By Wendy Blake
In 1939, Morris Hirshfield, a retired tailor and “foot appliance consultant” from Bensonhurst, visited the Brooklyn Museum to show the curator two paintings – his only two. The unschooled artist, who started making art at the age of 65, unveiled a photo of an oversized angora cat with a piercing stare, and another with a girl against a blue ‘beach’ with an extravagant texture.
Later that year, Hirshfield’s work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art – a stunning achievement for an unknown self-taught artist. It was adopted by avant-garde luminaries of the time, such as Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and André Breton. In 1943 he became the first self-taught artist to have a solo exhibition at MoMA, which caused a storm of controversy.
Morris Hirshfield’s work fell into relative obscurity soon after, with the influential painter generally dismissed by the establishment as merely “primitive”. A new exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, “Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered” – which brings together more than 40 of the artist’s works (more than half of his production) – aims to restore him to his rightful place as a revolutionary member of the 20th-century avant-garde. The exhibition was curated by Richard Meyer, Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor of Art History at Stanford University, who has published a refreshing and accessible book, “Master of the Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered”. .
How did Hirshfield come to be admired by the most sophisticated artists and collectors of his time, despite his lack of academic training and access to elite culture? Its meteoric rise is certainly not due to the imprimatur of the Brooklyn Museum. In fact, the pieces – and their creator – so baffled the curator that he sent it back to Hudson Walker, a gallery on West 57th Street, for an appraisal.
Unimpressed, the gallery owner dismissed the canvases, planning to return them to the museum. He was “confused,” Meyer said in an interview. “Was Hirshfield an artist that people should see? Or an amateur slipper maker? He didn’t know he was both.
By chance, a collector by the name of Sidney Janis, also a stranger to the art world (former vaudevillian and shirt-maker), came across the paintings in the gallery and was so struck by them that he became the indefatigable Hirshfield promoter.
Meyer himself remembers the “eye-opening” of first seeing Hirshfield’s work in person. “I never expected the stunning palette, vibrant patterns and weirdness of his paintings to come to life so fully. … The apparent naivety has given way to painterly precision. Material reality has been overwhelmed by the force of the artist’s imagination. Hirshfield’s subjects—many of them female figures, including nudes and fantastic animals—seem to float in unidentifiable space and are improbably composed and proportioned.
Meyer coined a term for the artist’s practice – “the textile imaginary” – and finds its source in Hirshfield’s intimacy with materials and textures as a pattern cutter and tailor in the “rag trade”. “. These “resurfaced in the wispy skies and woven waterfalls of his paintings,” writes Meyer. Hirshfield also had design experience as a very successful manufacturer of “foot appliances”, such as orthotics and boudoir slippers. Rather than limiting him, his unconventional background freed him from academic constraints.
Hirshfield’s work became a touchstone among the Surrealists, who were fascinated with the unconscious and dreams: they embraced him as a kindred spirit because of his otherworldly depictions of an inner reality. Breton, the leading theorist of surrealism, named Hirshfield as one of two painters (Edward Hopper was the other) whose “perspective informed by love and desire” would help “counter the nihilism and despair of the war”. Patron Peggy Guggenheim paid $900 for a Hirshfield nude in 1942 and only $75 for a Magritte the same year.
Yet Hirshfield was reviled by critics for his lack of training – dubbed “The Master of Two Left Feet” – and presented as ridiculously out of this world. Moreover, condescending and dismissive descriptions in the press of the Polish Jewish immigrant as a “character” of “the Brooklyn wilderness” with a “heavy Russian accent” reinforced the perception of him as a “primitive from the outside the borough”.
The solo exhibition created such a backlash that it was one of the main reasons for the MoMA director’s dismissal, and after that, writes Meyer, “self-taught painting was increasingly defined as a popular art and has become, as such, almost invisible in mainstream narratives of modernism.
Meyer vehemently rejects the idea of Hirshfield as “naïve”, saying that his success does not depend on his intention or self-understanding. What counts is rather the work itself and the “radiant force of its creativity”.
That the American Folk Art Museum is hosting the show seems unusual at first, given that the label “folk art” has been used to denigrate artists like Hirshfield. In fact, the venue is quite fitting, as the museum’s mission is to challenge the perceived divide between fine art and folk art, between amateurism and avant-garde.
Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered
September 23, 2022–January 29, 2023
American Folk Art Museum
2 LINCOLN SQUARE (66th and Columbus Avenue)