DC Moore Gallery is proud to present a selection of works by Ben Shahn (1898 – 1969), which together highlight his unique approach to politically-motivated art. The breadth of work exhibited showcases Shahn’s mastery in a wide range of mediums and his idiosyncratic emotionally resonant style. Shahn left an indelible impression in the history of twentieth-century art in his distinctive modernist approach to figuration and narration.
Ben Shahn, born in Lithuania, immigrated to the United States in 1906 at the age of eight with his mother and two brothers. Shahn’s upbringing in a traditional Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn exerted great influence on his artistic career. Largely inspired by his own experiences as an immigrant, Shahn depicted scenes of injustice urging social and political reform to safeguard American citizens at large.
Perhaps a memory from Shahn’s own experience of the voyage to America, Immigrant Family, c. 1938, illustrates a melancholic scene of immigration, as a family clutches each other on the deck of a ship bound for a new American life. The transatlantic journey recurs as a central narrative in Shahn’s works and commissions, specifically as the United States government began to enact restrictive immigration policies before World War II. As Diana L. Linden, art historian and professor, writes in her essay in Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn, “Our role, as viewers, is to relive the experience of the exodus, immigration…which Shahn affords us by the extreme legibility of form, space, gesture.”
Sacco’s Family After the Affair, c. 1931, is one of 23 gouaches from Shahn’s famous series: The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti. The series narrates the racist and corrupt trial of two Italian anarchists who were tried and executed in 1927 after being convicted for the murder of a shoe factory paymaster and his guard. It was the view of many that the judicial system’s assessment of the ambiguous evidence was clouded by prejudices and anti-labor hysteria, leading to the deaths of two innocent men. In the gouache exhibited here, Sacco’s wife, Rosina, apprehensive and uncertain clutches her two young children who face a future without their father. These works demonstrate Shahn’s willingness to engage with current events in the American political landscape through his artwork, meanwhile Shahn participated in rallies and joined many activist groups to meaningfully fight for reform.
World War II had a profound impact on Shahn’s art, as evidenced in one of three lithographic posters on view, entitled For All These Rights We’ve Just Begun to Fight. These lithographs published in 1946 by the CIO Political Action Committee encouraged a call to action for workers’ rights, depicting President Franklin Roosevelt amongst demonstration signs and colorful banners as a bold reminder to register and vote. The exhibition also includes a major tempera painting of the same name that was the basis of the lithograph. The painting was originally shown at the legendary Downtown Gallery in New York City, that represented Shahn in the 1950s. The painting has not been publicly shown, nor reproduced in many decades.
In the years following World War II, Shahn expressed his indignation as Cold War witch hunts infringed upon democratic liberties. Conservative Republicans and Democrats led the hunt for suspected communist sympathizers and spies, calling American citizens before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to report on friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Shahn was especially disgusted by the censorship of government-sponsored art. The drawing, Liberty Down Torch, c. 1952, symbolizes Shahn’s view that the government’s violation of the right to political freedom, set forth in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, could not stand. The two small brush drawings entitled, No Man Can Command My Conscience, c. 1955, were studies for Shahn’s painting Credo, also produced in 1955. Shahn was called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1959 to explain the recent exhibition of his work in Moscow. Bravely refusing to answer the committee’s questions nor implicating any of his fellow politically minded artists, Shahn produced these drawings, a painting, and later a photostat, referencing the ordeal. The phrase “no man can command my conscience” is taken directly from a speech made by Martin Luther, the seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation, at the Diet of Worms council in 1521. These two drawings characterize Shahn’s work stylistically through the thick, calligraphic lines typical of his work. At his mother’s urging as a young boy, Shahn became a lithographer’s apprentice. Bold, thick lines came to be quintessential to Shahn’s work, across many mediums.
Ben Shahn: Register to Vote is a poignant reminder of the great impact of political art at a time when civil liberties were at risk. Shahn’s work can be found in esteemed public art collections including The Jewish Museum, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, International Center for Photography, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Getty Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Albright-Knox Art Gallery and many others.
Also on View: George Tooker: Contemplative Gaze September 5 – October 5, 2019
Yvonne Jacquette: Daytime New York September 5 – October 5, 2019
 Chevlowe, Susan, Shahn, Ben, 1898-1969, Linden, Diana L., Allentown Art Museum, Detroit Institute of Arts et al. 1998, Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1998, p. 47.
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