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Ben Shahn
Harvard University Art Museum, Cambridge, Feb. 5 - April 30, 2000.
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 10, 2001.
Order the catalogue from
Amazon.com

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 media.
 
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 scene.
 
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 Arts.

Source: the catalogue's foreword and the introduction:


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 Amazon.com
 
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 from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.de.




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 from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.de.


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.com and Amazon.de. - More books about Ben Shahn from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.de.