YOU DON'T have to like abstract art to love Joel Shapiro's sculpture, you only have to be human. In fact you can hate abstract art and still love Shapiro's works, because they aren't abstract, exactly, or minimalist, exactly. They're nothing more nor less than Joel Shapiro's wonderful works.

Among the delights of the Shapiro retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art is the hysterical rhetoric he inspires in art mavens and critics. From the exhibition catalogue:

"There is nothing of the facile certainty of the gestalt in his art . . . . Shapiro's sculptures do not have the aclimatic negative presence, the entropic vacuousness, the defiantly mute and static literalness, the expressivity-canceling seriality, typical of Minimalist sculpture."

Hoo boy. What Shapiro's sculptures do have is a lighthearted directness that borders on literalism, somehow created from minimalist/abstract elements. His figures posture, strut and dance -- and make you want to dance with them. They lean, stagger and reel, teetering forever on the edge of disaster and creating such tension that your palms sweat. The pieces not only pulse with life, they give off energy and project personality.

Shapiro doesn't title his works, which is just as well, because words are not his medium. His explanations of his pieces are rendered in standard artspeak ("I am talking about where the meaning of the work is posited outside of the work itself . . . .") and tend to make them less interesting. No. 467, for instance, is a figure one art authority sees as performing a cartwheel, while Shapiro says it's crashing into the ground. With some due respect, I say they're both wrong: It's obviously an adolescent boy starting up into a headstand, and he isn't going to make it.

There are 26 works on exhibit, including just enough of Shapiro's early efforts (one of which amounts to an unswept floor) to make us appreciate how far he's come. For some 20 years the sculptures issuing from his New York City studio have been getting more or less steadily bigger and more or less consistently better -- although the power of the pieces is oddly unrelated to their size.

The show was organized by the Des Moines Art Center, to which it will travel after a few more weeks in Crabtown. If you miss it, shame on you.

JOEL SHAPIRO: TRACING THE FIGURE -- Through Oct. 7 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive, off North Charles Street above 29th. 301/396-7101. Open 10 to 4 Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 10 to 9 Thursday and 11 to 6 weekends. Admission $2 if over 21; free on Thursdays. Good wheelchair access.