[Originally published in People Newspapers]
Ben Shahn’s painting, “World’s Greatest Comics,” is a world to be entered, an aperture. Of course, one could argue that could be said of all paintings. However, there are works that unabashedly seek us out, that clamor for our attention, and Shahn’s work is one of them. Its allure is that it delivers us so completely into a narrative, circa 1946. We discover two young men engrossed in reading comics while juxtaposed against a red, geometric structure that suggests an architectural facade. Swaths of agitated color, reminiscent of a volatile ocean, remind us that the world surrounding them is anything but accommodating. This is clearly a place of alienation and unswerving severity. It takes but the tiniest imaginative leap to place them squarely in the desperate milieu of Manhattan’s emigrant population, so often outlined in the works of novelists such as Isaac Bashevis Singer or Henry Roth. In fact, Benjamin Shahn was born into a traditional Orthodox family in Lithuania and emigrated to Brooklyn in 190; consequently, the world of emigrants is one he knew well.
“World’s Greatest Comics” is a work of sharply delineated space. Between the two figures in the painting is a white swing set with rings that suggest a possibility of swaying between spheres. However, there is no such motion shown. The apparatus is rendered in highly abstract fashion. And the only movement is one that must be inferred. It’s the imaginal stream that everyone who has ever been lost in an artistic work that fully engages them will immediately recognize. “World’s Greatest Comics” reminds us that the two young men depicted in Shahn’s painting have recourse to a world that’s broad, brilliant, and unfettered. The figure in the foreground peers into the pages of a colorful newspaper spread before him. He crouches before it, kneeling in short pants and a jacket reminiscent of the forties. His hands hold the sheets in place and one can not help but notice that they’re huge, inordinately large. Perhaps as he digests information from this vista, this printed page, he’s rendered powerful because he’s allowed to momentarily avoid the fray of daily life. One of the startling things about this painting is that it seems quite different than much of Shahn’s political work that promoted socialist causes. This is broader than that. Its scope is as huge as the world the two boys encounter in the flight engendered by reading.
The corollary to be explored is that Shahn makes that same world available to us as well. Enter the painting. Let the “World’s Greatest Comics” devour a bit of you. You’ll share that same broad embrace that comforts the figures in the painting. It’s a rich landscape after all. No squalid neighborhood can dampen it. The only thing capable of defeating it is a singular unwillingness to play in the Shahn’s conjured neighborhood — and that would be a seizing impoverishment indeed.