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A Towering Task

  • Orrin Luc posted an article
    The unruly sculpture of Joel Shapiro see more

    The Unruly Sculpture of Joel Shapiro

    By David Arnold

     

    As a Peace Corps Volunteer in south India in the mid-1960s, Joel Shapiro taught villagers how to dig latrines, build smokeless ovens, and utilize night soil for more productive vegetable gardens, among other sustainability initiatives. More than 50 years later, his sculptures and works on paper are in the permanent collections of museums all over the world: New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art; down south at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas; out west at California’s Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and across the Atlantic at the Tate Gallery in London, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the Kunstmuseum in Winterthur, Switzerland, the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, and the Museé National d’Art Moderne in Paris.

    He has also done two large commissions through the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies. One, Conjunction, was installed in 1999 outside the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, Ontario; and another, Now, was installed in 2013 outside the newly built U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China. In fall 2019, his monolithic Blue was installed on the campus of Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

     

    Sculpture by Joel Shapiro in Museum

    20 Elements, a 10-by-11-foot sculpture of wood and casein, installed at Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2005, as part of the show Correspondances: Joel Shapiro/ Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. Photo by Sophie Boegly 

     

    Like Blue, much of Shapiro’s sculpture is big, bold, and colorful. It appears to defy gravity and, if installed indoors, to climb gallery walls. Something seems to emerge — a thought, a feeling — from the way Shapiro joins the wood, bronze, or cast-iron elements of his sculptures. He says, “Perhaps they are metaphors for thought.”

    Shapiro, who has been labeled a post-minimalist by some critics, was asked recently where his work fits in the current of modern and contemporary art in America. “It’s hard for me to locate myself,” he said in a soft voice punctuated with laughter. “I’d like to locate myself.”

     

    Joel Shapiro sculptures at Pace GalleryShapiro called it “climbing gallery walls” — a view of the installation Joel Shapiro: New Wood and Bronze Sculpture, at Pace Wildenstein in New York, 1998. Photo courtesy Joel Shapiro and Pace Gallery

     

    Shapiro began his career in New York City with a show in 1970, exhibiting small forms that rebelled against the then-dominant orthodoxy of minimalism. One of his first shows consisted of a ripped-up sculptor’s mannequin that he had strewn across the floor of an otherwise empty room of the Paula Cooper Gallery. “It was a moment of rage,” he says. “We were all bad boys.” For another show he insisted that a four-inch-tall milled cast-iron sculpture of a bridge be the only work in a vast room at the Clocktower, one of the first alternative spaces in New York and the precursor of Long Island City’s popular MoMA PS1.

    “My first studio was on Broadway,” Shapiro recalls. “I remember ducking into a doorway during a full NYPD mounted police charge during an anti-war demonstration. It was a volatile time, and we were all swept up in it ... and there were no rules in the art world. Your work had to be hard and clear,” he says. “You make art of whatever you are feeling.”

     

    Bridge, a sculpture by Joel Shapiro

    Bridge, 1971–73. Installation view, Joel Shapiro: Sculpture, The Clocktower, Institute for Art and Urban Resources, New York, April 1973. Photo courtesy Joel Shapiro

     

    Shapiro has spent years experimenting with different materials, subjecting them to different processes in order to find meaningful form. “I often use simple forms. I can be more expressive and involved with the process without being held back by concerns of craft or depiction ... A projection of my state of mind, that is enough. The basic principle is to find a form that corresponds to what I’m thinking about. I’m still externalizing my thoughts, trying to conjure something up.”

     

     

     Blue, sculpture by Joel Shapiro

    Blue, the enormous and exuberant figure that graces the grounds of the REACH at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Photo by Jonathan Boyd

     

    ONE UNRULY ARTIST

    In a recent monograph on his work, Joel Shapiro: Sculpture and Works on Paper 1969–2019, modern art historian Richard Shiff writes that Shapiro has “an expansive, volatile, and searching aesthetic temperament that has produced a half-century of work that is beyond classification.” The title of Shiff’s essay sums up the artist’s career: “The Unruly Joel Shapiro.”

    A contemporary sculptor of equal renown, Martin Puryear, was inspired by the roadside wood carvers he encountered while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer 1965–67 — virtually the same period as Shapiro, but in Sierra Leone. The two are friends, but Shapiro’s use of color and form is distinctly not based on the same process as Puryear’s. Shapiro is expert with a pin gun, nails, hot glue, and tools to notch and join. He does not carve in his craft; he assembles. According to Richard Shiff, part of Shapiro’s minimalism comes from his use of lumber, industrial metals, and other materials that lack “the fine-art aura.”

     Sculptor Joel Shapiro in his studio

    Joel Shapiro in his studio with one model of Blue. Photo by David Arnold

     

    Shiff has watched Shapiro hold two pieces of wood in his hands, turn them in a variety of angles, and shoot pins into the wood to join them. He may pull one slightly out of joint to create a tilt of the head, perhaps an attitude of sadness, and shoot in more pins to fix the joining of the two pieces. By twists and turns, the pieces of wood achieve an attitude and a movement. Shapiro animates his figures by the way he joins the separate wooden pieces, which never lack an element of ambiguity. Shiff writes that a bronze figure of Shapiro’s that was mounted in a piazza in Rome in 1999, as part of a citywide exhibition organized by the American Academy in Rome, marches forward in a military fashion and skips gaily at the same time. From awkwardness “an unexpected grace emerges.”

    Shapiro once told the curator of one of his European exhibits about the rules of unruliness. “It’s anti-planning. I take elements and add them, remove them, and add them again. It’s a way of working that has to do with contingency.”

    And, of course, it’s a way of responding to some of his famous predecessors: Alberto Giacometti, Alexander Calder, Auguste Rodin, and Henri Matisse.

     

    Outside gallery view of Joel Shapiro sculptures Outside looking in: Installation view of the show Joel Shapiro at Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas, in 2016. Photo by Kevin Todora

     

    UNDER QUEENSBORO BRIDGE

    Decades later, art’s bad boy of the ’70s is a genial host, plainspoken about his past, and still uncertain about what comes next. Shapiro is unpretentious in discussing his work, often calling it “stuff.” On a chilly October day he sits in a large living area on the top floor of his three-story studio in Queens. A full wall of windows overlooks the East River and the majestic skyline of Manhattan. Shapiro and his wife, the painter Ellen Phelan, share the workspaces below. Smells of their work permeate the building: linseed oil on one level, fresh-cut wood on the next. The historic brick structure is in an industrial neighborhood in the shadow of the golden-trestled Queensboro Bridge that feeds Long Islanders into Manhattan every morning. The building was constructed as an electrical substation that powered the trolleys that originally went across the bridge. Now there are tables laden with pin guns, glues, scraps of lumber. Shelves on white walls display working models of predecessors to Blue, some of which may be utilized for future works, or to make the forms for larger pieces that will be cast in nearby foundries.

    The studio is less than two miles from the Sunnyside elementary school Shapiro attended in the 1950s. In high school Shapiro knew he had talent when it came to making art. “That’s all I could really do,” he says. The son of a physician and an immunologist, he finished undergraduate studies at NYU and then jumped at the chance to leave home. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I was a kid, 21 or 22.”

    In 1964 he was sent to India with a group of Peace Corps Volunteers to work at primary teacher-training institutes that were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s prescient ideas of self-sufficiency. The Volunteers would often spend three to four months at one school before moving to another. With breaks between each relocation, Shapiro had ample time to travel and immerse himself in the art and architecture of the subcontinent. And, over the two years he served as a Volunteer in India, Shapiro broadened his aesthetic horizons. “I had fun,” he recalls. “I was exposed to cultures so far removed from what I had known previously. I think the thing that struck me most in India was how the architecture, the sculpture, the music — how it all seemed to be part of a complete system that seemed to describe basic human — and I would say now, universal — needs.”

    Where do his ideas and his art take him now? “I’ve been at this for 50 years. Lately I’ve been showing a lot of older work, but I am eager to be making new, hopefully more radical work. I’m interested in rapture.”

     

    Untitled, 2015. Ink on paper. It’s also about motion. Photo by Josh Nefsky

     

    JUST BLUE

    Blue, his recent gift to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, was installed on the campus of the REACH, a new extension of D.C.’s major national performing arts venue. Shapiro’s monumental aluminum sculpture is about to run, to leap, or to kick an illusory soccer ball across the wide Potomac to Robert E. Lee’s estate on the Virginia hilltop above Arlington National Cemetery.

    Shapiro wanted Blue to be buoyant and performative. “It’s about motion, a celebration of the optimism of the REACH. There’s nothing solemn about it.”

    It’s a departure, then, from Shapiro’s commissioned work, Loss and Regeneration, that was installed at the nearby Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993. Consisting of a pair of massive bronze forms, one of which appears to be a figure at once falling and soaring and the other a house blown back and turned upside down, perched on the apex of its roof, that sculpture is dedicated to the memory of the more than 1 million children who perished in that years-long genocide. 

     

    Loss and Regeneration, sculpture by Joel Shapiro

    Loss and Regeneration, 1993, a bronze figure and house at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Photo by Wojtek Naczas

     

     

    Blue is an exuberant and uplifting expression of the Peace Corps that its creator, President John Kennedy, envisioned. Blue was unveiled during the opening of the REACH in September 2019, when thousands of visitors explored the center’s new Peace Corps Gallery, a venue that honors the six-decade legacy of the agency and its mission. Many of those visitors also filled a theater in the Kennedy Center for the world premiere of the new Peace Corps film documentary “A Towering Task.”

    When the center opened, Shapiro spoke of Blue as embracing action and risk, performance and possibility. Under the open sky, on the ground where people stood, what you saw of Blue would change depending on where you stood; it was about movement for the viewer, too. Two years later, the Kennedy Center reopens — and we face a newly complex and troubled world, with all of the uncertainties that the pandemic has brought. A sense of optimism and possibility here on the banks of the Potomac is welcome indeed.

     


    David Arnold served in Ethiopia 1964–66 and is editor emeritus of WorldView magazine.

     September 12, 2021
  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps see more

    From February 28 to March 6, the Peace Corps community around the world commemorates the establishment of the Peace Corps in March 1961. This year we celebrate 60 years of Peace Corps. And here at National Peace Corps Association, we’re working to transform it for a changed world. 

    By NPCA Staff

     

    On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed executive order 10924, establishing the Peace Corps with the hopes of promoting world peace and friendship. Peace Corps Week is a time for us as a community to commemorate and recognize all of the ways that Peace Corps has made an impact — in individual lives and in communities around the world.

    This is an unprecedented time for the Peace Corps. In March 2020, all Volunteers serving around the world were evacuated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a community-driven effort, National Peace Corps Association is working to help transform Peace Corps: to reimagine, reshape, and retool the agency for a changed world. So while we celebrate this historic milestone, we also focus on the work that must be done in the present to make a better and stronger Peace Corps for the future. Because the work of building peace and friendship across the country and around the world is far from over.

    Here is a roundup of events lined up to celebrate Peace Corps Week 2021. This listing will be updated as more events become available. See our calendar for more events. And be sure to sign up for our newsletter (at the bottom of our homepage) and to follow us on social media for the latest.

     

    Time zones: EST = Eastern Standard Time | CST = Central Standard Time | MST = Mountain Standard Time | PST = Pacific Standard Time 

     

    A map of the world: a schoolgirl in Panamá, with a map started as part of a Peace Corps project. Photo by Eli Wittum

     


    Sunday, February 28, 2021

     

    3:00 PM EST: RPCVs of West New York | “A Towering Task” Open Discussion 
    The film will be available beginning February 27 for 24 hours, with discussion happening on the February 28. More info here.

     

    6:00 PM PST: San Diego Peace Corps Association | Virtual Dinner Party 
    A virtual dinner featuring your favorite international dish. RSVP here.

     

    7:00 PM EST: Friends of Liberia Book Club | Discussing She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore. 
    Anyone with the book is free to join the event and can participate in the discussion. Join via the Zoom Link here.


     

    Monday, March 1, 2021

     

    1:00 – 2:00 PM EST: Peace Corps Agency | 60 Years of Service: The Multigenerational Impact of Peace Corps. For more info click here.

     

    5:00 – 6:00 PM EST: Peace Corps Agency | 60 Years Of Service: Peace Corps Through the Ages. More info here.

     

    6:00 PM CST: Peace Corps at University of Wisconsin-Madison | Celebrating 60 Years of Service and Friendship — A Conversation with Peace Corps Directors

    To celebrate Peace Corps’ 60th anniversary, University of Wisconsin-Madison is hosting a panel discussion featuring 10 previous Peace Corps Directors. These panelists, including moderator Donna Shalala, will discuss Peace Corps’ legacy and changes through the years. Register here.

     

    7:00 PM EST: RPCVs of Northeastern New York | Union College Peace Corps Night 
    Open discussion about the Peace Corps, all alumni panelists are RPCVs. More info here.

     

    7:00 PM EST: New York City Peace Corps Association, A Toast to Us: Peace Corps 60th Anniversary

    Join the New York City Peace Corps Association, National Peace Corps Association, and special guest Dr. Jeffrey Sachs for a 60th anniversary celebration honoring 60 years since President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961

     

    8:30 PM EST: National Peace Corps Association | National Days of Advocacy Kickoff
    Hear from several strong congressional supporters of Peace Corps including RPCV Congressman John Garamendi (D-CA), Congressman Garret Graves (R-LA) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME). Get an update on key pending Peace Corps legislation. Hear about Days of Advocacy activities being planned for the months of March and April. Register here.

     

     

    Tuesday, March 2, 2021

     

    6:30 – 8:00 PM EST: Women of Peace Corps Legacy | Former Women Peace Corps Directors: A Conversation

    Join the Women of Peace Corps Legacy as they host former women Peace Corps Directors in an open discussion about the Peace Corps. This 1.5 hour discussion panel will feature Elaine Chao, Jody Olsen, Carol Bellamy, Carrie Hessler-Radelet.

    More info and RSVP.

     

     

    Wednesday, March 3, 2021

     

    12:00 – 1:00 PM EST: Peace Corps Agency | 60 Years of Service: Careers in Service Panel 

    More info  here.

     

    6:30 - 7:30 PM CST: RPCVs of San Antonio | JFK Story Slam
    To celebrate our 60th anniversary, we are honoring John F. Kennedy by bringing together a panel of older Americans who have met or felt greatly inspired by him. 

    Register here.

     

    7:00 - 8:15 EST: Museum of the Peace Corps Experience and Katzen Arts Center at American University: Exhibit Opening – “Peace Corps at 60: Inside the Volunteer Experience”

    More info and register.

     

    7:30 – 8:30 PM EST: Peace Corps Agency | 60 Years of Service: The Legacy of JFK
    A panel of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers share stories of how John F. Kennedy impacted their lives. Hosted in collaboration with Texas A&M University – San Antonio.

    Speakers: Philip Duane Hardberger | Karen Jean Hunt | Douglas Lee Hall

    Hardberger applied for Peace Corps service immediately after JFK’s inauguration. He served as as the agency’s executive secretary, practiced law in San Antonio for 30 years, served as Chief Justice of the Fourth Court of Appeals and as mayor of San Antonio. Karen Jean Hunt was inspired by JFK, served in the Air Force, and later as a Volunteer in  Kenya (1986–88), Armenia (2017–19), and Ethiopia (2019–20). She  is currently a COVID 19 AmeriCorps member, serving in Alaska. Douglas Lee Hall met JFK in 1963 when Hall was 16; he told the president that he planned to join the Peace Corps. It took him 50 years.

    More info and register here.

     

     

    Thursday, March 4, 2021

     

    12:00 PM EST: RPCVs of West Virginia | West Virginia University Peace Corps Prep Panel 
    All WVU Alumni are encouraged to come. More info here.

     

    5:45 PM CST: Tennessee Returned Peace Corps Volunteers | Screening of “A Towering Task”
    Greetings start at 5:45 PM and the film will start at 6:00 PM. Details and reminder can be found here.

     

    4:00 – 5:00 PM EST: Peace Corps Agency | 60 Years of Service: RPCVs Impact on the Fields of Philanthropy and Corporate Social Responsibility

    Panelists include Bruce McNamer, President, The Builders Initiative (RPCV/Paraguay) | Stephany Guachamin Coyago, Manager, Leadership Advancement Programs, Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility (RPCV/Peru) |  Harris Bostic, Senior Advisor, The Tides Foundation (RPCV/Guinea)

    Register to attend here.

     

    5:00 – 8:00 PM EST: Smithsonian Folklife Festival | The Peace Corps at 60 and Beyond: “A Towering Task” Screening & Discussion

    ASL interpretation, real-time captioning available. More info  here.

    Since March 1, 1961, when President John F. Kennedy signed the executive order to establish the Peace Corps, more than 240,000 Americans have served in 141 countries. Now sixty years later, the Peace Corps is at a critical crossroads. Facing the coronavirus pandemic, the agency evacuated all volunteers in March 2020. This pivotal moment allows us to look back on sixty years of promoting world peace and friendship, while also looking forward to the next chapter of Peace Corps history.

    The Smithsonian Folklife Festival began in 1967, not long after the Peace Corps, with many similar goals — especially to promote a greater understanding and appreciation of world cultures. In 2011, the Folklife Festival commemorated the agency’s 50th anniversary with a program that featured Peace Corps Volunteers and their partners from 16 countries.

    In 2021, the Festival once more explores the agency’s significance and impact through a panel discussion and a screening of the 2019 documentary film “A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps.” Join us for the discussion with Peace Corps Acting Director Carol Spahn, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Rayna Green, Rahama Wright, and the film’s director, Alana DeJoseph, on March 4 at 7 p.m. ET.

    Two ways you can watch the film:

    • Register on Eventbrite to receive a link to watch at your convenience between Monday, March 1, at 5 p.m. ET through Thursday, March 4, at 11:59 p.m. ET.

    • Join our watch party on Facebook immediately before the panel, 5–6:45 p.m. on March 4.

     

    7:00 PM EST: Rotary Club of Frederick, Maryland | Peace Talks: An Evening with Chic Dambach, Global Peacebuilder and Author 
    Register here.

    Chic Dambach is a 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee, Past President of National Peace Corps Association, and a national champion kayak racer. He's a knowledgeable and inspirational speaker at local, national and International events and on college campuses on the topics of leadership, service, building peace, and creating climates of respect to improve organizations and increase productivity. He was a speaker at the Rotary International peace conference in Sao Paulo, and he was featured at the Future of Peace Summit in Washington, DC as well as the War Victims conference in Kampala, Uganda. His career began as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia, and his memoir, "Exhaust the Limits, the Life and Times of a Global Peacebuilder," features a lifetime of service and successful initiatives for peace. He has lectured at Harvard Law School, College of William and Mary, Brandeis University, Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University, American University, Rice University, Stanford University, and elsewhere.

     


    Friday, March 5, 2021

     

    5:00 – 6:00 PM EST: Peace Corps Agency | 60 Years of Service: Peace Corps through the Decades Story Slam.

    Register  here.

     

     

    Saturday, March 6, 2021

     

    6:00 PM CST: Kansas City Area Peace Corps Association | Open House
    Celebrate the Peace Corps 60th and share your experience! 

     

    6:30 PM PST: San Diego Peace Corps Association | “A Towering Task” Open Discussion with Director Alana DeJoseph 
    Attendees are able to stream the film from Friday, March 5, at 4:00 PM PST through Sunday, March 7, at 4:00 PM PST. RSVP here. 

     

    8:00 - 10:00 PM EST: Sacramento Valley RPCVs | Peace Corps 60th Anniversary with Representative John Garamendi
    RPCV Congressman John Garamendi and wife and fellow RPCV, Patti Garamendi, take part in a conversation with Peace Corps recruiter John Keller. The Garamendis served with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia. On March 1, John Garamendi introduced the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021, which includes important reforms. Register here. 

    Last updated March 4 at 5:45 PM.