Ben Shahn, Contemporary American Sculpture

Ben Shahn, Contemporary American Sculpture, 1940, tempera on board, 21 1/2 x 30 inches (The John and Susan Horseman Collection, Courtesy of the Horseman Foundation); a conversation with Dr. Jeffrey Richmond-Moll (Curator of American Art, Georgia Museum of Art) and Dr. Beth Harris

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Shahn, Contemporary American Sculpture

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Key points

  • The subject of Ben Shahn’s painting is the intersection of high art with everyday life. Into a pristine museum gallery filled with modernist sculptures Shahn has inserted a series of three images depicting the living conditions of Americans struggling with poverty and inequality. 
  • These images were modeled on photographs the artist took while working for the Farm Security Administration as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Their subject matter reflects Shahn’s work as a social realist, raising awareness of societal issues in his art by documenting the harsh realities of life and work for many Americans.

Go deeper

Biographical information about Ben Shahn (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Social Realism (MoMA)

Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, The Library of Congress

Catalogue for the 1940 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art

More to think about

How does the insertion of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) images into the museum gallery change or impact your perspective on the modernist sculptures? Why?

Research project idea

  • The speakers in the video suggest that Shahn presents viewers with a visual representation of the tension he felt between his role in the art world and his desire for his art to have an impact on social good, with one role providing a potential platform to do the other. The painting depicts an actual gallery of modernist sculptures on view in the 1940 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Art at the Whitney Museum. While Shahn did not have any works included in this exhibition, his painting Presser is listed in the catalogue for the 1938 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Whitney and his painting Pretty Girl Milking a Cow was included in the 1940–41 Exhibition. Research these exhibitions by reviewing the catalogues available through the Whitney Museum’s website. What other artists were also using their position within the artworld to speak to social issues? How did they do it? What kind of portrait of social realism can you create by looking at the artists who exhibited in these annual shows?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.