Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn

Susan Chevlowe, Author
Susan Chevlowe, Author Princeton University Press $50 (208p) ISBN 978-0-691-00406-8
Paperback - 194 pages - 978-0-691-00407-5
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The centenary of socially conscious artist Ben Shahn's birth brings at least two salutes: an upcoming exhibition at New York's Jewish Museum and Greenfeld's (The Devil and Dr. Barnes) competent if workmanlike biography. ""I hate injustice,"" Shahn (1898-1968) told an interviewer in 1944. ""I've hated it ever since I read a story in school."" That troubling biblical story of an unjust God is not the only influence that Greenfeld, the founder of Orion Press and a friend of Shahn's in the artist's later years, traces to his subject's youth. Explaining Shahn's graphic style of blending art and words, Greenfeld recalls the artist's childhood in Lithuania when, too poor to buy paper, he sketched in the margins of books. Once in the U.S., Shahn parlayed this skill into work as a commercial lithographer. His first steps as an independent artist coincided with the Depression, so Shahn's early career relied heavily on the Roosevelt administration's visionary schemes, described admirably by Greenfeld. In 1931, Shahn mixed social protest and art in a series that would set his course and make his reputation--The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti. Although Greenfeld includes stories of Shahn's failed first marriage and his troubles during the Red Scare, the real human touches are rare (as in the description of Shahn's second wife baking a great many angel food cakes while helping her husband complete an egg tempera mural for a Bronx post office). Also, while Greenfeld repeats Clement Greenberg's charge that Shahn's work was ""rarely effective beyond a surface facility,"" he offers little other critical analysis. For the biography of an artist usually associated with fiery commitment, this has a wooden, even perfunctory tone. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Nov.) FYI: In December, Princeton Unversity Press will publish Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn, a companion to the exhibition at the Jewish Museum. ($45 197p ISBN 0-691-00406-4)
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