Orrin Luc posted an articleThe 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.
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.”
Shapiro 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, 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, 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.”
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 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
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, 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.
Communications Intern 2 posted an articleThe globe in 1961, the year nine countries welcomed the first Peace Corps Volunteers see more
In 1961, nine countries welcomed the first Peace Corps Volunteers.
THE GLOBE IN 1961, the year nine countries welcomed the first Peace Corps Volunteers — and the year after 17 nations in Africa gained independence. For the first Peace Corps programs, demand is strongest for teachers and agricultural workers. Volunteers are urged to embark on their journey in the spirit of learning rather than teaching. To lay the groundwork, Sargent Shriver, the first Director of the Peace Corps, undertakes a round-the-world trip to eight nations from April to May.
Photos by Brett Simison. Words by Jake Arce and Steven Boyd Saum
St. Lucia, an island in the Eastern Caribbean, is the third program to host Volunteers: 16 train at Iowa State University and arrive in September. The island will gain independence from the British Commonwealth in 1979.
Volunteers arrive in Colombia on September 8: All are men, ages 19 to 31. The endeavor involves a partnership with CARE. Some work in community development with the Federation of Coffee Growers, some in the Cauca River Valley in the southwest.
In Chile, 42 Volunteers train to provide assistance in community development and education as part of the Chilean Institute of Rural Education, a nonsectarian private organization. They're in service by October, working with Chilean educators in developing programs in hygiene, recreation, and farming.
Shriver tours Latin America in October. Four countries sign agreements to host Volunteers in 1962. In Brazil Volunteers will work in rural education, sanitation, and health, and in poor urban areas in the northeast. In Peru they will work in indigenous highlands and impoverished urban areas. In Venezuela, work will include teaching at a university and as county agricultural agents. Bolivia asks for engineers, nurses, dental hygienists, and food educators.
Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah speaks at the U.N. and meets JFK in March. Shriver visits him in April — not long after the Ghanaian Times denounces the nascent Peace Corps as an “agency of neo-colonialism.” But after hearing Shriver, Nkrumah says, “The Peace Corps sounds good. We are ready to try it and will invite a small number of volunteers ... Can you get them here by August?” They arrive August 30, the first Volunteers in service.
President of the Philippines Carlos B. Garcia has pursued a Filipino First policy, noting, “Politically we became independent since 1946, but economically we are still semi-colonial.” The final stop on Shriver's spring round-the-world tour, the country welcomes 128 Volunteers in October to supplement teaching in rural areas, focusing on English and science.
Nigeria gained independence from Britain on October 1, 1960. Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa asks Shriver to send teachers; the country has only 14,000 classroom slots for more than 2 million school-age children. First Volunteers arrive by end of September.
India, a country of half a billion people, is led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru — de facto leader of the nonaligned nations, those allied with neither the United States nor USSR. When Shriver visits in spring 1961, Nehru is skeptical but allows, “In matters of the spirit, I am sure young Americans would learn a good deal in this country and it could be an important experience for them.” He agrees to host a small number of Volunteers in Punjab. A cohort of 26 arrives December 20. After India agrees to host Volunteers, so do Pakistan, Thailand, and Malaya.
Pakistan’s President Mohammad Ayub Khan came to power in a coup in 1958 and was elected by a referendum in 1960. Addressing the U.S. Congress in July 1961, he calls for more financial assistance. The first group of Volunteers arrives in West Pakistan in the fall to serve are junior instructors at colleges, as well as teachers of farming methods and staff at hospitals.
First Volunteers arrive in Tanganyika on September 30: civil engineers, geologists, and surveyors, there to build roads and create geological maps. The country is a U.N. trusteeship that achieves full independence in December. Also note: in October, 26 Volunteers begin training for service in Sierra Leone in 1962.
Megan Patrick posted an articleTravel with the Peace Corps community! see more
Blog post | Alan Ruiz Terol
There is little to say about the overwhelming and breathtaking beauty of India that hasn’t already been said. The Mexican writer and ambassador Octavio Paz wrote the following about his experience in the country: “Dizziness, horror, stupor, astonishment, joy, enthusiasm, nausea, inescapable attraction. What had attracted me? It was difficult to say: Humankind cannot bear much reality. Yes, the excess of reality had become an unreality, but that unreality had turned suddenly into a balcony from which I peered into—what? Into that which is beyond and still has no name…”
India will be the first Next Step Travel destination in 2017. The trip, February 16 to March 3, will explore the northern part of the country, such as Kolkata, New Delhi, Varanasi and Mumbai.
Next Step Travel is an initiative by the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) to bring together the Peace Corps community for new experiences abroad. The program is unique in that it provides the opportunity to discover (or rediscover) a country with other supporters of the Peace Corps. Moreover, each itinerary incorporates Peace Corps values, such as unparalleled local access, cultural immersion, and time to explore remote areas off the beaten path.
People who have previously joined Next Step Travel trips strongly recommend the program to others. “What I like best about this experience is that it’s a safe way to travel that takes unfair advantage of no one,” says Carolyn C., an RPCV in Honduras who traveled to Guatemala. “It benefits everyone involved and the chosen adventures can be found nowhere else.”
The itinerary in India includes the must-sees of any trip to the country, such as the Taj Mahal — but don’t let the crowds of tourists scare you. The perfect beauty and outstanding monumentality of the building is worth the time. After all, the revered Indian artist and Nobel prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore described it as a “teardrop in the cheek of eternity”.
Travelers will see the sunrise illuminating the snow of Mt. Kanchenjunga from Tiger Hill, an ideal way to experience the immensity of the Himalayas. They will also observe cremation and bathing rituals in the Ganges at dawn, one of the most sacred sites for the Hindus.
The route will also offer original and unique ways to experience even the most mainstream spots. One excursion includes a tour of the back alleys of New Delhi by a young individual who was once living and surviving on the streets, providing insight into the daily lives of homeless children. Travelers will also attend a back-country trip in Rajasthan to experience rural life on the edge of the desert.
The India program is open to anyone, not only Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. In fact, Next Step Travel trips are the perfect opportunity for someone who couldn’t spend two years serving overseas to get a taste of the Peace Corps experience in just two weeks. To learn more about the trip to India and other Next Step Travel programs, click here. (The final registration deadline is November 18, 2016.)
Charlotte Rohrer posted an articleThis month, the NPCA recognizes the hard work and dedication of the Friends of India. see more
It has been forty years since the last Peace Corps Volunteers served in India. But that doesn't mean the Peace Corps connection to the country has ended. For nearly thirty years, the thousands of Volunteers and dozens of Peace Corps training groups have been connected through the Friends of India, our featured NPCA affiliate group for the month of August!
Name of Group: Friends of India (FOI)
- Representing 133 Vounteer Groups who served in India
- Approximately 5,500 RPCVs from 1961 to 1976
Three words that best describe your group:
Commitment, Respect, Generosity
What makes Friends of India successful:
STAYING CONNECTED! We have remained connected to one another, and supportive of each other, and we share a common respect and love for India and its people. Friends of India (FOI) started this in earnest in 1988; twelve years after the last Peace Corps group (India 133) finished its tour in 1976. In India we were in groups with specific goals and often relied on one another for moral and technical support. After our service, there was a strong desire to stay in contact with one another and to continue helping India. FOI initially evolved from all-group gatherings and then to reunions of individual India groups. The establishment and improvement of the FOI website in the past few years gave a place for individual India groups to set up their own sub-websites within the FOI website. The website provides space for photos, videos, stories, recollections, memories, obituaries and much more. It is rewarding to see India RPCVs making more use of the FOI website to share their experiences during and after their Peace Corps service.
How does your group still connect to your Country of Service:
One group working with a university and a sister university in India brings students to India as well as Indian students to the U.S. Others stayed or returned as Peace Corps staff or returned to India for PhD studies or as professionals working for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), UNDP, Ford Foundation and higher educational institutions in the US such as Michigan State in study abroad programs. Finally we stay connected through email sharing, reunions and personal visits, and importantly through individual India group reunions and finally the Friends of India website.
Give a brief summary of your group’s history:
We started training with a three day briefing session at Great Northern Hotel in NYC, then one month Outward Bound training in Puerto Rico (warm) and then to the University of Minnesota, St Paul campus (cold!!!!) for technical, cross-cultural and language training, Panjabi taught to those going to north India and Kannada to those going to the south. We were trained to work in poultry development, youth clubs and as nurses. Many of us had unclear assignments. Nevertheless, as a group, we hung in there and were able to make small solid achievements that could be built on by our Indian coworkers and future Peace Corps groups.
What is the best thing your group has done in the past year:
Attending a celebration of life (“Juneteenth Party”) for one of our Volunteers who was a respected and popular leader in our India 3 group.
A group visit after 40 years to India accompanied by other professionals on their first visit to India. A good time was had getting together with former India colleagues.
Key advice that you can offer to other NPCA Affiliate Groups:
- Join NPCA and develop a country group (or sub-group) affiliated with NPCA
- Develop a website and a newsletter, 1 or 2 issues a year. People still like paper.
- Develop a website where individuals can leave
- Stories, obituaries, messages, opinions,
- A place to find other RPCVs in your group or country,
- NOTE: As we age and can no longer travel, a website helps keep groups connected
- Hire someone (like a son or daughter of one of your former volunteers) to develop and maintain the website. This is helpful for continuity as we age.
- Keep the personal contact— hold group reunions. After the end of the first one, schedule the next one.
Why is your group affiliated with the National Peace Corps Association?
NPCA keeps us connected with the wider world of Peace Corps, the domestic and government perspectives on Peace Corps as an Agency. We can learn about other Peace Corps programs around the world.
Please share a phrase, tradition or custom that exemplifies the spirit of the country where you served:
“Namascara” in South India and or “Namaste” in Northern India greeting … hands held palm to palm, under the chin meaning that my spirit acknowledges your spirit.
What else should RPCVs know about your group?
We are open, friendly and willing to help others in any way we can!!
Thanks to Jack Slattery and other members of Friends of India for providing this profile.
Get connected! There are over 150 NPCA member groups – geographic groups, country of service groups, and special interest groups. Find links to all of them on our website. Get involved with an affiliate group today!
Want your NPCA member group to be featured in the coming months? Contact us.