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 the Conceptual artist Robert Barry. In 1969 Shapiro received an MFA from New York University. The 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 of the simple accumulation of marks and made sculpture using the repetition of everyday manual actions and basic tools. In 1972 he began a series of paintings and iron sculptures. In 1973 he met the painter Ellen Phelan, his future wife, with whom he would sustain a critical exchange of ideas that would greatly influence 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 would last 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 Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1980, and 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 would later travel 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.