Joel Shapiro was born in New York City, and received B.A. and M.A. degrees from New York University. The son of scientists (his father was an internist and his mother a microbiologist) who were also interested in art, Shapiro took art classes as a child, considering it “fun”, but not a potential career. He attended college, graduating with a liberal arts degree, with the intention of becoming a physician. However, after graduation he spent two years in the Peace Corp in India, and it was there that he decided to become an artist. Returning to New York, Shapiro rented a studio and registered for graduate work at New York University. He soon won critical acclaim for his small-scale works that had an implied human presence, such as sculptures of houses and chairs. Since the mid-1970s, the human figure has become the most significant theme in Shapiro’s sculpture.
In the 1990s, Shapiro completed a number of monumentally-scaled public sculptures, including a commission for the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. In the early 1970s Shapiro began making sculptures that extended the stylistic ideals and the conceptual ideals of minimalism. By the mid-1970s he began to develop the planar, largely geometric figurative and architectural references for which he is best known.
Shapiro is best known for his wooden sculptures of abstracted human forms. Blurring the line between figural sculpture and geometric abstraction, his work is comprised of painted rectangular blocks arranged in compositions that suggest representational forms in space. Inspired by prominent Minimalist sculptors such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra, Shapiro extrapolates their aesthetic into works that are more colorful and playful that those of his peers.
Shapiro has executed more than thirty commissions and publicly-sited sculptures in major Asian, European, and North American cities and has been the subject of more than 160 solo exhibitions and retrospectives internationally. His work can be found in over eighty public collections in the United States and abroad, including the Des Moines Art Center and City of Des Moines, Des Moines; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Tate Gallery, London; Nykytaiteen Museo, Helsinki, Finland; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among others.