Ben Shahn: If Not Now, When?

Above:  Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner
Ben Shahn, 1965, Collection of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership

Iconic works by the well-known artist and activist go on view at Spertus Institute beginning April 9th.

As the second exhibit in its new Ground Level Arts Lab, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership presents more than 30 works by artist and activist Ben Shahn, who exposed injustice and inspired social change through his art.

Throughout his career, Shahn explored themes of inequality, immigration, antisemitism, ethnic identity, fair labor, and urban life. These themes were critical in the decades he worked — from the early 1930s through his death in 1969 — and their relevancy resonates equally today. About showing his work, Curator Ionit Behar says, “Ben Shahn’s images of immigrants, refugees, labor organizers, and civil rights workers are as powerful today as they were during his lifetime. It is critical to exhibit Shahn’s works in these times, in this country, in Chicago, and at a Jewish institution. His commitment to debate and social change is inspiring, a much needed feeling here and now.”

The exhibit Ben Shahn: If Not Now, When? opens April 9 and runs through August 27, 2017. Its title comes from a famous quote attributed to Hillel the Elder, a rabbinic sage important in Jewish history. He said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

Among the works being shown are two important groups of lithographs. The earlier group, known as the Civil Rights Portfolio, is from 1965, when Shahn created prints to benefit of the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Relations Council of Greater New Haven, Connecticut. Shahn included portraits of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, young volunteers who had been working to register black voters when they were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi, by members of the local Ku Klux Klan. These portraits and others in the series, reflective of Shahn’s desire to honor civil rights workers, themselves became iconic images of the civil rights movement.

The other group of works is a series of 24 color lithographs titled For the Sake of a Single Verse. Shahn completed the series in 1968, a year before his death. With it, he achieved a lifetime goal, illustrating a passage from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, a work he discovered in Paris in 1926 when he was 28 years old. About the project, Shahn wrote, “I was entranced by the writer’s observations, not just upon Paris, but on life itself. Malte Brigge had only just arrived in Paris when the notebooks began. He too was twenty eight. This young man seemed almost to be me.”

Other works in Ben Shahn: If Not Now, When? include individual prints, drawings, and archival materials. All works in this exhibit are from the collection of Spertus Institute, which has not presented an exhibit of his work since 1977. Shahn was born in 1898 in Kaunas, then part of Russia, but today in Lithuania. He arrived in the United States in 1906 when his father’s anti-czarist activities forced the family to immigrate. The artist grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn and became an apprentice in a Manhattan lithographic firm, finishing high school at night and later taking classes at New York University, City College of New York, and the National Academy of Design. He had his first solo show at the Downtown Gallery in 1930, and shortly thereafter, his series of paintings of the trial and execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti established his reputation. Through the relevance and ubiquity of his art, Ben Shahn became one of the best-known American artists of the mid-twentieth century.

Admission to the exhibit—in the Ground Level Arts Lab on the first floor of Spertus Institute—is free. Hours are Sunday 10 am- 5 pm, MondayWednesday 9 am- 5pm, Thursday 9 am- 6 pm, and Friday 9 am- 3 pm. The exhibit is closed on Saturdays and Jewish and secular holidays. Spertus Institute is located at 610 S. Michigan Avenue. Discount parking is available for $8 at Grant Park South Garage, with Spertus validation.

On Sunday, April 23 at 4 pm, Spertus Institute presents an Art Talk in conjunction with Ben Shahn: If Not Now, When?. Dr. Susan Chevlowe, organizer of a 1998 Ben Shahn exhibit at the Jewish Museum, New York, leads a discussion about transformative and relevant power of Ben Shahn’s art. Tickets are $18 with $8 discounted tickets for students. Tickets are available online at or by phone at 312.322.1773.


Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership offers dynamic learning opportunities, rooted in Jewish wisdom and culture and open to all. Graduate programs and workshops train future leaders and engage individuals in exploration of Jewish life. Public programs — including films, speakers, seminars, and concerts — take place at the Institute’s Michigan Avenue facility, in the Chicago suburbs, and online. For more information, please visit

The Ground Level Arts Lab is made possible in part through the generous support of the Harry and Sadie Lasky and Charles & M.R. Shapiro Foundations.

Spertus Institute is a partner with the Jewish United Fund in serving our community.