Ben Shahn: Picture Maker

Article excerpt

Ben Shahn: Picture Maker

Jonathan Weinberg

Deborah Martin Kao, Laura Katzman, and jenna Webster. Ben Shahn's New York The Photography of Modern Times. Cambridge: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 320 pp., 200 duotones. $45.

Susan Chevlowe, with contributions by Diana L. Linden, Stephen Polcari, Frances K. Pohl, and Howard Greenfeld. Common Man Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn. New York: The Jewish Museum and Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. 208 pp., 32 color ills., 74 b/w. $24.95 paper.

Two new books on Ben Shahn complement each other perfectly. Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modem Times, which is the catalogue for a 2000-2001 touring exhibition organized by Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, focuses on Shahn's little known photographic work of the 1930s of New York City and its relationship to his paintings. Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn, which accompanied the 1998-99 touring exhibition organized by New York's Jewish Museum, examines Shahn's post-World War II work, when Shahn almost completely ceased to use a camera. These two beautifully designed catalogues are essentially anthologies of essays that together provide an overview of not only the themes and stylistic range of Shahn's entire career, but also of the state of research being done on this important American artist.1

Some readers may stumble on my use of the word "important" to characterize Shahn. After all, as early as 1947 Clement Greenberg declared that Shahn's "art is not important, is essentially beside the point as far as ambitious present-day painting is concerned."2 Where many of Greenberg's pronouncements have been refuted, this one still seems to hold sway. To the degree that Shahn is celebrated at all, is for his early series: The Passion of Saccho and Vanzetti (1931-32); his work after World War II is largely ignored.3 For example, Shahn's name does not appear in the index of the Whitney Museum's catalogue for the exhibition American Century, Art & Culture 1950-2ooo despite the fact, Greenberg's criticism not withstanding, that in the late 1940s and i95os Shahn work was at the height of its prestige and popularity. In 1947 he was given a retrospective at

the Museum of Modern Art, and in 1954, Shahn was chosen with Willem

de Kooning to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.4 In 1956 he was asked to give the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University, which were subsequently published as The Shape of Content. Much of that book was an attempt to respond to the very forces in the art world that were to render his work seemingly obsolete: the ascension of Abstract Expressionism and other modes of abstraction, and the emphasis on what Shahn called "meaningless extremes," a designation he would undoubtedly have had no compunction of applying to the Pop art of the next generation.5

In The Shape of Content Shahn tried to map out a middle course that was not so much anti-abstraction or anti-modernist, but insistent on the continual role of humanist subject matter in art. Although Shahn is sometimes grouped with Realists in the 1950s his paintings in retrospect seem far more consciously modernist than those by artists such as Edward Hopper and Paul Cadmus. Shahn derived his distinctive style from the pattern and color of Paul Klee, and the nervous contour line of Pablo Picasso. He presented what he called "universal themes" such as the horrors of war and the quest for spirituality in a decorative and cheerful mode that mitigated against their potential harshness. In contrast to the purposeful crude figuration and sharp satirical edge of his early work, Shahn's post-World War II art wants to charm. Arguably, it verges on the very up-to-date stylishness that Shahn insisted was deplorable because it may not endure: "nothing is so hard to look at as the stylish, out of style. …