In 1907 his family immigrated to the United States, where he received his bachelors' and doctorate degrees from Columbia University. He began teaching in 1928 and became a full professor at Columbia in 1952. Schapiro was a proponent of modern art, and published books on Van Gogh and Cezanne and various essays on modern art. He was a founder of Dissent, along with Irving Howe and Michael Harrington. He died in 1996 at the age of 91.
Schapiro's discourse on style is often considered his greatest contribution to the study of art history. According to Schapiro, style refers to the formal qualities and visual characteristics of a piece of art. Schapiro demonstrated that style could be used not only as an identifier of a particular period but also as a diagnostic tool. Style is indicative of the artist and the culture at large. It reflects the economic and social circumstances in which an artist works and breathes and reveals underlying cultural assumptions and normative values. On the other hand our own descriptions of form and style indicate our period, our concerns, and our biases; the way art historians of a particular age talk about style is also indicative of their cultural context.
Schapiro was, at points in his career, criticised for his approach to style because of its politically radical connotations. Schapiro himself wrote scholarly articles for a variety of socialist publications and endeavored to apply a novel Marxist method to the study of art history.
In his most famous essay on Medieval Spanish art, 'From Mozarabic to Romanesque in Silos' Schapiro demonstrated how the concurrent existence of two historical styles in one monastery was indicative of economic upheaval and class conflict.