BEN SHAHN by Howard Greenfeld

BEN SHAHN

An Artist's Life
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Although he knew Ben Shahn, had access to his papers, and spent many hours interviewing his widow and adult children, Greenfeld’s biography remains curiously dispassionate. Maybe the biographer was only guarding his objectivity; after all, he felt a strong affinity for the artist. The two men met in the 1960s, and Greenfeld spent time with Shahn in Paris, New York, and New Jersey, Shahn’s home. Perhaps frustrated by the artist’s loss of reputation in the years following his death, Greenfeld—who has also written about Caruso and Puccini—undertook the biography as a means of foregrounding —one of the most significant figures in the history of twentieth-century art.” Certainly Shahn was one of the most controversial. He made his career at a time when visual art offered an undisputed potential for political impact, and he invariably infused his art with his pro-union, liberal ideals. As a result, his work was condemned time and again for its political content by religious leaders, politicans, and even by the trustees of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. However, Shahn was not easily intimidated; he was a brash person, and his work benefitted from his strength of character even when his relationships suffered. Rather than allow that complexity into his portrait of the artist, though, Greenfeld only glances at Shahn’s personal betrayals with evident distaste. As a result, the biography begins to pull apart: At one level, it carefully tracks Shahn’s professional progress from lithographer’s apprentice to New York painter, FSA photographer, and famous muralist. At another, it offers only a sketchy emotional trajectory of the man who abandoned his first wife and family and subsequently sabotaged numerous other people. The coexistence of Shahn’s political idealism and his emotional ruthlessness isn—t explored fully. Greenfeld’s hesitation to expose the man compromises the book and its subject. (40 b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Nov. 2nd, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-41932-2
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1998