The year 1998 marked the centennial of the birth of artist Ben Shahn (1898–1969). Coupled with the approach of the millennium, which many museums celebrated by surveying the cultural production of the 20th century, the centennial offered the perfect opportunity to mount a major exhibition of Shahn's work (the last comprehensive exhibition had taken place at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 1976). The moment was also propitious because a renewed interest in narrative, figurative art, and political art encouraged scholarly and popular appreciation of Ben Shahn, whose reputation within the history of American art had been eclipsed for many decades by the attention given to the abstract expressionists. The Jewish Museum responded in 1998 with Common Man, Mythic Vision: The Paintings of Ben Shahn, organized by the Museum's curator Susan Chevlowe, with abstract expressionism scholar Stephen Polcari (Figure 1). The exhibition traveled to the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania and closed at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1999.
Smaller Shahn exhibitions then in the planning stages (although not scheduled to open during the centennial year) were to focus on selected aspects of Shahn's oeuvre: the Fogg Museum was to present his little-known New York City photographs of the 1930s in relationship to his paintings, and the Jersey City Museum intended to exhibit his career-launching series, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1931–32). Knowing this, Chevlowe smartly chose to focus on the later years of Shahn's career and on his lesser-known easel paintings of the post-World War II era. In so doing, Chevlowe challenged viewers to expand their understanding both of the artist and his place in 20th-century American art.