Some 68 years ago the NYC Art Commission rejected a mural planned by noted radical socialist painter-photographer Ben Shahn for the new Rikers Penitentiary. Protesters rallied, petitions circulated, editorialists waxed eloquent. That cause celebre is revisited in part of a Shahn exhibition by Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum. These excerpted texts and reduced images from the exhibition's catalogue and web site tell and illustrate some of that controversy.
For more, visit Harvard University Art Museums' Ben Shahn at Harvard. To order, visit Yale University Press and use 0300083157 as the ISBN search term.
NYCHS appreciates being permitted to post these exhibition materials excerpts. Harvard College President and Fellows retain the copyright and reserve all the rights thereunder.
The Photography of
[Pages 230 - 231]:
From the spring of 1934 through the winter of 1935 [Ben] Shahn worked on an ambitious public art project -- a mural design for the newly constructed penitentiary on Rikers Island, a four hundred-acre plot of land situated in the East River, between Queens and the Bronx.
Shahn collaborated with the painter and photographer Lou Block, and the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration provided funding.
Choosing a long corridor in the main building as his site, Shahn developed a didactic scheme on the hotly debated issue of prison reform.
Block, meanwhile, designed a series of panels about religious charity for the penitentiary chapels.
In preparation, the two artists studied law and penology and drew on the expertise of local sociologists and prison officials. They also visited correctional facilities in and around New York City.
Shahn photographed inmates at the model reformatory in New Hampton [in Orange County, New York] and the antiquated, overcrowded Blackwell's Island Penitentiary on Welfare Island (renamed Roosevelt Island in 1973), just south of Rikers Island . . .
To photograph within penal institutions, Shahn was required to obtain permission frorn a number of authorities, as well as the prisoners themselves. . . .
Shahn recorded gregarious young men who posed for his camera, as well as prisoners absorbed in thought, reading newspapers, even creating art.
He also focused on inmates learning useful trades: masonry, metalwork, and farming.
These images are engaging portraits, depicting inmates as wayward sons anol brothcrs.
As a believer in prison reform, Shahn thus rebuked the prevalent "rouges' gallery" classification of criminials, seeking instead to reveal how prisoncrs deserved assistance and rehabilitation. . . .
. . . .a number of young who posed so willingly at the New Hampton reformatory populate scenes in the mural that delineate the social benefits of providing inmates with education, vocational training and medical care.
In contrast, the destitute men the artist had photographed on the sidewalks of Manhattan formed the basis for the opposing portions of the mural, which illuminated how poverty and desperation lead to crime . . . .
In spite of extensive support Shahn's commanding mural design received at City hall and the municipal Department of Correction, the conservative Municipal Art Commission dismissed the proposal in February, 1935. The rejection immediately became a cause celebre. . . .
[NOTE: The full text can be found in the Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modern Times Exhibition Catalogue from which the above was excerpted. NYCHS appreciates being permitted to post these exhibition materials excerpts. Harvard College President and Fellows retain the copyright and reserve all the rights thereunder. For more, including the larger original digital versions -- between 100Kb and 600Kb -- of the images shown here much reduced, visit Harvard University Art Museums' Ben Shahn at Harvard. To order, visit Yale University Press and use 0300083157 as the ISBN search term.]
To Ben Shahn's NY -- Rikers Mural: NYCHS Excerpts III