By Wendy Blake
In 1939, Morris Hirshfield, a onetime tailor and retired “foot appliance consultant” from Bensonhurst, went to the Brooklyn Museum to show the curator two paintings—his only two. The unschooled artist, who’d begun making art at the age of 65, unveiled a picture of an outsized angora cat with a piercing stare, and another with a girl against an extravagantly textured blue “beach.”
Later that year, Hirshfield’s work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art—a stunning achievement for an unknown, self-taught artist. He was embraced by avant-garde luminaries of the day—such as Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton. In 1943, he became the first self-taught artist to have a one-person exhibition at MoMA, which caused a firestorm of controversy.
Morris Hirshfield’s work fell into relative obscurity soon after, with the influential painter generally dismissed by the establishment as a mere “primitive.” A new exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, “Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered”—which brings together over 40 of the artist’s works (more than half of his output)—aims to restore him to his rightful place as a groundbreaking member of the 20th-century vanguard. The show was curated by Richard Meyer, the Robert and Ruth Halperin art history professor at Stanford University, who has published a refreshingly 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? His meteoric rise was certainly not due to the Brooklyn Museum’s imprimatur. In fact, the pieces—and their creator—so bewildered the curator that he referred him to Hudson Walker, a West 57th Street gallery, for an assessment.
Unimpressed, the gallerist shoved the canvases aside, planning to return them to the museum. He was “befuddled,” said Meyer in an interview. “Was Hirshfield an artist that people should see? Or an amateur slipper-maker? Little did he know he was both.”
Serendipitously, a collector named Sidney Janis, also an outsider in the art world (an ex-vaudevillian and shirt manufacturer), stumbled upon the paintings at the gallery and was so struck by them that he became Hirshfield’s tireless promoter.
Meyer himself recalls the “revelation” of first seeing Hirshfield’s work in person. “I was not expecting the eye-popping palette, vibrant patterns, and sheer weirdness of his paintings to become so fully alive. … Apparent naïveté gave way to painterly precision. Material reality was overwhelmed by the force of the artist’s imagination.” Hirshfield’s subjects—many of them female figures, including nudes, and fantastical animals—seem 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 intimacy with materials and textures as a pattern cutter and a tailor in the “rag trade.” These “resurfaced in the yarn-like skies and woven waterfalls of his paintings,” Meyer writes. 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 representations of an inner reality. Breton, the principal 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 hopelessness of the war.” Art patron Peggy Guggenheim paid $900 for a Hirshfield nude in 1942, and just $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 made out to be laughably unworldly. Furthermore, condescending and dismissive descriptions in the press of the Polish Jewish immigrant as a “character” from “the wilds of Brooklyn” with a “thick Russian accent” solidified a perception of him as an “outer-borough primitive.”
The one-person exhibition created such a backlash that it was a key reason for the dismissal of MoMA’s director, and after that, writes Meyer, “self-taught painting was increasingly defined as folk art and became, as such, all but invisible within dominant accounts of modernism.”
Meyer vehemently rejects the idea of Hirshfield as a “naive,” saying that “his achievement does not depend on his intention or self-understanding” but on the work itself and the radiant strength of his creativity.
That the American Folk Art Museum is staging the exhibition seems unusual at first, given that the “folk art” label was used to denigrate artists like Hirshfield. In fact, the venue is most fitting, since the museum’s mission includes challenging the perceived divide between fine art and folk art, between amateurism and the avant-garde.
Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered
September 23, 2022–January 29, 2023
American Folk Art Museum
2 LINCOLN SQUARE (66th and Columbus Avenue)
Admission is Free