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Ben Shahn

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Ben Shahn
Modern 19th - 1945 Graphic Arts
(Kaunas, Lithuania, September 12, 1898 - March 14, 1969, New York City, NY)

Ben Shahn was born in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania in 1898. In 1906 he immigrated to the United States, settling with his family in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. From 1913 to 1916 he worked as an apprentice at Hessenberg’s lithography shop in Manhattan. He subsequently attended classes at the Art Students League in Manhattan, New York University, City College of New York, and New York’s National Academy of Design. In 1925 and 1928-9 he traveled in Europe and North Africa; in 1959-60 he made a trip to the Far East. In 1939 he moved to Jersey Homesteads (later renamed Roosevelt), New Jersey and remained there until his death in 1969. Shahn first came to the attention of the art world with an 1932 exhibition at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan of a series of gouaches on the case of the Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were found guilty of robbery and murder in 1927 after a legal process marked by anti-anarchist and anti-Italian bias. He followed this with another series of gouaches on the labor leader Tom Mooney. This interest in contemporary political figures remained with Shahn throughout his career in both his fine and commercial art, although in the late 1930s he also turned to what he called “personal realism,” a focus on the lives of common men and women. In 1947 Shahn was honored with a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and in 1954 represented American painting, along with Willem de Kooning, at the Venice Biennial. A retrospective exhibition of his work returned to Italy in 1961, organized by the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art (it continued on to several venues in Europe). He was the focus of innumerable individual and group shows throughout his career. During the 1930s and early 1940s Shahn took photographs and created posters and murals for the federal government under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the Treasury Department. He worked briefly for the Office of War Information from 1942-43 and subsequently for the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ Political Action Committee (CIO-PAC) during the 1944 presidential campaign and 1946 congressional campaign. In 1948 he offered his services as a graphic artist to Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party presidential candidate. He continued producing posters and other graphic work through the 1950s and 1960s for Democratic candidates and for the anti-nuclear and civil rights movements. In addition to his careers as a painter and a graphic artist, Shahn also published several books and essays, the best know of which include Paragraphs on Art (Spiral, 1952), The Shape of Content (Harvard University Press, 1957), and Love and Joy About Letters (Grossman, 1963). For further information on Shahn see Frances K. Pohl, Ben Shahn (Pomegranate Artbooks, 1993); Kenneth Prescott, The Complete Graphic Works of Ben Shahn (Quadrangle/New York Times, 1973); Susan Chevlowe, ed., Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn (Jewish Museum/Princeton University Press, 1998). Frances Pohl


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