Harvard University Art Museum, Cambridge, Feb. 5 - April
The Phillips Collection, Washington,
June 10 - August 27, 2000.
The Grey Art Gallery, New York University, Nov. 14, 2000 -
Jan. 27, 2001.
The David & Alfred Smart Museum of Art, Univ. of Chicago, April 19 - June
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Article added in July 2000
Ben Shahn (1898-1969)
was an American social realist. He was major contributor to the
social documentary tradition of photography and an experimental artist who used
photography as a primary research tool for subsequent work in diverse
The touring exhibition Ben Shahn's New York: The
Photography of Modern Times is currently on display at the Phillips
Collection in Washington. It examines Shahn's earliest work in photography.
Ben Shahn was born in Russia in 1898 in a socialist
Jewish family. They fled the czarist regime in 1906 and settled in Brooklyn.
In the early 1930s, as Ben and his first wife Tillie Goldstein struggled to
support themselves and their two young children, the artist sought work on
public art projects.
Shahn abandoned his interest in European modernism in
favor of social-realist art that addressed the issues dominating public
debate. Critical acclaim for his 1931-32 gouache and tempera series on the
trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, as well as for his 1933 paintings
on labor leader Tom Mooney, propelled him to the forefront of the American art
Besides his work as a painter, muralist and graphic
artist, Shahn was already making photographs which received little public or
critical attention. The present exhibition examines his substantial
contribution to the emerging field of social documentary photography and
illustrates how the medium became essential to both his political activism and
his artistic practice.
In the early 1930s, the photographer Walker
Evans shared several Greenwich Village studios with Shahn. He encouraged the
painter's interest in photography and instructed Shahn in basic technical
matters. Between 1932 and 1935, Shahn joined the vanguard of the
social-documentary movement, making hundreds of street photographs that defined
life in New York City through the prosaic activities and expressive gestures of
ordinary people. In addition to photographing activity on the sidewalks of lower
and midtown Manhattan, Shahn documented demonstrations for expanded work relief
programs and protest marches against social injustice in and around Union Square
and City Hall. In preparation for one of his earliest murals he photographed
inmates and prison officials at Blackwell's Island Penitentiary and the New York
City Reformatory. Among the topical issues he addressed were unemployment,
poverty, immigration, social reform and their connection to race and class.
His New York photographs laid the ground for his work as
governmental photographer. From 1935 to 1938, Shahn, a vocal proponent of
Roosevelt's New Deal policies, produced thousands of documentary photographs of
the rural southern and midwestern USA for the Historical Section of the
Resettlement Administration/ Farm Security Administration. These photographs
exist in the public domain and, therefore, are, in contrast to his New York
City work, relatively well-known.
Harvard University and the Fogg Art Museum have a
long connection with the art of Ben Shahn. In October 1932 the Harvard
Society for Contemporary Art, a student-run enterprise, assisted and
advised by the Fogg's director and associate directors, exhibited
twenty-three gouaches from Shahn's controversial series The Passion of
Sacco-Vanzetti and ten watercolors from The Dreyfuss Case. In
1956, at the height of Shahn's career, Harvard invited the artist to give
a lecture series in the humanities. The same year, the Fogg museum
organized and presented two exhibitions of his work. In 1957, Harvard
University Press published Shahn's Norton lectures as The Shape of
Content. Ten years later, Harvard awarded him an honorary Doctor of
Source: the catalogue's foreword and the
Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modern Times by Laura Katzman, Jenna
Webster, Deborah Martin Kao. Harvard University Art Museums and Yale University
Press. Hardcover, 340 p. May 2000. Order it from
See also: Ben Shahn: An Artist's Life by Howard Greenfeld.
Biography, Random House, paperback, 335
p., December 1998. Get it from Amazon.com.
Books about Ben Shahn
Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modern Times by Laura Katzman,
Jenna Webster, Deborah Martin Kao. Harvard University Art Museums and Yale
University Press. Hardcover, 340 p. May 2000.
Order the book from Amazon.com.
- More books about Ben Shahn
The Photographs of
Ben Shahn (Fields of Vision). Introduction by Timothy Egan. The Library of
Congress. Paperback, 2008, 64 pages. Order the book from
Amazon.de. - More books about Ben Shahn