Where's the Art?

The Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building includes nine original works of art, commissioned for the building during its construction under the New Deal art programs. These artworks are cared for by GSA Fine Art Collection.

Henry Kreis

Growth of Social Security, 1941 (Exterior, Above Entrance on Independence Avenue) 
Benefits of Social Security, 1941 (Exterior, Above Entrance on 3rd Street)

Henry Kreis’s depicts the workings of Social Security through his two exterior bas reliefs. Growth of Social Security presents two men clasping hands in camaraderie as they finish planting a tree.

In Benefits of Social Security, Henry Kreis completes the symbolic narrative—a man picks fruit and hands it to a seated woman.

Emma Lou Davis

Unemployment Compensation, 1941 (Exterior, Above Entrance on 4th Street)

Family Group, 1941 (Exterior, Above Entrance on C Street)

Emma Lou Davis shows an employed man reaching out a strong hand to a demoralized unemployed man in her bas relief, Unemployment Compensation. As a sculptor, Davis symbolizes the state in the outline that surrounds the figures yet, in this relief the state’s presence is epitomized through the man’s clenched fist in resolve. Davis’s bas relief, above the main entrance to the Cohen Building, presents a man holding his lunch box as he steps away from a woman and child to go to work. Again, the outline etched around the figures represents the embrace of the state that guarantees the family’s security.

Ben Shahn

The Meaning of Social Security, 1942 (Interior, Auditorium Lobby) Social Security Administration Commission

In 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted a series of domestic programs, referred to as the New Deal, aimed to relieve unemployment, revive the economy, and reform the financial system. Between 1933 and 1935, President Roosevelt established four federal art programs to support American artists and make art accessible to the public. One of these programs was the Department of the Treasury’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (later renamed the Section of Fine Arts), which focused on procuring high quality artwork through anonymous competitions. 

As part of the New Deal, President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law on August 14, 1935. Five years later, the Social Security Administration Building was designed by Charles Klauder and Louis A. Simon in the Egyptian revival style, and the Section undertook a competition for the decoration of the main corridor of the building. From 375 entries, Ben Shahn’s designs emerged as the clear winner, chosen unanimously by a jury of four accomplished American artists. 

The jurors praised “the indications that the artist drew from life, not relying entirely on his or her supreme knowledge of design” and the “variety in the tempo and texture” of the design. They also admired the pattern, color, continuity, power, and imagination evident in Shahn’s sketches.

Shahn reveled in the goals and challenges of the project. Upon receiving the commission in October of 1940, he wrote to Edward Bruce, director of the Section: “To me, it is the most important job that I could want. The building itself is a symbol of perhaps the most advanced piece of legislation enacted by the New Deal, and I am proud to be given the job of interpreting it, or putting a face on it.” After many months of work, the mural cycle was unveiled on June 17, 1942.

Shahn as Social Realist and Photographer

Ben Shahn was born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1898. At the age of eight, he and his family immigrated to the United States, settling in Brooklyn, N.Y. At fourteen, Shahn began an apprenticeship in his uncle’s lithography shop. From there, he studied at the Art Students League, New York University, the City College of New York, and the National Academy of Design.

After traveling throughout Europe and North Africa in the 1920s, Shahn returned to the stock market crash of 1929 and a country quickly plunging into the Great Depression. Influenced by current events, Shahn decided to create art that addressed contemporary social issues. Most notably, in 1931-32 he produced a series of 23 gouache and tempera paintings devoted to the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants accused of robbery and murder, and sentenced (many believed unfairly) to the electric chair. Shahn painted many other socially motivated depictions of poor and working-class citizens that earned him the title of Social Realist.

In 1929, Shahn began a friendship with photographer Walker Evans. Four years later, Shahn received a Leica camera from his brother and began to learn the craft of photography from Evans. From 1935 to 1938, Shahn worked as a graphic designer and photographer for the Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration (RA/FSA), documenting economic conditions in areas of the country hit hard by drought and unemployment.

As a result of his friendship with Evans and his use of the camera, Shahn grew committed to conveying the individuality of his subjects. His engagement with photography catalyzed a shift in his painting style from Social Realism to what Shahn called “personal realism.” In these paintings, he strove to depict the prejudice, bigotry, and ignorance that existed in the country while also relating the richness of spirit and engaging stories of his subjects.

Shahn as Muralist

In 1932, impressed by Shahn’s Sacco and Vanzetti series, Diego Rivera invited Shahn to assist on a mural at Rockefeller Center, commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller. The following year, the mural was destroyed as a result of Rivera’s unapproved addition of a portrait of Lenin. While the mural’s demolition provoked outrage in many, including Shahn, the project offered Shahn his first opportunity to contribute to a large-scale mural and his introduction to fresco painting, a valuable skill for a New Deal muralist. Shahn, assisted by his wife Bernarda Bryson, went on to complete eight federal mural projects. His first project was for the community center of the Jersey Homesteads, a planned-living community for Jewish garment workers who came from Eastern Europe via New York City. For this project, Shahn created a fresco relating the history of the inhabitants, which paralleled his own. Shahn and Bryson then produced murals for the Bronx Central Post Office, the Woodhaven Branch Post Office in Queens, and the Jamaica, New York, Post Office, before Shahn was awarded the Social Security project.

Shahn undertook extensive research and preparatory studies for the Social Security murals. Some of the imagery came from his previous easel paintings and his photographs of the early 1930s. He also fastidiously researched the condition of the walls in preparation for painting the murals

Discovering cracks and pores in the walls’ surfaces, he requested in July 1941 that the Section replaster them, but they refused. Around this same time, Shahn wrote to Section director Edward Bruce regarding his assistant, expert fresco plasterer John Ormai. Ormai’s draft number had been called and Shahn pleaded with Bruce to request a deferment. The request was denied, as Ormai himself was not under contract with the Section. Despite being forced to change his technique from buon or “true” fresco (painting into wet plaster) to fresco secco (painting on dry plaster), Shahn forged ahead and produced one of the most successful murals of his career.

East Wall

Shahn based his mural designs on President Roosevelt’s June 8, 1934, discussion of the aims of social security: “This security for the individual and for the family concerns itself primarily with three factors. People want decent homes to live in; they want to locate them where they can engage in productive work; and they want some safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated from this manmade world of ours.”

From this, Shahn determined the overall layout of the mural cycle. On the east wall, he took advantage of the three recessed panels to illustrate the societal ills that Social Security intended to alleviate. He chose to devote the central panel to unemployment, which he identified as the greatest cause of insecurity. About this panel, Shahn wrote: “I have tried to give the feeling of endless waiting, men standing and waiting, men sitting and waiting, the man and the boy going wearily into the long empty perspective of a railroad track. Against a background of a typical stark, unlovely company house, I have placed in close proximity waiting men and discarded machines.”

To the left, Shahn illustrated the problems of child labor, including a girl working in a mill, boys working in a mine, a boy with labor injuries, a homeless child sleeping in the street, and a youngster leaning from a tenement window. In the far right panel, Shahn depicted the infirmities of old age. The seated old man and elderly woman with crutches gaze into space, the extent of which is emphasized by the broken brick wall and the gridded building leading into the far distance. Shahn included a mother and child to indicate the dependent position of young parents, but the healthy child and blue skies also bring hope to the scene.

West Wall

The expansive west wall represents the accomplishments of Social Security. Atop each of the doors, a vignette projects forward in large scale. Over the middle door, Shahn depicted a family, central to social security. Over the left door, he painted two workers laying bricks, and over the right door, three men, one of whom completes a Social Security application. Between the doors, Shahn created scenes of daily life and the benefits reaped from social security. On the far left, young men play handball. Just to the right, men use powerful tools to erect infrastructure and architecture that benefit society. Next, men build new homes, and finally, on the far right, individuals harvest the land and gather fruit. Though the Social Security Act did not cover farmers, Shahn expanded his vision to include them.

Juxtaposed with the bleakness and misfortune represented in the east wall, the west wall shows abundance, health, and expansion. The bright colors and activity enhance the positive nature of this mural. Painted during the beginning of the United States’ engagement in World War II, this wall both celebrates the advances of the Roosevelt administration and offers a patriotic message that was welcomed by the members of the War Department and the War Production Board that occupied this building prior to the completion of the Pentagon. Despite the contrast in subject matter and tone that differentiate the east and west walls, the entire mural series maintains a stylistic unity that combines the humanism of Shahn’s figures with the abstraction of his tracks, windows, girders, and planks. Together, these walls offer a socially motivated and artistically daring view of the country. As Bernarda Bryson wrote of her husband’s work, “Through his murals, Ben gave form, gave voice to ideas derived from experience and vested in hope.”

Controversy and Conservation

Despite their great success, Shahn’s murals have not been unanimously embraced throughout the years. During the development of his sketches, Section assistant chief Edward Rowan requested that Shahn remove an eye patch from a male figure on the west wall, stating that “every section of this long panel should be treated in a positive way.” In 1947, staff members working in the building complained that the figures on the east wall looked “pathetic” and “in poor circumstances,” and they suggested that something more cheerful be substituted. The mural garnered strong support from such art enthusiasts as Alfred Barr, Jr., director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., who wrote, “I am shocked to hear for the first time that Ben Shahn’s murals in the Social Security Building are in danger of being covered over or destroyed… Shahn is one of our most distinguished artists and his murals among the best executed under the Treasury project.”

Nonetheless, the east wall was covered with heavy curtains into the 1970s. The condition of Shahn’s murals has also wavered over the years. They underwent heavy cleaning and over- painting in the early 1970s. Then, in 1993, conservators discovered that the west wall had been negatively impacted by structural settling, vibration from the auditorium, and the swinging of the heavy auditorium doors. At that time, the conservators stabilized a great deal of cracking and consolidated the crumbling plaster inside the cracks. They also repaired abrasions to the east wall caused by the swinging of the heavy curtain that had covered it for years.

On October 17, 1995, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Voice of America, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. General Services Administration rededicated the murals to the memory of Ben Shahn and all artists whose works enrich federal buildings.

Seymour Fogel

Wealth of the Nation, 1942 (Interior, Independence Avenue Lobby—Right Wall) 

In 1939-40, this building was erected to serve as the headquarters for the newly created Social Security Board, and the U. S. Treasury Section of Fine Arts commissioned Seymour Fogel to decorate the Independence Avenue lobby. Considering both the purpose of the building and the location of the murals, Fogel intended the paintings to illustrate “the forces that make for national social security” and to function as an introduction to the other artistic material in the building.

In Wealth of the Nation, Fogel represented the elements of American economic success that would lift the country out of the Depression and provide security to its citizens: scientific research, industry, and construction. On the left, a suited man sits before test tubes and beakers, gazing through a microscope and taking notes on his observations; in the center, an architect studies blueprints while a shirtless laborer behind him controls the switch of an industrial machine; to the right, construction workers stride toward their site, indicated by the red girders in the background. Although the mural divides American laborers by indicating a distinction between white-collar and blue-collar workers—the former fully clothed and facing the viewer and the latter partly unclothed and facing away from the viewer—the painting nonetheless emphasizes American unity and strength in scientific research, industrial power, planning, and construction, all elements that would propel the country out of the Depression and toward prosperity.

Security of the People, 1942 (Interior, Independence Avenue Lobby—Left Wall) 

Seymour Fogel’s Security of the People presents an American family surrounded by the signs of physical and intellectual well-being that social security provides: the man reads a newspaper at a table set with fresh fruit and water; the woman holds the youngest of three children; the boy plays tennis in a clean, white outfit; and the girl draws on a board, a pile of books at her feet. The trellis at the left indicates natural growth, while the crane and girders in the background point to architectural expansion.

The design of Fogel’s two mural panels displayed in this lobby changed substantially— largely in response to extensive feedback from the Section of Fine Arts, the Social Security Board, and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts— from two panels entitled Security and Insecurity, which directly addressed the suffering of the American workforce, to these final murals, which are clearer, more concise, and more optimistic. Fogel intended for his mural’s symbolic subject matter to complement the more literal content of the murals by his colleague Ben Shahn, who decorated the adjacent corridor in this building, and with whom Fogel had trained as a muralist when they both served as assistants to Diego Rivera on his Rockefeller Center murals in 1932.

Philip Guston

Reconstruction and the Wellbeing of the Family, 1943 (Interior, Auditorium Stage)

The Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building was erected in 1939- 40 to serve as the headquarters for the Social Security Board. Philip Guston was commissioned to create a mural both to promote the benefits of social security and to decorate the building’s auditorium.

To fulfill these goals, Guston created a scene of the hard work and prosperity of a secure country, and did so in a bold, clear design that overcomes the challenges of decorating a sliding three- part panel. In the central panel, a family of six relaxes at a table set with a pitcher, dishes and flatware, and an abundance of fruit. The girl reads a book, the boys lay down their sticks, and the baby sits on the mother’s lap. The father presides over the table in a crisp white shirt, while behind him lays an expanse of rich farmland that represents the plentiful resources available to the family. In the left panel, Guston depicted two men, shirtsleeves rolled, hard at work building dams across an eroded landscape.

To the right, two construction workers appear before an urban, industrial background. A strong sense of symmetry, repetition, and pattern unites the triptych’s overall composition, and the scale and clarity allow viewers, even from the rear of the auditorium, to comprehend the three scenes. A wide range of artists, eras, and styles influenced Guston’s work, including Renaissance masters, European modernists, and abstract painters.

Ethel and Jenne Magafan

Mountains in the Snow, 1940 (Interior, Room 5051) 

Identical twins Ethel and Jenne Magafan produced several murals for the federal government under the New Deal art programs, but Mountains in Snow is their only known collaboration. For previous post office commissions, the twins chose to depict lively scenes of American life, including cowboy dances, western wildlife, and prairie fires. However, the committee that commissioned Mountains in Snow requested that the mural’s subject matter not distract from boardroom business.

The Magafans therefore produced a quiet, idyllic scene of stately trees, vast plains, and soaring mountain peaks. In the lower right portion of the mural, two horses pull a large wagon heaped with hay, atop which sits a red-shirted farmer. Traveling behind tall, barren trees, the horses’ path leads to the middle distance, where a herd of grazing cattle awaits their bounty. Beyond this, the land swells into a range of mountains, covered in places by delicately rendered evergreens, brown and yellow vegetation, and snow.

Completed in 1943 but not installed until 1949, following a tumultuous time in the nation’s history, the mural communicates a feeling of quiet serenity embodied by the wide-open American landscape.

New Deal Art Programs

During the New Deal era, the U.S. Government administered four separate art projects that operated from 1933 to 1943. The projects produced thousands of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper. 

Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), 1933-1934: The Public Works of Art Project was the first federal art project for artists. Artists were on payrolls and received weekly salaries. 

The Section of Fine Arts (The Section), 1934-1943: Originally called the Section of Painting and Sculpture, the Section of Fine Arts awarded commissions to artists through competitions. The primary objective was to secure the best quality artwork for installation into public buildings. 

Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), 1935-1938: Though it was under the supervision of the Treasury Department, the Treasury Relief Art Project employed artists to create paintings and sculptures for existing federal buildings.

Works Progress Administration, Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), 1935-1942: The Federal Art Project was the largest of the New Deal art programs in both its scope and the number of artists employed. 

These four programs produced thousands of works of art from 1933 to 1943. In 1934, the federal government began loaning or allocating the moveable artworks created under the New Deal art programs to public agencies and nonprofit institutions. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) is the federal agency that is responsible for inventorying these loaned artworks. For site-specific works permanently installed in federal buildings, such as large murals and sculpture, GSA acts as the direct steward, overseeing the care of this important national cultural resource.

GSA Fine Art Collection

The GSA Fine Arts Program manages the collection of fine art found throughout executive branch federal buildings in order to ensure its safety, accessibility, preservation, and appropriate use in order to enhance and promote high-quality work environments for federal agencies and the public they serve. The Fine Arts Collection is one of our nation's oldest and largest public art collections. It consists of permanently installed and moveable mural paintings, sculptures, architectural or environmental works of art, and works on paper dating from 1850 to the present. These civic works of art are in federal buildings and courthouses across the United States. In addition, more than 20,000 small moveable New Deal works of art are on long-term loan to museums and other nonprofit institutions. Maintained by GSA as a part of our national and cultural heritage, the Fine Arts Collection serves as a reminder of the important tradition of individual creative expression.

Last Reviewed 2016-06-30