Through August 21, visitors to the Nasher Sculpture Center have the chance to visit one of the most poetic uses of Renzo Piano’s light-filled gallery in quite some time. American sculptor Joel Shapiro rose to prominence alongside Frank Stella, Carl Andre and Tony Smith as part of a movement in contemporary art known as Minimalism.
The artists who we tend to group under that moniker today rejected the subjectivity and overly prescriptive work of artists who preceded them, both their immediate predecessors such as the Abstract Expressionists as well as the representational painters who composed most of art history before the 20th century.
The devastation wrought by the series of wars that dominate 20th-century world history prompted a reconsideration of art’s place in the world. The pervasive sense of hopelessness experienced by European writers and artists during the time reached America in the form of moral relativism, and American artists, grasping desperately at attempts to achieve an objective art, turned to minimalism, an art characterized by a systematic paring-down of visual elements in the search for art’s essence.
The exhibition of Shapiro’s work on view at the Nasher is not a retrospective of one of the masters of minimalism but rather a reconsideration of his work on his own terms. A newly commissioned piece designed specifically for the Nasher galleries is the focal point of the exhibition, and the piece — composed of five separate pieces entitled "Really Blue (after all)," "Ok Green," "Orange," "Flush" and "Yellow Then" — alone occupies the first Piano gallery.
As the exhibition text points out, the work represents a departure for Shapiro, or rather the culmination of his now more than decade-long departure from the spare linear and rectangular constructions which defined his early career. Instead of joining simple geometric pieces together to construct impossible yet eerily human forms, Shapiro in recent years has been allowing his forms independence. Perhaps this is what his work was moving toward all along.
The five brightly colored forms at the Nasher are hung at various angles and from various heights throughout the gallery, with only one placed on the floor. The pieces, seemingly affixed at random from the ceiling, create the sense that we, the gallery visitors, have been dropped into a dreamscape. Although stationary, the shapes are full of motion and call to mind both definitions of space; the otherworldly space in which our world hangs as well as our more human experience of the space we literally inhabit. Of course the modular, colorful shapes also hearken back to early 20th-century design movements whose aesthetic was meant to presage the look of the future, suggesting yet another conception of “space.”
Shapiro and his contemporaries grasped, as few before them, that it is only through sparseness that we can be forced into an awareness of our surroundings. Space is always, in at least one of its connotations, the subject of Minimalism, but whereas some of Shapiro’s contemporaries rejected the presence of emotion in their work (despite its occasionally obvious presence), Shapiro embraces it, acknowledging that “what the artist projects into the form,” that sense of emotion or pathos, is what defines a masterpiece.
At the Nasher Shapiro seems to have connected the dots between the aspects of Minimalist art that give it its power — its sparseness, its calling attention to its surroundings and its symbiotic relationship with architecture. He has moved into work that takes into account the fullest experience of space while acknowledging wholeheartedly the role architecture plays in our perception of his work. Walking through the installation (a word of which I’m sure Shapiro would disapprove) at the Nasher is like seeing, as if for the first time, the centrality and power of context in art. Shapiro’s work at the Nasher can occasionally seem designed to showcase the work of Piano, as opposed to vice versa.
All the while his latest work refuses to take any of this heady art stuff too seriously. The vibrant colors provoke an emotional, gut reaction to the work. It's dreamy, ethereal and bursting with energy. It’s only too fitting that Shapiro’s "20 Elements," a mainstay in the Nasher collection usually on view at NorthPark Center, greets visitors as they enter the installation; Shapiro has rarely been more playful.
If you catch yourself looking not at the art but at your surroundings while wandering through Shapiro’s dreamscape at the Nasher, don’t fret. You’re doing it absolutely right.
Joel Shapiro's work is on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center, 2001 Flora St., through August 21. Museum hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Admission is $10 for non-member adults. For more information, visit nashersculpturecenter.org.