(New York, NY) Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered is on view at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Sq., Columbus Ave. at W. 65th St.) through January 29, 2023. Featuring over 40 of the artist’s paintings (more than half of his output), this exhibition will be the most comprehensive presentation of Hirshfield’s work. The exhibition is curated by Richard Meyer, Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor of Art History at Stanford University. Susan Davidson served as curatorial advisor to the exhibition. Valérie Rousseau, the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM)’s Senior Curator of Self-Taught Art and Art Brut, is the show’s coordinating curator.
The exhibition will reintroduce a singular self-taught artist of the 1930s and 1940s to contemporary audiences. An immigrant tailor and slipper manufacturer in Brooklyn who took up painting at the age of 65, Hirshfield attracted a great degree of attention during his brief career as an artist (1937-1946). His pictures were championed by Sidney Janis, embraced by the Surrealists, collected by Peggy Guggenheim, and featured in a highly publicized one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. At the same time, the artist was dismissed and mocked in the media as the “Master of the Two Left Feet” for his tendency to display the female body in an unorthodox fashion.
“This important exhibition will reveal that there are many facets to Morris Hirshfield’s significance and appeal,” said Jason T. Busch, AFAM’s Director and Chief Executive Officer. “We are excited to work with esteemed scholar, author, and curator Richard Meyer and honored to host this inspired show.”
“As the only full-career retrospective of Hirshfield ever organized, this exhibition offers visitors a unique opportunity to experience the artist’s visual dazzle and wildly-stylized figuration,” said Richard Meyer. “Through examples of works by Hirshfield and the Surrealists, the show reveals the vibrant (if too often forgotten) dialogue between vanguard modernism and self-taught art of the mid-twentieth century.”
The exhibition is divided into seven sections, each exploring a different theme related to Hirshfield. His career as a tailor maker will be represented by reproductions of the technical drawings that accompanied Hirshfield’s patents for shoes, slippers, and “foot appliances.” In addition, the artist Liz Blahd has fabricated fourteen boudoir slippers to the specifications of Hirshfield’s patented designs of the 1920s, which will be on view in the galleries. The slipper designs were variously adorned with pompoms, rosettes, buckles, tassels, or figure eights and speak to the originality, inventiveness, and ornamental design that would find full expression in Hirshfield’s later paintings.
Hirshfield’s debut as a painter in 1937 is explored in-depth and will introduce visitors to the artist’s three preferred subjects—animals, landscapes, and female figures. Once described by Newsweek as living in the “wilds of Brooklyn,” Hirshfield created a pictorial menagerie of his own through animal paintings. This area of his work is explored in a section featuring paintings of elephants, zebras, cats (whose faces are as much human as feline) dogs (that look like horses crossed with wolves), and a tiger. Hirshfield’s painterly treatment of the female body as an object of both ornament and erotic appeal takes center stage in a section that includes iconic works like Inseparable Friends (1941) and Stage Beauties (1944).
In another section of the show, Hirshfield’s identity as an observant Jew is looked at through two Old Testament paintings, Moses and Aaron (1944) and Daniel in the Lion’s Den (1944), while one of Hirshfield’s last paintings, Christmas Tree and Angels (1946) suggests a desire for assimilation into American life, as well as conveys a hint of the difficulties involved in that process.
In 1942, André Breton and Marcel Duchamp included Hirshfield’s Girl with Pigeons (1942) in First Papers of Surrealism—the most important international exhibition of Surrealism held in the United States at that time. The Surrealists recognized Hirshfield as a modern artist in the fullest sense of the term, not as a novelty or a primitive outsider. AFAM’s presentation will showcase works by artists originally displayed in this seminal show, including Kay Sage, William Baziotes, and Yves Tanguy.
“This unparalleled presentation of Hirshfield’s brief but impactful career reveals the engaging breadth of this artist’s oeuvre and confirms the artist as an iconic American painter. His distinctive viewpoints and visually striking aesthetic magnetized artistic peers past and present, while his art outlines pressing issues about immigration, artistic inclusion, autodidactism, and gender representation,” said Valérie Rousseau.
The exhibition draws on important private and public collections, including paintings from the American Folk Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Zander Collection in Germany.
Richard Meyer’s book, Master of the Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered will be published by MIT Press to coincide with the opening of the show. It includes a catalog of works by Susan Davidson that documents and illustrates Hirshfield’s entire body of painting. The book will be available for sale online and in bookstores everywhere, as well as in the American Folk Art Museum Shop.
About Richard Meyer
Richard Meyer is Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History at Stanford University, where he teaches courses in twentieth-century American art, censorship, outsider art and culture, and gender and sexuality studies. He is the author of Master of the Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Reconsidered (MIT Press, 2022) published in conjunction with this exhibition. His first book, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art, was awarded the Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Outstanding Scholarship from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and is now in its third edition. Subsequent books include What Was Contemporary Art?, a study of the idea of “the contemporary” in American art, and Art and Queer Culture, a survey co-authored with artist Catherine Lord focusing on the dialogue between visual art and non-normative sexuality.
He curated “Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered” at the Jewish Museum in New York and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and, with Peggy Phelan, “Contact Warhol: Photography without End” at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford. He is currently writing an amicus brief for the U.S. Supreme Court on a case concerning Warhol and fair use.
About the American Folk Art Museum
The American Folk Art Museum engages people of all backgrounds through its collections, exhibitions, publications, and programs as the leading forum shaping the understanding and appreciation of folk and self-taught art across time and place.
Image: Morris Hirshfield, Girl with Pigeons, 1942, Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 1/8 inches, The Museum of Modern Art, 610.1967. © 2022 Robert and Gail Rentzer for Estate of Morris Hirshfield / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.