Ben Shahn’s "Contemporary American Sculpture," 1940
Essay by Diana L. Linden, Ph.D.
With research by Beth Hamilton and Valerie G. Stanos
Ben Shahn’s (1898–1969) celebrity as an artist came from his biting images of social criticism, compassionate explorations of the human condition, and joyous scenes of Jewish culture. Although these phrases all describe different aspects of Shahn’s six-decade career, none anticipates or accommodates Contemporary American Sculpture (1940), a singular painting within his oeuvre. The painting presents a nuanced view of Shahn, who in the 1930s produced powerful artwork that directly confronted social injustice and demanded progressive social change. At first glance, in this little-known painting Shahn seems to have ignored social commentary, opting instead to depict an exhibition of twentieth-century American sculpture. But is this really what he has done? Not only would it be unusual for Shahn to create a work focused solely on art, but confounding the matter, he has quoted from his own paintings and photographs, which appear as two-dimensional “inserts” against the gallery walls.
By the late 1930s, Shahn was making bold thematic and stylistic changes to his paintings, and it can be argued that Contemporary American Sculpture is a key painting between what the artist called his works of “social realism” and his works of “personal realism.” Rather than an artistic critique of early 1940s sculpture, in Contemporary American Sculpture Ben Shahn uses the art museum as a forum to address issues of social and artistic inclusion, and exclusion. The artist has fused together his two prime artistic concerns, his two variants of realism, into one spectacular easel painting.
Starting in the mid-1930s and slowly moving into the early 1940s, Shahn worked for the federal government as a photographer, graphic artist, and muralist. By the end of the 1930s, prompted by the photographic trips he had taken throughout the Midwest and the South while employed by the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA), he was reevaluating the general direction his work was taking. These FSA trips, he would later remark, led him to shift direction from images of public injustice, to moments of private thought, work, and play. The consummate New Yorker, Shahn wrote that because of his travels through America’s cotton and mine countries, “Theories had melted before such experiences.” In 1940, when Shahn painted Contemporary American Sculpture he had already completed three murals for the New Deal art programs and was soon to start a fourth, a fresco titled The Meaning of Social Security for the Social Security Building in Washington, D.C.; he completed the mural in 1942. (Shahn was one of the very few New Deal muralists who mastered the demanding technique of buon fresco, which he perfected as an assistant to famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera at Rockefeller Center in 1931–32.) 
Despite his New Deal commissions and consistent productivity, Shahn wasn’t making much money as the Great Depression lingered and the federal government began to cut their arts projects. By late 1939 he had spent all the money from his Bronx Post Office mural commission, had a child on the way, and was heavily in debt. If his weekdays were for New Deal projects, then his weekends were for easel paintings, or as he called them his “Sunday paintings.” Throughout the 1930s Edith Halpert had shown these works at her Downtown Gallery, which showcased avant-garde American modernism; but Shahn had not had a solo exhibition with her for several years, so he decided to seek out other dealers. Walker Evans brokered an introduction to Julien Levy—the gallery director responsible for introducing Surrealism to the American public. Levy invited Shahn to exhibit at his eponymous gallery, and the artist accepted with the intent of exhibiting his Sunday paintings. At the time, Levy’s was a “small but lively gallery that had earned a reputation as one of the most forward-looking in the city.” Shahn felt confident that his upcoming exhibition at Levy’s would garner attention and press, but, given the dire economy, doubted that it would raise revenue. On both accounts he proved correct.
Through correspondence—Shahn was now living in the Jewish socialist utopian community called Jersey Homesteads in New Jersey—and meetings, Levy and Shahn assembled a checklist of eighteen easel paintings, including Contemporary American Sculpture, to be shown from May 7 to May 29, 1940, at Levy’s Madison Avenue and 57th Street gallery, a posh address. Reviews of the exhibition, called “Sunday Paintings,” were mixed, with a few complaints that Shahn’s new works were gloomy and depressing. But most critics praised the painter for his honesty and sincerity, and noted the haunting quality of the paintings. The New Yorker’s Robert Coates expressed open enthusiasm for Shahn as an artist who possessed “about as keen and intelligent an eye as we have around today.” Unfortunately, only two paintings sold: Lincoln Kirstein purchased Willis Avenue Bridge, which he later gave to the Museum of Modern Art (and from which Shahn would quote in Contemporary American Sculpture), and James Thrall Soby bought Vacant Lot for the Wadsworth Athenaeum. Both men were important tastemakers and cultural figures of the time, and central in the growth of Shahn’s prestige and presence at the most important museums in the United States.
In Contemporary American Sculpture Shahn depicts eight sculptures on display in an unnamed museum or art gallery. He painted each statue with the utmost care. If today we falter a bit when identifying the exact sculptures and their sculptors, all would have been easily recognizable to art aficionados in the early 1940s. And because the works are so specific, it is now possible to establish that Shahn has portrayed a room from the Whitney Annual of 1940. (He would go on to exhibit Contemporary American Sculpture in the Whitney Annual of 1941.) Shahn carefully arranged his composition to offer his audience a deep view into the gallery space. The statues are placed on top of what appear to be wooden bases and invite viewing from all sides. For the gallery walls, he selected an unobtrusive reddish-salmon color, and he rendered the evenly tiled floor in a slate gray. Unusual for a museum, the floor seems free of footprints or any evidence that people have been moving through the gallery to view the exhibition.
Shahn punctured the salmon-colored walls at four separate points with “inserts” that read somewhere between pictures and windows. In them Shahn has rendered images seemingly based on three of his own paintings and photographs, paintings that, in keeping with his typical practice, would have been based on photographs he had taken in the 1930s. Shahn often recycled his own images throughout his career. In one regard, Contemporary American Sculpture is equal parts fact and fiction; the statues are based on actual statues and Shahn’s inserted images are quotations from his paintings, but what we see in Contemporary American Sculpture is a totality that never took place—there never was an actual exhibition that paired contemporary American sculpture with enlarged paintings or colored photographs of Shahn’s 1930s work.
There is an enigmatic quality to Contemporary American Sculpture that differentiates it from Shahn’s other Sunday paintings. Overall, Shahn’s paintings and prints were not about the artistic or creative process. He was unconcerned with such traditional artistic subjects as still-life arrangements or romantic self-portraits. Along with other artists on the Left, Shahn considered himself a worker engaged with society, not an elite artist set apart from it. Rather than interiors of an artist at work in his studio, his works drew inspiration from the streets and from the working class of which he was a member. Most often, these people—workers, the poor, social outcasts—were not welcome at museums, and were not traditional subjects of art.
Interestingly, too, Shahn never sculpted—though he was a highly skilled artist from the very beginning of his career and was fluent in a wide range of mediums and artistic techniques. He would often work in several different mediums simultaneously, for example shooting photographs while also painting with tempera, but he did not mix mediums in the manner of Picasso’s collages. Indeed, Shahn’s painted commentary on sculpture is the closest approximation we have of him bringing separate forms together in one work—painting, photography, and sculpture.
While an immigrant youth on New York’s overcrowded, impoverished Lower East Side in the 1910s, Shahn apprenticed to his uncle, a lithographer. Shahn’s own love of letters and calligraphy, which he rendered in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, would span his entire career. He first achieved fame—as well as notoriety—as a painter and social commentator with a twenty-three-part gouache series, The Passion of Sacco & Vanzetti (1931–32). Concurrently, as an aide-memorie in the creation of his paintings, he purchased a 35-millimeter Leica camera for $25. Famed photographer and friend Walker Evans gave him a modest bit of advice on how to handle it: “F/9 on the sunny side of the street, f/4.5 on the shady side of the street. For a twentieth of a second hold your camera steady.” With this modicum of wisdom, Shahn took to the poor districts of the city to focus on their residents. The truthful representation of the human condition was, above all, Shahn’s passion and motivation from the start. His intention was to use his photographs as well as ones he clipped from newspapers as source materials for his paintings, graphics, and murals.
He took thousands of photographs, black and white, of New York City and its residents for his personal use. Only within the past few decades has this cache of Shahn’s early New York City photographs, clippings, negatives, and unexposed film become known, fully studied, and displayed. The photographs show that he traversed the poor, immigrant, and neglected neighborhoods of the city, documenting the wasted lives he saw, and the desperate need for human intervention and help. His was a street-level, peopled, and empathetic view of New York, a walker’s city.
One black-and-white photograph of 1934–35—Shahn titled it Untitled (Welfare Hospital, Roosevelt Island, NYC) —shows two elderly and impoverished African-American women, garbed in black, waiting outside a hospital, one with a small strand of pearls around her neck, her companion holding onto a pair of crutches. Shahn later worked the photograph up into the easel painting Willis Avenue Bridge, 1940, that Lincoln Kirstein bought from Levy’s exhibition and gave to MoMA, and he apparently quoted from it twice in Contemporary American Sculpture (the scene will also appear in the Social Security mural). The figures appear clearly in the “insert” at the right on the back wall; more perplexing is what appears to be an extension of the cinderblock wall in the background of the photo, seen in the “insert” at the far right. Here, we see the lingering impact of Rivera who often painted architectural elements in his frescos to demark different sections, and make transitions in narratives.
A few years after his personal experiments with a camera in the early 1930s, Shahn was hired to work for Roy Stryker and the Farm Security Administration/ Resettlement Act, along with such notable photographers as Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Walker Evans. Stryker assigned Shahn to travel throughout the Midwest and South to document the extreme destitution in those regions and the hardships of the people. FSA photographs were meant as documentary evidence of the desperate needs of American citizens, and to rally support for government aid at Senate hearings or other venues. They were never intended for the art museum exhibitions where we often see them today or to be aesthetic treasures.
A prime example of Shahn’s photographs for the FSA is Omar, Scotts Run, West Virginia, taken in October 1935 in the heart of mining country, not that the mines offered much work. The sky is cloudy and gray, the road muddy and filled with puddles. At the left, a lone road sign points the viewer away from the rows of ramshackle company houses that underscore the poverty of the area’s residents. This photograph, too, makes its way as a painting in Contemporary American Sculpture; there Shahn focused tightly on the dilapidated buildings and painted the banisters, window frames, porches, and stairwells white. White might pretty up the rundown buildings, but they are still sandwiched between dark mud below and dark skies above.
The last insert in the salmon-toned wall shows us Shahn’s painted reinterpretation of another of his FSA photographs, Sam Nichols, Tenant Farmer, Boone County, Arkansas, 1935. Three bare and wobbly poles hold up the roof of Nichols’s porch, but hardly look equal to the task. Nichols’s own anguished expression, his arms pulled close to his body in worry and pain, suggests that he, too, is barely up for whatever task is ahead. Though Shahn has at least recorded Nichols’s name– unlike Dorothea Lange’s iconic but anonymous “Migrant Mother”—his pathos and poverty are in stark contrast to the gleaming statues arranged on the gallery floor.
Ramshackle housing from both down South and up north in New York City, infirmed elderly black women, restless but able-bodied people cast out of jobs. Shahn once commented that his greatest and lifelong fear was for human security.
With these four vignettes, these intrusions of reality, of the outside world just beyond the gallery walls, into the museum setting, Shahn argues that the brilliance of art never snuffs out the overwhelming pain of the world. Yet we must hold onto art nonetheless. After all, for Shahn, social realism was his weapon to fight for the dispossessed; now he is starting to move away toward personal realism.
Since we lack a full set of installation shots of the 1940 Whitney exhibition, it is not possible to establish how much of the composition of Contemporary American Sculpture came from Shahn’s imagination, and how much replicates the actual exhibition, but we do know that all the sculptures that Shahn depicted were in the 1940 Whitney Annual. A review of the sculptors’ names, their styles, politics, and artistic reputations shows that Shahn shared affinities with most of them. Like Shahn himself, who arrived in New York at the age of eight in 1906, the peak year of Eastern European Jewish immigration, almost all the sculptors represented were immigrants. Several were affiliated with the political Left, as Shahn was, and many had, like him, worked on the WPA. Some were quite likely his friends.
Rather than slavish imitations of neoclassical styles or academic proportions, methods, and standards, the sculptures shown were technically and stylistically innovative. Starting at the left is Ugesie by Saul Baizerman (1889–1957), who was born in Russia, where he was involved with the Bolshevik movement. Of the group of eight sculptors, it was Baizerman who was most similar to Shahn in terms of political ideology and ethnic heritage. He innovated and perfected a labor-intensive method of copper hammering and working the copper with his hands in order to align with the workers of the world. Ugesie, a nude portrayal of his young daughter in a modernist vocabulary, exemplifies these techniques.
Moving clockwise from the Baizerman is the plaster model for Washington at Valley Forge by American-born sculptor Warren Wheelock (1880–1960). While Wheelock was a disciple of direct carving, most often of non-objective statues, he also gained recognition for representational heroic figures, such as this one of George Washington. The representation of the heroic past and its leaders was promoted by the New Deal art programs. Still moving clockwise is Concetta Scaravaglione’s Seated Girl, carved from Napoleon gray marble. A first-generation American from a large immigrant family, Scaravaglione (1900–1975) studied at the Arts Students League and was celebrated for her architectural sculpture. She is featured in painter Moses Soyer’s marvelous group portrait Artists on WPA (1935), and like Shahn was enrolled in the WPA program in New York City; it was thanks to the WPA that more women, immigrants, and racial and ethnic minorities were able to live and work as artists.
The large biomorphic metal statue to the right of Seated Girl is Transition by the renowned artist Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988), considered one of the leading modernist sculptors in America ; Shahn most likely knew Noguchi (1904–1988) through either the New Deal or Diego Rivera. At the far right is Norwegian-born Arthur Lee’s (1881–1961) marble A Fragment of Fortune. Lee trained at the Arts Students League, and, as this voluptuous, graceful female nude demonstrates, his work was among the more conservative pieces at the 1940 Whitney Annual, as it had been at the 1913 Armory Show.
Moving around to the front, we see Simon Moselsio’s (1890–1964) interpretation of the universal artistic theme of Mother and Child rendered in Deer Isle granite and evidencing the geometrical hallmarks of Art Deco. Moselsio was born in Lodz, Poland, within the Pale of Settlement—the area of the Russian Empire where the tsars, and then Stalin, required Jews—to live (Shahn’s family, too, lived within the Pale). After a stint in Berlin, he arrived in New York in 1924, and later taught at Bennington College in Vermont for many years. Reminiscence, in the left foreground, carved by Austrian-born Romuald Kraus (1891–1954) in Tennessee marble in 1939, is now in the collection of the University of Louisville’s School of Music.
The diminutive piece in the center of the room most likely is Charles H. Rudy’s Sisters. Rudy (1904–1986) carved a large figure of Noah on the façade of Bronx Post Office while Shahn decorated the interior with fresco.
Before pondering why Shahn brought these sculptures together, why he inserted his own images with the sculptures, and what message he ultimately intended in Contemporary American Sculpture, let’s briefly stop to consider one thing. What fun he must have had in creating this painting, getting to masquerade and mimic the styles of his contemporaries! Through Contemporary American Sculpture, Shahn got to try on different artistic guises and artistic themes. He becomes, if only virtually, not only a sculptor but one possessed of a wide range of skills and techniques. And, we, his audience, get to see his hand at many subjects that he never pursued, such as the biomorphic forms of Noguchi, the classical nude, or the sentimental mother and child.
While researching past exhibition reviews to gain insights into Contemporary American Sculpture, one is struck that a critic applied the word “satire” to the painting, since this contrasts with accepted knowledge of Ben Shahn work. Reviewing the Whitney Annual of 1941, the New York Herald Tribune’s critic wrote:
Clearly, the critic not only failed to recognize the “pair of idlers” as derived from Shahn’s own work, he also failed to recognize how the two women function within the painting. The spirit of the painting, as well, eluded him.
Just recently, Shahn’s youngest son, Jonathan, (b. 1938) himself a well-regarded sculptor, offered another interpretation of Contemporary American Sculpture, which he had seen several times over the years, but solely in reproductions as it has long been in private hands. Jonathan wrote in an email:
While Shahn was well known for his sense of humor and storytelling, and at times painted touches of sarcasm, dry wit, and puns into important works such as Myself Among the Church Goers, 1939 (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art), Contemporary American Sculpture is neither a satire, nor a sarcastic work. First, Shahn treats the sculptures as respectfully and with the same sense of exactitude as his own work, replicating them with great care. He picked actual artists and their actual works rather than conjure up absurdist images of fantastical sculptures alongside fantastical sculptors, which would have made for a cheap and easy laugh. When replicating the statues he was attentive to details and to each individual artist’s style. But why would Shahn be so respectful if he were trying to belittle fellow artists?
In the opening years of the twentieth century in Berlin, Swiss-born Heinrich Wofflin, a professor of art history, revolutionized the discipline of art historical study by placing two lantern-slide projectors side by side so that they could project images simultaneously—giving birth to the slide comparison, a warhorse of art historical study that held sway until the advent of PowerPoint. This comparison, this sense of duality, still permeates art history, including how we teach and display Shahn’s works. Early versus older, photography versus painting, and social realism versus personal realism, and so on. Compare and contrast. Shahn seems to address this sense of duality within his own career within Contemporary American Sculpture by giving us both the painter and the photographer, both the fading of social realism and the emergence of personal realism, and showing that such categorical hard lines are often insufficient.
In doing so, Shahn throws into question the hierarchies of art, and what was often not considered fine art—photography—at mid-century, seeing that painting, sculpture, and photography all offer unique takes on the world. It’s no longer an either / or situation. Further, by juxtaposing prized art with paintings or photographs of thrown away people, Shahn demands that we question our own values and the values our institutions present. The four inserts of Shahn images cling to the walls of Contemporary American Sculpture, located on the margins of the exhibition because they depict people who themselves are marginalized.
In a manner, we can consider Contemporary American Sculpture as a goodbye, but not a long drawn out one. For Shahn, it was a smooth evolution, bordering on a revolution from social realism to personal realism. The vestiges of his prior concerns appear within the inserts, at a distance, no longer dominant. Shahn painted Contemporary American Sculpture at the dawn of a new decade, one marked by global warfare, the Holocaust, and nuclear war. Neither Shahn, nor his art, nor the world would ever appear the same. Shahn, whose career never went into decline over six decades of activity continued to find new means to express both the social and the personal.
Diana L. Linden, Ph.D. is a leading expert on the American artist Ben Shahn, the New Deal Mural programs, and Social Realism. Her most recent publication Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015), received an award from the National Jewish Book Council in the category of visual arts.
The author wishes to thank Elizabeth Hamilton for her invaluable research assistance.
1. Ben Shahn, The Shape of Content (Cambridge, Mass and London: Harvard University Press, 1957), 40–1.
2. Frances Pohl, Ben Shahn. With Ben Shahn’s Writings (San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks), 1993, 20.
3. Shahn, Shape of Content, 40.
4. See: Diana L. Linden, Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015).
5. Linden, Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals, chapter 3.
6. Lindsay Pollock, The Girl With the Gallery: Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market (New York: Public Affairs, 2006).
7. Howard Greenfeld, Ben Shahn: With Ben Shahn’s Writings (San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks), 1993, 169
8. Linden, Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals, chapter 2.
9. Greenfeld, An Artist’s Life, 170–72.
10. The Whitney Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Art ran from January 10 through February 18, 1940. The Whitney was headquartered at 10 West 8th Street in Greenwich Village.
11. Deborah Martin Kao, Laura Katzman, and Jenna Webster, Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times (Cambridge, MA: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museum, and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
12. Amy Lyford, Isamu Noguchi’s Modernism: Negotiating Race, Labor, and Nation, 1930–1950 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London University of California Press, 2013). 13. Clearly, the Herald’s critic has misread Shahn’s paintings.
14. Email to author, June 10, 2016.