Joel Shapiro first won attention toward the end of the Seventies with sculptures that “humanized” Minimalism. In his minuscule houses and figures composed of simple lengths of wood, he gave to the elements of pure abstraction a deliberately figurative cast. They thus achieved something rarer than mere formal transformation: they altered the way we look at abstract sculpture. It had been more or less out of the question to see traces of the figurative in abstract works of art; such things were thought to be irrelevant if not demeaning. Yet Shapiro, in his desire to hew to Minimalism’s abstract rigor and extreme reductiveness at the same time that he infused it with a broader outlook, deliberately structured his work to carry strong figurative associations balanced against—and never turning their backs on—their abstract structure. This oscillation between the abstract and the figurative was given...


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