You may not be familiar with the 1916 case of Tom Mooney, a labor rights activist convicted of a San Francisco parade bombing that by all accounts he did not commit, but who nevertheless spent 22 years in prison for the crime. Though he's far from a household name today, at the time his situation was quite a scandal, and a lightning rod for political progressives from Emma Goldman to L.A.'s own Aline Barnsdall, who campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mooney eventually was pardoned in 1939, and died in 1942. Woody Guthrie wrote a song about it. And perhaps most notably, artist Ben Shahn painted about it.
Shahn was an active, respected and outspoken painter and photographer who had immigrated to New York City from Lithuania in 1906, as his family fled repercussions for a combination of their Jewishness and his parents' political activism. Though Shahn studied art, a strong current of political engagement and an unerring sense of social justice fueled his entire career.
He was especially aligned with issues of labor rights and economic imbalance, frequently chronicling scenes of blight with his camera before translating them into stylized, allegorical paintings. Though he caucused with the social realism movement in art, in truth his work expresses a more populist, folksy aesthetic in the American vernacular. In any case, there was rarely any room for doubt when it came to his messages.
It's no wonder he was attracted to the Mooney case, as it offered a lot of material to work with: corrupt politicians, witnesses bribed to lie, politicians and industrialists with their own agendas, a complacent state supreme court, a grieving mother, sensational newspaper headlines and an entourage of high-profile defenders having a proxy culture war. For two years, 1932-33, Shahn thought of little else.
He made some 16 paintings on the story, each one a vignette, a character study or an allegory of corruption, many based on his own or newspaper photographs. Eventually he would combine these images into a single panoramic tableau — the 30-by-60-inch tempera-on-board painting Apotheosis. Intended as a proposal for a large-scale mural, which perhaps unsurprisingly was rejected, this painting is the most complete version of the cycle in existence. And in 2012, LACMA bought it for its permanent collection. It's a California story, after all.
Now a poignant new exhibition based on the work gathers several of those original paintings, along with a wide-ranging selection of contemporaneous ephemera and source materials from pamphlets (aka zines), news reels (aka viral video), editorial cartoons (wicked satire), photographs (journalism) and some truly curious limited-edition merch, for the most thorough look yet at this intimate masterpiece. Many of the small gouache works are on loan from private collections and venerable institutions from Harvard Art Museums to MoMA and the Smithsonian — which gives a sense of the influence of this series in both art and political history.
But despite the scholarly gravitas, what truly makes the project come alive is its readily apparent resonance with our current political situation. After all, mass demonstrations, government corruption, an epidemic of incarceration, widespread poverty, rigged elections and the domination of old white men in policymaking are commonplace now. (There's one painting of the California Supreme Court that heard the case that's particularly heartbreaking.) At our own crucial moment of political strife, art is one of the most powerful tools in the fight to reach people and change minds — we just may not be accustomed to that art looking so refined and nuanced as Shahn's. Our resistance is a bit louder now.
That said, Shahn himself got pretty loud sometimes. His Mooney series won the praise of Diego Rivera, and he worked on the team that executed Rivera's infamous Rockefeller Center mural in 1993 — the one that was hidden and later destroyed over actual Nelson Rockefeller's objections to its overtly pro-communist imagery. Word is, Shahn was a bit of a rabble-rouser in that scenario.
No matter, by 1935 Shahn was employed as a photographer for what became the Farm Security Administration, working with peers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange — itself one of the most enduring example of how art can help prompt real change.
With the inclusion of an FSA photograph in Edward Steichen's famed “Family of Man” exhibition in 1935 at MoMA, and his 1954 star-turn showing paintings and once-censored poster designs alongside Willem de Kooning representing the United States at the Venice Bienniale, Shahn's career served to elevate the way photography and graphic design were shown and appreciated as true fine art forms. I'm looking at you, Shepard Fairey, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Hank Willis Thomas, Robbie Conal, Guerrilla Girls … you get the idea.
Shahn continued to make art and write extensively on the intersection of art and social change for the rest of his life. But in a profound way, the exhibition at LACMA offers an in-depth look at the ideas and the work that started it all. “Apotheosis” means culmination, but in this work we also witness the origin story of a powerful artistic voice — one that a new generation of activists would do well to study, as the fearless man of principle and honored art-historical trailblazer he remains.
“Shahn, Mooney and the Apotheosis of American Labor,” Resnick Pavilion, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Miracle Mile; through Nov. 25; lacma.org/art/exhibition/shahn-mooney-and-apotheosis-american-labor-0.