Joel Shapiro was born on September 27, 1941, in New York. He attended painting classes at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a teenager, before entering the University of Colorado in Boulder for a year and then New York University. From 1965 to 1967 he lived in India with the Peace Corps. On his return to New York, he began his career as a sculptor. That same year he met conceptual artist Robert Barry. In 1969, Shapiro received an MFA from New York University. Curator Robert Littman included his work in the group show Anti- Illusion: Procedures/Materials at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York that same year.

From 1969 to 1970 Shapiro taught at Hofstra University in New York. During this period, he made drawings consisting in the simple accumulation of marks and made sculptures reproducing the repetition of everyday actions and everyday objects. In 1972 he began a series of paintings and iron sculptures. In 1973 he met painter Ellen Phelan, his future wife, with whom he engaged in a continuous and productive exchange of ideas that greatly influenced the development of his work. In 1974 he began to teach sculpture at various universities around New York. His work started to become more figurative in 1977, a tendency that lasted throughout the 1980s. He worked in various materials such as wood, bronze, and steel, and starting in 1980, began to make larger-scale sculptures. From 1987 to 1990 he worked with Leslie Miller of Grenfell Press in New York on a series of lithographs and stencils.

Shapiro had his first solo exhibition in 1970 at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. Museum exhibitions of his work include shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1976 and the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1980, as well as a mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1982. In 1990 the Des Moines Art Center presented an exhibition surveying the development of figuration in his work, which later traveled to the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Center for the Fine Arts in Miami. In 1966 Shapiro received the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture and in 1990 an Award of Merit Medal for sculpture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1991 Shapiro made a sculpture for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Shapiro lives and works in New York.