In 1980, Joel Shapiro began making bronze sculptures of human forms for which he is now best known. While these works are clearly and compellingly figurative in composition and scale, they are sharply reductivist and remain ambiguous. In a blink of an eye or a change of perspective, the "figure" becomes a tree or a blocky abstraction. The viewer is provoked to extrapolate the work's subjective meaning, and clearly Shapiro is aiming for the wide range of interpretations he elicits. Is the figure reaching or falling, resting or recoiling, figurative or abstract?
In 1982-1983, Shapiro composed Untitled, his only unique life-scale three-part bronze to date. For its breadth of expression and composition, and its success as an exploration of the boundaries of minimalism and the mysteries of human experience, it marks the height of his achievement. "Diving" is the most dynamic and abstract of the works. Just three elongated elements stretch like a lunging man, or take root like a tree reaching for distant sunlight. "Crouching" is configured in a clearly human posture. The figure strains to maintain balance with elongated arms that exaggerate the effort. Alternately, the figure could be retreating to the security and privacy of the fetal position. "Reclining" relates most closely to Shapiro's earlier floor pieces. Just under human scale, it seems vulnerable, like a child curled on the floor, sleeping soundly or wounded and helpless. As Roberta Smith stated in her catalogue essay for Joel Shapiro's one-man exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1982-1983, 'His new figurative forms, his best work, infuse the precarious, obdurately abstract sculpture unities of David Smith's Cubis with Rothko's elegiac tones, making the perception of space and a vibrant, mournful emotion irrevocably synonymous' (R. Smith, Joel Shapiro, New York 1982, p. 32).