“There was no question with him that the talent and the dedication were real. However, the main thing I remember about him was how terribly intense he was – a combination of extreme intensity and shyness.” – Robert Motherwell
Howl! Arts/Howl! Archive is pleased to present Harold Shapinsky: Abstract Soul, an exhibition of his paintings and drawings, on view from March 23 through May 21, 2023. The exhibition marks Shapinsky’s first solo exhibition in New York since the 90s and will showcase works spanning from the 1940s to the late 80s, including many rarely- and never-exhibited works like early figurative paintings and the elegant, modest-sized paper paintings for which he is best known. Together the paintings in the exhibition illuminate the remarkable story of the artist’s long overlooked practice in New York and his late career rise to recognition as a significant Abstract Expressionist.
A native New Yorker, Shapinsky was born in Brooklyn in 1925 and painted for the majority of his career with little public recognition. He spent much of his life in the East Village where he studied at Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell’s school The Subject of An Artist. Despite his proximity to celebrated Abstract Expressionists of the same generation and the recognition of his peers, Shapinsky did not garner the attention of the art world. He possessed an intensity that was reflected both in his work and in his distaste for the politics of the commercial art world, and so while the movement flourished around him, Shapinsky worked in obscurity in his small Lower East Side apartment with his wife Kate. He painted in bold brush strokes on thick paper, which was the only medium that he could both afford and find room to store.
Shapinsky’s talent would likely have continued to go unrecognized if not for Akumal Ramachander, an English professor and arts publicist from India who encountered Shapinsky’s son David at the University of Chicago. David presented images of his father’s work to Ramachander upon learning of his work promoting under-recognized artists, and Ramachander immediately vowed to champion Shapinsky’s work.
Ramachander began promoting Shapinsky in New York, but the tide of Abstract Expressionism had receded in the United States and he had limited luck. In the meantime, he befriended the artist and began advocating for Shapinsky in London. In the Spring of 1985, Ramachander persuaded James Mayer to give Shapinsky a show at his gallery that opened on Shapinsky’s 60th birthday to great acclaim. More exhibitions in Europe and eventually in the U.S followed, as well as a documentary on Channel 4 (UK), an article in the Observer by Salman Rushdie, and a 16 page New Yorker feature by Lawrence Weschler.
“Harold and his wife lived most of their lives in the East Village,” says Jane Friedman, Howl! Arts Executive Director. “They were part of the arts and also community activists immersed in the neighborhood. Howl! Arts recognizes the contribution of innovative artists, who though underrepresented in the commercial art world, have made a substantial contribution to downtown cultural and art history.”
Today, the art and story of Harold Shapinsky has joined the public consciousness, and Shapinsky was awarded recognition and financial freedom in his later years of life. Still, for Shapinsky, the work remained central to his existence. “If none of this had happened,” Shapinsky said in a 1985 Washington Post interview, “I’d still paint. For the love of it.”
X X X X X