The exhibition Ben Shahn. On Nonconformity surveys the work of artist Ben Shahn (Kaunas, Lithuania, 1898 – New York, 1969), a pivotal figure in American social realism. Laura Katzman, the show’s curator, explores the main themes in his work, accompanied by a dramatized reading by Alberto Chessa of a selection of Shahn’s essays and lectures, in which he discussed his conception of the creative process and the purposes of art, and texts that influenced his life and work.
Born into a working class, immigrant family from Eastern Europe, Shahn was one of the most prolific and committed American artists in the period stretching from the 1930s to the 1960s. His work explored important issues within the USA’s social context and global history, from the New Deal to the Vietnam War. Advocating the conviction of “nonconformity”, Shahn also challenged the predominance of Abstract Expressionism and other variants of avant-garde art in the 1950s. This retrospective, the first organised in Spain, spotlights the artist’s commitment to social justice, from contemporary diversity and equity perspectives —Shahn was an advocate for workers’ and migrants’ rights and openly criticised the abuses committed by the upper and ruling classes.
This curatorial encounter punctuates the key aspects of the exhibition, for instance the economic and environmental crises of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, the atrocities of the Second World War, the anti-communist crusades of the Cold War, the threat of annihilation in the atomic era, struggles for labour and civil rights and the defence of human rights, as well as Shahn’s interest in spiritual themes and bible stories in his later years.
Alberto Chessa is a writer, translator and voice actor. He is the author of six poetry books that have been awarded with different distinctions — the latest, entitled Palabras para luego, will be published soon by Huerga & Fierro. He has also overseen an essay volume on the film-maker Theo Angelopoulos (Círculo de Bellas Artes, 2015) and a book of aphorisms. As a translator, his most recent publication is a version of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Twelve Sonnets from the Portuguese (Balduque, 2022), while his voice has featured on numerous advertising creations, documentaries and information devices such as the audio-guide for the Alhambra in Granada and the online courses of the Telefónica Foundation for the Museo del Prado and Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid.
Laura Katzman holds a PhD in Art History from Yale University. She is a professor of Art History at James Madison University (Virginia, USA) and specialises in American art from the New Deal era and documentary photography from the USA and Puerto Rico. Katzman is the co-author, with Deborah Martin Kao and Jenna Webster, of Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times (Yale University Press, 2000) and main author of Re-viewing Documentary: The Photographic Life of Louise Rosskam (Penn State University Press, 2014), and the editor of The Museum of the Old Colony: An Art Installation by Pablo Delano (UVA Press, 2023). She has also been a visiting curator at the Harvard University Art Museums and the American University Museum, and has been the recipient of grants from the Fulbright Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution and the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.