wedge a human torso. When glimpsed from the right angle, Shapiro's mute and boxy forms start behaving just like people. One is crouching in the corner in a mood of deep dejection. Some are striding through the gallery, or somersaulting gaily. Some are gliding as if skating. You've felt them come alive.
The experience is electric. It carries with it memories of the walking golem formed out of clay by Rabbi Loew of Prague. Pygmalion must have felt it when his ivory beloved first began to breathe. Geppetto felt it too, when Pinocchio first smiled. So did Dorothy in Oz. It's a jolt as old as art.
But it's been banished from the realms of minimalist abstraction. It is, the teachers tell us, retrograde to read a Barnett Newman "zip" as a tall and slender figure standing in a field, or a Kenneth Noland target as if it were an eye. Serious abstract art is supposed to stay abstract. Even in its references. Richard Serra's blacknesses may be heaviness incarnate; the grids of Sol LeWitt may be fine investigations of seriality and system; and the boxes made by Donald Judd may snub you with their cold, standoffish elegance, but the minimalist constructions of Shapiro's New York colleagues strive to keep their distance. They rarely hint at somersaults. They don't try to touch the heart.
Joel Shapiro's figures never feel like portraits, and you can't quite call them statues. Their limbs and heads are squarish. They don't have eyes or noses, their legs don't end with toes. Yet they're figures nonetheless.
But figures of a special sort. They're not statements, they're suggestions. That prideful striding figure is no specific individual, he's pomposity itself. That spinning, gliding metal man -- one somehow knows it is a man -- isn't someone skating. It's the idea of skating made of blocks of bronze.
There are 26 such beings -- all elegant, all nameless, all made since 1974 -- in the Baltimore exhibit. Very few of them stand still. Their movements tend to be half-jerky and half-graceful, both restricted and released. It's as if the sculptor's caught them in between the realms of sculptural solidity and immaterial thought.
It's allegiance to abstraction, to reduced and squared-off shapes that gives these partly living objects -- these strange material metaphors -- their strange and touching power. Looking at these blocky beings, half-trapped in their heavy, obdurate materials, one thinks of spirits dwelling in streams or trees or stones. No mere representations have that eerie resonance. Shapiro's stripped and abstract works, unlike so many others, somehow join us in the world.
Some are tall and skinny. One particularly handsome piece -- it's just two light wooden boxes on two slim steel poles -- throws its boxy head back as if staring at the clouds. But many more are chunky. Shapiro is chunky too.
There is a kind of easy, coiled energy about him. He did some boxing as a youngster. Knicks games give him pleasure. Shapiro rarely works from models. Instead you get the feeling that he has somehow taken the gestures of his sculptures from the way his body moves. When you meet him you can sense that same humane intelligence, that wit combined with seriousness, that activates his art.
Shapiro, 48, has been a much-applauded New York artist since he first showed at Paula Cooper's gallery in Manhattan 20 years ago.
That his pieces dance through boundaries, collecting connotations, is entirely intentional. "If you don't put references into the work, what do you have left?" he asks. "You have nothing but design."
The mysteries within his work have been there from the start. He acknowledges, with laughter, that there may well have been a sort of Freudian decipherment, a tuning-in to messages concealed in the commonplace, in his childhood environment. His father was a doctor, his mother a biologist, and both of them were deeply interested in Freud.
"I was supposed to become a doctor. I didn't. Instead I joined the Peace Corps and spent three years in India. I'd already done some sculpture, but before I went to India I never thought a sculptor was something I could be." India revealed another way of blending the forthright and the hidden. Life is lived in public there, nothing is concealed, and yet the gods are everywhere. "India suggested a new sense of importance. I looked, I looked a lot."
The human presences one senses in Shapiro's recent sculptures were not seen in his early works. But they were implied. One piece that he conceived in 1973 was a little iron chair. It sat there on the floor in eerie isolation. It was just three inches high. The works seized the space around them. He made little iron houses, too, little coffins, little ladders. They were heavy and implacable, and yet they somehow felt ethereally pictorial. You smiled when you saw them, but you worried as you smiled. Those harsh, suggestive objects were as ominous, and innocent, as deadly children's toys.
"That work of mine," the sculptor notes, in an interview in the catalogue, "was accepted quite rapidly, and I think one reason it was accepted had to do with the fact that it existed in a more pictorial realm, and really somehow subverted notions of sculpture. It was radical because it did subvert some preconceived notions about sculpture, which subsequently I find to be more challenging than their subversion."
Like other New York artists in the '60s and the '70s, Shapiro took pleasure in subversions. "I did some mathematical permutations. I was also experimenting with much more radical ideas -- say, just throwing things around. Minimalism, in those days, was a perfect context to work from. It wasn't loaded with art history. I saw it as work about work."
One relic of those early days is included in the present show. It's a wood-and-wire artist's manikin that's been violently dismembered. Its sinews and its limbs have been scattered on the floor. That spirit of hostility, that tearing at the body, is absent from his newer work. His figures still are built of parts, but now they appear whole.
His manikin-in-pieces, his little coffin on the floor, and those windowless and bunkered almost-scary iron houses felt tortured and defended. But his new works feel elated. Once he hunkered down. Now his almost-abstract figures spread their arms with pleasure and dance across the floor. It's as if he's changed allegiances. Once he was a warrior out beyond the city walls hurling his attacks at the whole familiar notion of sculptural figuration. Today those ancient walls surround him and protect him. Now he's working from inside.
Most minimalist abstractions are mute, self-referential, bloodless, theoretical, aristocratically severe. But Shapiro's striding, dancing figures aren't like that at all. "I decided," says the artist, "that I would put into my work whatever I was thinking or feeling -- instead of looking down from some high-and-mighty posture." His vocabulary is still minimalist. That wood cube is a head, that iron wedge a woman's torso. What is most magical about his work is its hugging of the human, its openness to joy.
"Joel Shapiro: Tracing the Figure" has been handsomely installed by the sculptor working closely with the museum's Brenda Richardson. The show, curated by Julia Brown Turrell, was organized by the Des Moines Art Center. It will travel to Des Moines, and then to Miami, after closing in Baltimore on Oct. 7.