By Wendy Blake
In 1939, Morris Hirshfield, a former tailor and retired Bensonhurst “pedicle consultant,” went to the Brooklyn Museum to show the curator two paintings—his only two. The untrained artist, who started making art at the age of 65, revealed an image of an oversized angora cat with piercing eyes and another with a girl in front of an extravagantly textured blue “beach”.
Later that year, Hirshfield’s work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art – an impressive feat for an unknown self-taught artist. He was embraced by avant-garde luminaries of the time – like Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton. In 1943, he became the first self-taught artist to have a one-man show at MoMA, sparking a firestorm of controversy.
The work of Morris Hirshfield soon fell into relative oblivion, and the influential painter was widely dismissed by the establishment as merely ‘primitive’. A new exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered, which brings together over 40 works by the artist (more than half his oeuvre), aims to establish him in his rightful place as a seminal member of the 20th-century avant-garde. The exhibition was curated by Richard Meyer, Professor of Art History with Robert and Ruth Halperin at Stanford University, who has published a refreshingly accessible book entitled Master of the Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered.
How did Hirshfield come to be admired by the most discerning artists and collectors of his time, despite his lack of academic training and access to elite culture? Its meteoric rise was certainly not due to the imprimatur of the Brooklyn Museum. In fact, the pieces – and their creator – so confused the curator that he referred him to Hudson Walker, a gallery on West 57th Street, for evaluation.
Undeterred, the gallery owner pushed the canvases aside and wanted to return them to the museum. He was “foggy,” Meyer said in an interview. “Was Hirshfield an artist you want people to see? Or a hobby slipper maker? He didn’t know he was both.”
A collector named Sidney Janis, also an outsider in the art world (a former vaudeville and shirt maker), accidentally stumbled across the paintings in the gallery and was so impressed by them that he became Hirshfield’s tireless patron.
Meyer himself recalls the “revelation” of seeing Hirshfield’s work in person for the first time. “I didn’t expect the striking palette, vibrant patterns, and sheer weirdness of his images to come to life. … Apparent naivety gave way to painterly precision. Material reality has been overwhelmed by the artist’s imagination.” Hirshfield’s subjects—many of them female figures, including nudes and fantastical beasts—appear to float in an unidentifiable space and are improbably composed and proportioned.
Meyer coined a term for the artist’s practice – the “textile imaginary” – and traces its source to Hirshfield’s familiarity with materials and textures as a pattern cutter and tailor in the “rag trade”. These “reappeared in the yarn-like skies and woven waterfalls of his paintings,” writes Meyer. Hirshfield also had design experience as a very successful manufacturer of “foot devices” such as orthotics and boudoir slippers. Instead of limiting him, his unconventional background freed him from academic constraints.
Hirshfield’s work became a touchstone among Surrealists, fascinated by the unconscious and dreaming: they embraced him as a kindred spirit for his otherworldly depictions of an inner reality. Breton, the chief theorist of Surrealism, named Hirshfield as one of two painters (Edward Hopper was the other) whose “love-and-desire perspective” would help “counteract the nihilism and hopelessness of war.” Art patron Peggy Guggenheim paid $900 for a Hirshfield nude in 1942 and just $75 for a Magritte that same year.
But Hirshfield has been berated by critics for his lack of education – dubbed “The Master of the Two Left Feet” – and portrayed as ridiculously unworldly. Furthermore, condescending and disparaging descriptions of the Polish-Jewish immigrant in the press as a “character” from “the wilds of Brooklyn” with a “heavy Russian accent” cemented perceptions of him as a “primitive suburb.”
The one-man show sparked such a backlash that it was a major reason for the MoMA director’s sacking, and thereafter, Meyer writes, “self-taught painting became increasingly defined as folk art, and as such became all but invisible within dominant depictions of modernism.” .”
Meyer vehemently rejects Hirshfield’s notion as “naïve” and says that his achievement does not depend on his intention or self-image. Rather, it comes down to the work itself and the “radiant power of its creativity”.
The fact that the American Folk Art Museum is organizing the exhibition seems unusual at first, since artists like Hirshfield were denigrated with the label “folk art”. In fact, the venue is the most appropriate as the museum’s mission is to challenge the perceived divide between fine art and folk art, between amateurish and avant-garde.
Morris Hirshfield rediscovered
23 September 2022 – 29 January 2023
American Folk Art Museum
2 LINCOLN SQUARE (66th and Columbus Avenue)
Admission is free