Shapiro's early work is particularly critical of, and dependent on, the relationship between the spectator, the work of art, and the context of the public gallery space. Whilst Untitled (chair) 1974 is a unique piece, an editioned version of the chair of the same small scale has facilitated general discussion of the work and its relationship to similarly conceptualised objects by the artist.
The placement of Untitled (chair) directly on the gallery floor is crucial for the desired effect which dismantles the usual barriers, such as a plinth or rope, that artificially separate the spectator and work in a gallery. At first the object is easily overlooked or swamped by the surrounding expanse of floor space, at odds with the usual points of reference, the height of the human figure and size of an ordinary chair. A perceptual paradox is established whereby the diminutive scale of the work enforces a physical distance, yet for the spectator there is an inherent familiarity with the object that allows it defiantly to occupy the space shared by it and the spectator. 'Our bodies and our experiences become condensed. The chair evokes physical memory', Shapiro explained in retrospect, 'there was no need to make it any bigger. The scale of a piece is its viability in that size, not the size itself. Viability has to do with the fact that it functions as a sculpture.'
In the context of the National Gallery of Australia's collection, small-scale works such as Shapiro's Untitled (chair), Michael Hurson's Hallway 1972 and Ken Price's Untitled (1979) present a critical commentary on the monumental sculpture by the Australian-born American sculptor Clement Meadmore Virginia 1970 and Mark di Suvero's Ik ook 1971-72.
- see; Rosalind Krauss, 'Joel Shapiro', in Joel Shapiro, Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art 1976, pp.3-12; or more recently, Hendel Teicher; with an introductory essay by Michael Brenson, Joel Shapiro: Sculpture and Drawings, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1998
- Joel Shapiro interviewed by Richard Marshall, May 1982, transcribed in Joel Shapiro, 'Commentaries', in Joel Shapiro, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art 1982, p.96
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010