Seldman Rodman is a poet interested in painting who was active politically during the '30's editing a magazine which attempted to explore American alternatives to Marxism. Mr. Rodman's concern for the man in the street later led him to try to reconcile folk poetry and the modern idiom in a series of anthologies of poetry. More recently he has been working on the problem of modern painting's failure to communicate to the mass audience. Rodman's thesis as it has developed in his books on art is that there has been too great an interest in the exploration of form in modern art and not enough critics who have felt this failure have been driven back to the Renaissance, or to other periods where form and content were better balanced. Mr. Rodman on the other hand began with a consideration of "popular art" and then moved to Haiti and mural decorations by contemporary folk artists. In the Haitian artist Philome Obin, Rodman felt he found an artist who was giving "a true account of himself and his civilzation."
But Obin was concerned with a simple environment and was not very articuate or self conscious about his art. This led Rodman back to the U.S. and Ben Shahn whom he felt in his work answered the questions "How can the popular artist be reconciled with the long history of art? And how can the knowing modernist achieve the primitive's rapport with his own environment? Shahn," says Rodman, "consciously out of a painful apprenticeship to the centuries of Western painting had managed somehow to devise an expert means of simple communication--"Obin (the Haitian) could not tell me why or how he did anything. Shahn a man of commanding intellect, astonishing memory and unusual articulateness, perhaps could."
After perusing the results of Mr. Rodman's efforts it appears that he is right in that perhaps Shahn could. But he didn't. Except for a few instances where Rodman discusses Shahn's ideas about his paintings and his methods, the book verges on the anecdotal. It is a fairly comprehensive biography, mentioning the important events and people that have shaped Shahn's life, but this doesn't always get us any closer to why Shahn paints the way he does, or how Shahn is actually painting.
Shahn's philosophy, if a painter need have one, emerge roughly from a collection of bright things Rodman has gathered from the artist's lips. For example on Mondrian, Shahn is quoted as saying "Mondrian spent a lifetime sharpening his chisel and then never used it." Or another comment along the same line, "design is only one of five or six things a picture must have to be good."
Author Rodman has a fine time putting his picture of Shahn together. But his organization finally appears only superficially clever. The last chapter, for example, reverses the chronological sequence of presentation so that the artist grows younger as we proceed to the end of the book until in the last sentence the date of Shahn's birth is given.
But what purpose is served? By relating the artists through and background more closely to his work, a more precise idea of Shahn's achievement might have resulted. The book would have been perhaps less interesting but better if the author had stuck more strictly to his intention, or discarded the argument entirely.
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