Ben Shahn’s The Shape of Content (Book acquired, 23 July 2021)

I went by my favorite used bookstore the other week to pick up the copy of Tatyana Tolstoya’s novel The Slynx last week. (I’m halfway through it, and it’s fantastic stuff—dirty, cruel, funny, unexpectedly moving—like a filthy generative loam that isn’t exactly poisonous, but will certainly yield side effects.) After seeing this diagram earlier in the week, I looked for a copy of Thomas C. Oden’s 1969 multidisciplinary

text Structure of Awareness. I was unsuccessful there, but I did spy something called The Shape of Content by the artist Ben Shahn. I’ve long been a fan of his work, so I picked it up and thumbed through. I ended up reading most of it this weekend.

The Shape of Content (the title now is not exactly ironic, I guess) collects a series of lectures Shahn gave to Harvard students in the late 1950s. The first lecture is a somewhat boring apologia, a kind of What the hell am I doing here?, but the following material is good stuff, if not exactly fresh. There are plenty of illustrations too, mostly unrelated to the, uh, content of the words (although they are of course intimately related). Illustrations like the one above, and this one, below, make the 144 pager seem, well, kinda short.

Here’s Harvard UP’s blurb:

In his 1956–57 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, the Russian-born American painter Ben Shahn sets down his personal views of the relationship of the artist―painter, writer, composer―to his material, his craft, and his society. He talks of the creation of the work of art, the importance of the community, the problem of communication, and the critical theories governing the artist and his audience.

Watch — Eric Fischl

Watch, 2015 by Eric Fischl (b. 1948)

The Wave – From the Sea – After Leonardo, Hokusai and Courbet — Pat Steir

The Wave – From the Sea – After Leonardo, Hokusai and Courbet, 1985 by Pat Steir (b. 1940)

The Minimalist — Ilya Milstein

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The Minimalist, 2017 by Ilya Milstein

Shifting the Gaze — Titus Kaphar

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Shifting the Gaze, 2017 by Titus Kaphar (b. 1976)

Homage to Balthus and Freud — Sasha Gordon 

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Homage to Balthus and Freud, 2017 by Sasha Gordon (b. 1998)

Judith and Holofernes — Kehinde Wiley

Judith and Holofernes, 2012 by Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977)

Tribute to De Chirico — Carlos Mensa

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Tribute to De Chirico, 1974 by Carlos Mensa (1936-1982)

The Apprehension of Ted Kaczynski (Lincoln, Montana – April 3, 1996) — Sandow Birk

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The Apprehension of Ted Kaczynski (Lincoln, Montana – April 3, 1996), 2019 by Sandow Birk (b. 1962)

From Narcissus to Icarus (After Déjeuner sur l’herbe) — Raqib Shaw

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From Narcissus to Icarus (After Déjeuner sur l’herbe), 2019 by Raqib Shaw (b. 1974)

Annunciation after Titian — Gerhard Richter 

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Annunciation after Titian, 1973 by Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)

Source of the Blue Loue — Mark Tansey

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Source of the Blue Loue, 1982 by Mark Tansey (b. 1949)

Leader of Legions of Literary Lunatics — Mike Davis

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Leader of Legions of Literary Lunatics by Mike Davis

A Jan Steen Kitchen — Jonathan Leaman

A Jan Steen Kitchen 1995-6 by Jonathan Leaman born 1954Screenshot 2019-12-16 at 7.44.35 PMScreenshot 2019-12-16 at 7.44.06 PMScreenshot 2019-12-16 at 7.43.49 PMScreenshot 2019-12-16 at 7.43.22 PM

A Jan Steen Kitchen, 1996 by Jonathan Leaman (b. 1954)

Rock Star — Marc Dennis

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Rock Star, 2015 by Marc Dennis (b. 1971)

Woman with the Hat — Hilary Harkness 

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Woman with the Hat, 2011 by Hilary Harkness (b. 1971)

Judith Slaying Holofernes — Mitchell Villa

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Judith Slaying Holofernes, 2018 by Mitchell Villa