Ben Shahn’s name today is obscure, but Shahn was perhaps one of the greatest artists ever to come out of Williamsburg. Born in Lithuania, Shahn grew up in the Southside in real poverty (1898-1969). Recognized during his lifetime as one of the greatest American painters of his generation, he was also a highly talented photographer, graphic artist, and lithographer.
Like many other Williamsburg celebrities, Shahn’s parents were Orthodox Jews who fled the poverty and Anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe. His father was a leftist political activist whom The Tsar’s forces arrested, imprisoned and sent to Siberia. In 1906, when Shahn was eight years old, his family immigrated to New York where they were reunited with Shahn’s father.
His artistic talent soon manifested itself. In Williamsburg, his fifth-grade teacher first noticed and encouraged his artistic development. The family, however, was very poor and despite his obvious talent, Shahn’s mother made him drop out of school at the end of the eighth-grade to work and help support the family. Shahn got a job as an apprentice in his uncle’s lithography shop, where he continued to develop his artistic ability. By age 19, Shahn had become a professional lithographer, but he was determined to learn even more, so he also started to study at New York University, the College of the City of New York, and the National Academy of Design.
He toured Europe as a young man and was deeply impressed with European painting, especially Cezanne and Matisse, whom he mimicked in his early work, but Shahn thankfully realized that he was an American artist, soon developing a uniquely American style of art. Later in life he called himself “the most American of all American painters.” His art, though, was highly critical of American life, often depicting American poverty and injustice. His first fame came with his series of paintings surrounding the extremely controversial execution of the Italian immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts. Shahn, like many people around the world, believed that the two men were framed for their anarchism, and he created twenty-three protests images of the trial. Many of these, including the gouache Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco became famous amongst leftists around the world. One of those leftists was Diego Rivera, the celebrated Mexican muralist, invited him to assist him in creating his famed murals for Rockefeller Center. Under Rivera’s tutelage, Shahn mastered the demanding art of fresco or painting with dry pigments on wet plaster.
For years brilliant avant-guarde murals lay hidden inside a local housing project, but thanks to an intrepid art history detective they were rediscovered and everyone today can enjoy their genius. It is a local story worth recounting. In 1936, America was suffering the effects of the Great Depression. No one was harder hit by the depression than artists who watched the market for their work shrivel and completely dry up, but Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal offered artists a lifeline.
Their art would be used to beautify the massive building campaign that was at the heart of Roosevelt’s recovery plan, called the Works Progress Administration or WPA. One of the buildings that artists would beautify would be the Williamsburg Houses (164 Ten Eyck St.), which contain 20 buildings in an area around Leonard and Scholes streets. The chief architect of the project was Richmond Shreve, and the design team of nine other architects was led by the pioneering Swiss-American modernist William Lescaze, whose Philadelphia Saving Fund Society building of 1928-32 was one of the first major International Style buildings in the United States.
The design of the buildings was bold, daring and futuristic for the time and the design team wanted to decorate the interior of the complex with art that was equally bold. The four-story houses Lescaze designed included basement community rooms decorated with murals in “abstract and stimulating patterns” designed to aid relaxation.
The Federal Art Project (FAP) commissioned a series of murals, to be painted in the community rooms at the Williamsburg Houses. The head of the New York Murals of the FAP division in 1937 was Burgoyne Diller, who bravely decided to commission a series of abstract murals from avant-garde, relatively unknown artists. Abstract paintings, like those in the murals, were hard for the general public to appreciate. The artists who painted murals in the Williamsburg Houses eventually won recognition as giants in the field of abstract painting. The painters were Paul Kelpe (1902-85), Ilya Bolotowsky (1907-81), Balcomb Greene (1904-90), and Albert Swinden (1901-61). Diller, an abstract artist himself, put his own art career on hold in order to promote the abstract style in murals before it was accepted in the United States. Diller faced criticism and had to justify every abstract mural he placed in the houses, but he won and the art was installed. Continue reading →
I recently visited the Brooklyn Museum, where the forgotten Williamsburg Murals are on display in the building cafe. Jazz-like rhythms echoed through the hallway as I shared an intimate moment focusing on the details of each painting. The most interesting thing about them is their historical context. They’ve been through a lot. Continue reading →