The Phillips Collection

Washington D.C.



Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modern Times

June 10 - August 27, 2000


"Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modern Times" will present a pivotal, but heretofore little examined body of photographic work from the 1930s by Ben Shahn (1898-1969), a celebrated American social realist of the twentieth century. The exhibition will consider the function and meaning of his experimental work in photography within the larger social and political climate of the 1930s.

Organized by the Harvard University Art Museums, this major traveling exhibition will be presented at The Phillips Collection in the summer of 2000. It will include approximately 100 works by the artist, including the New York photographs, and related works in other media, such as ink drawings, easel paintings, major mural studies, and related ephemera. The photographs, the majority of which are held in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, comprise Shahn's earliest work in the medium. Remarkable for their fresh, experimental character, these images have not been exhibited in any significant way since David Pratt's and William Johnson's pioneering exhibition "Belt Shnhn as Photographer," which was installed at the Fogg Art Museum in 1969.

At the time that Shahn embraced photography, he was a struggling, reform-minded artist involved in the publication of Art Front and the activities of the Artists' Union, executing socially-conscious paintings and murals. While photographs provided Shahn with a "way of seeing" that informed his painting, mural, and graphic work for decades, they are much more than raw materials and sources of inspiration for his work in other media. They define the urban scene through the actions of ordinary, largely immigrant peoples, rather than through great events or landmark architecture. Shahn's photographs are thus compelling examples of social realist art in their own right.

By focusing attention on this important aspect of the artist's work, Ben Shnhn's New York seeks to reconstruct the aesthetic and cultural meanings of the artist's compelling vision of New York in the 1930s, while underscoring its persistent relevance to the artist and his contemporaries. The presentation will explore Shahn's experimentation with and contributions to the emerging field of social documentary, and his use of photography in drawings, paintings, prints, and posters, as well as in his public mural projects that promoted the social reform programs of the day. Because the New York work was formative for Shahn's photographic aesthetic and his working process, the exhibition also provides an ideal vehicle for investigating other aspects of Shahn's oeuvre, and the larger milieu of American social and visual culture during the Great Depression.

An extensive catalogue, published by the Harvard University Art Museums and Yale University Press, will accompany the exhibition and include critical essays, an illustrated checklist, and an extensive compendium of primary source documents.

Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Phillips Collection.

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

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