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Ben Shahn: If Not Now, When?

Ben Shahn: If Not Now, When?

Sunday, April 9, 2017 to Sunday, August 27, 2017

This exhibition took place in the Ground Level Arts Lab, a new 1,600-square-foot programmatic space for Jewish art, artists, and our community.

Lithuanian-born American artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was a committed activist and humanist. Using social realism to protest political attitudes of the time, his work reveals a passionate search for social justice and an engagement with questions about his spiritual and ethnic identity. He explored polemic themes of modern urban life, organized labor, immigration, and injustice.

Among the works that were shown were two important groups of lithographs. The earlier group, known as the Civil Rights Portfolio, is from 1965, when Shahn created prints to benefit of the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Relations Council of Greater New Haven, Connecticut. Shahn included portraits of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, young volunteers who had been working to register black voters when they were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi, by members of the local Ku Klux Klan. These portraits and others in the series, reflective of Shahn’s desire to honor civil rights workers, themselves became iconic images of the civil rights movement.

The other group of works is a series of 24 color lithographs titled For the Sake of a Single Verse. Shahn completed the series in 1968, a year before his death. With it, he achieved a lifetime goal, illustrating a passage from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, a work he discovered in Paris in 1926 when he was 28 years old. About the project, Shahn wrote, “I was entranced by the writer’s observations, not just upon Paris, but on life itself. Malte Brigge had only just arrived in Paris when the notebooks began. He too was twenty eight. This young man seemed almost to be me.”

All works in this exhibition are from the Spertus collection.


Main Image

Ben Shahn, Many Things, from the portfolio For the Sake of a Single Verse, 1968
Lithograph, 22 1/2 x 17 11/16 inches
Spertus Institute Collection
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert A. Bernhard

The Ground Level Arts Lab is made possible in part through the generous support of the Harry and Sadie Lasky and Charles & M.R. Shapiro Foundations.