The late New Jersey based sculptor Jonathan Shahn’s “Dignity of Labor” standing in front of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Industry is a fitting reminder of Labor Day.
The seven-foot-tall, six-foot-wide, and one-foot-deep granite marker bearing a series of bronze reliefs is a product of the New Jersey Percent for Art Program that has contracted artists to create public art for public buildings for more than 30 years.
Shahn’s monument is significant on a variety of levels.
Obviously, the art work is reflective of the building in front of which it stands and is a tidy fit. It also celebrates the daily worker in an era that tends to glamorize the images of wealthy tycoons, celebrities, and individuals born into wealth. But there are more subtle reason for the work’s significance.
In addition to being one of the most prominent artists in the state, Shahn is recognized as one of the country’s most proficient figurative sculptors. His work mixes the traditions of the past with contemporary choices, as noted by art critic Edmund Leites in “Art in America”:
“Like the art of the Romans, Shahn’s faces and figures achieve an enduring mystery by being at once plain, honest, contemporary and dignified. A bust of a man with his hand on his jaw rightly reminds the viewer of the unflinching honesty of classical Roman heads. The piece portrays a man thinking, but he may be thinking about nothing in particular, or something practical. Nothing deep perhaps. Yet in Shahn’s hands, the act of thinking, independent of its content, becomes a facet of human activity fraught with significance; Shahn makes us, even on a plain day, like ourselves better.”
It is no wonder that Shahn’s art work is included in such collections as the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC; Princeton University Art Museum; Musei Vaticani, Vatican City, Italy; and numerous other institutions.
Additionally he is the recipient of several prominent awards and has received several public art commissions, including the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in his hometown of Roosevelt, which touches on another significant element regarding this sculpture.
The town of Roosevelt in rural New Jersey is connected to an artistic and democratic tradition that honored the spirit of President Roosevelt and his recognition of the fruits and dignity of labor.
But there is another point to consider. Shahn, whose art stands firmly on its own and needs no further support, is a member of a family of recognized artists. Shahn’s parents are the accomplished and historically important artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson, artists who frequently used the common man and the American worker as a subject, especially the work they created as artists in the Work Progress Administration (WPA).
With this art work, sculptor Shahn found a natural opportunity to explore a visual theme and line that engaged both his parents. And just as he has been able to merge the ancient with the contemporary, here Shahn evokes WPA Realism to create a monument that connects us to the past yet asks us to realize the reality of the present.
That reality is that the everyday laborer makes and tends the world.