Ben Shahn’s The Clinic appears exceptionally traditional in comparison to Pollock and Rothko, and to an extent it is, but its subject is volatile for a mid-century audience. Shahn utilizes social realism in a concise manner. The Clinic does not call for a heroic revolution or social movement, but rather equal access to prenatal care for all women. Female fertility and sexuality was a highly private matter at mid-century and later. This painting was one of the 79 in Advancing American Art and Shahn’s being born in Lithuania, and therefore possibly associated with communists, made it even more provocative.
Willem de Kooning was another foreign born artist that modern art opponents targeted. Shahn and de Kooning were both blacklisted from State Department support throughout the 1950s. Woman demonstrates the vast range of techniques de Kooning utilized in his Abstract Expressionist works spanning from figurative to abstraction—in this case both. The work is a collage of brush strokes and assembled paper which come together to form an icon of woman. Its unfinished quality defies traditional painting.
In their own way each of these artworks breaks from the traditional perception of female identity. Shahn brings to the viewer’s consciousness a neglected demographic of American society. De Kooning, operating from the opposite perspective, disassembles the popular female image until it is a derivative state with eyes, lips, and breasts as the distinguishing features.