Known primarily for his sculpture and formalist style, the artist Joel Shapiro explores in this drawing a different approach–mark-making. Untitled, from 1969, is one of a series of fingerprint works that Shapiro made during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dating to relatively early in his career, these drawings suggest the exploration of new materials and techniques by an artist who has yet to settle fully into a primary method of expression.
Regarding his fingerprint works, the artist has said said, “I was interested in mark–making. Not using an instrument, but using my finger to make the mark, was very emphatic and direct and there was nothing mediating the image. It was factual. Rather than sit around and make fingerprints that became some other image, the fingerprint–the mark–was an image of itself. So I sort of really didn’t care what it ended up looking like. I was more interested in the process of doing it.”1
The work that results is an example of such experimentation with process from early in Shapiro’s career. Even in this drawing, however, one can discern the sculptor at work. Shapiro has taken a literally “hands-on” approach, forming the image with his own skin, much like he would sculpt a malleable material such as clay.
Untitled features marks that are non-illusionistic yet instantly evocative. It is imbued with an almost childlike excitement, reminiscent of the fascination often observed in children completely engrossed in making their marks on anything they can. Making fingerprints is the first way most children create art. The pride that comes with this activity tends to wear off as children mature, but here Shapiro legitimizes it, advancing those early expressions of creativity into something more structured. That structure is reinforced in this drawing in particular through the use of graph paper. We can read the grid as a symbol of the uniform structure that people often apply to their lives as they age. Shapiro’s juxtaposition of this rigidity with his own fingerprints may recall the childhood desire to claim ownership over objects, to make things one’s own–a desire that develops over time yet still resides within every individual. Every once in a while, Shapiro’s fingerprints stray from the grid. Every once in a while, we all like to make a mark outside the lines.
1. Joel Shapiro, “MoMA2000: Open Ends (1960-2000)” (audio program excerpt, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 28 September 2000 to 4 March 2001), http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A5373&page_number=1&template_id=1&sort_order=1.