New York

Ben Shahn

What makes the paintings of Ben Shahn different from those of Francis Bacon is that the former sees suffering not as a personal hell but as an all-American shared experience. The current retrospective, “Common Man Mythic Vision,” offers the chance to see a number of the painter’s social realist works of the ’30s alongside many of his lesser-known allegorical paintings of the ’40s and ’50s. What is evident throughout is Shahn’s concern with tender feelings. Consider, for example, the gentle couple in Shahn’s Spring, 1947. Is it sentimental to show flowers and, in the background, a couple harmoniously skipping rope? It seems nostalgic to use a traditional narrative technique to convey temporal sequence and even more nostalgic to turn to steep one-point perspective—the orthogonal lines of the roads conspicuously converge on the horizon—to suggest hope, as well as the reconciliation of those proverbially grand opposites, man and woman. But nostalgia is inseparable from Shahn’s social realism, which might better be called social utopianism.

Shahn offers the illusion that what is far apart will sooner or later come together, whether the union is peaceful and happy (as in Spring) or hypocritical, as in The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931–32. The fraudulently pious guardian figures of society—symbols of entrenched legal, educational, and economic authority and power—stand over the open coffins of the executed anarchists. Justice favors the rich and powerful, as the Supreme Court scenario in the background suggests. The underdog, the victim, the unfortunate, the lower classes—these are Shahn’s heroes, on ideological principle as well as out of empathic concern. The paradox, though, is that both the proletarian Sacco and Vanzetti and the sanctimonious types surrounding their caskets come off as caricatures. The figures in Spring, if more idealized, are also facile stereotypes. Only the flowers in both pictures escape being hackneyed, perhaps because they seem ideal in themselves.

Shahn fails to grasp the depth of the human tragedy or happiness he registers because he reads those states entirely in ideological terms. His works look quaint not because they are constructed in a traditional way but because their traditionalism is compromised with modern ideas. Broad planes, simplified contours, mostly unmodulated colors—abstract “reductivism,” as it were—do not serve much purpose other than embellishment. The difference between, say, Shahn and Andrew Wyeth is that the latter at least had the courage of his traditionalist convictions, while Shahn dressed his up with “innovative” touches—an attempt to be attractive to the art crowd as well as the cause crowd. Bacon offers us a tragic vision of individual existence because he had no ideological preconceptions about it: His imagery serves no preconceived social interest. His paintings are expressively convincing because they successfully integrate abstraction and representation without giving either one pictorial priority. In contrast, Shahn’s social melodramas are convincing neither as traditional nor as modern paintings—perhaps that’s why they seem more dated than the works of the old masters or the masters of abstraction.

Donald Kuspit