On ViewAmerican Folk Art Museum
Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered
September 23, 2022–January 29, 2023
In 1941, André Breton declared that there were two paintings that could restore hope to a broken world at war: Edward Hopper’s New York Movie (1939), which, with its young usherette lost in a daydream before a curtained stairway, “seeks a way out”; and Nude at the Window (1941), which couldn’t have been more different, with a stylized flattened woman floating in space, sweeping aside a theatrical red curtain.
Breton’s conclusion: Every relevant painting needs a curtain. It “ought to make itself felt in some way in every work capable of facing the perspective of tomorrow.”
Unlike Hopper, Morris Hirshfield, the self-taught creator of Nude at the Window, who'd started painting at the age of sixty-five, would be largely forgotten—despite his having had a solo (and controversial) exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art just four years after he’d finished his first two pieces. The former tailor and manufacturer of “foot appliances” and boudoir slippers from Bensonhurst would be erased from the histories of modernism.
Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered, at the American Folk Art Museum, has brought his fantastical images—of women, animals, landscapes, and religious subjects—back into the public eye with forty-two paintings, more than half his output. The exhibition was curated by Richard Meyer, whose new book Master of the Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered came out of a decade of research. The aim of the exhibition and book is to reconstruct the artist’s status as a markedly original painter whose work was in dialogue with modernism and the European avant-garde.
Angora Cat (1937-9), one of Hirshfield’s first two paintings, welcomes us to an unnerving world. An imposing beast with heavily worked fur and piercing yellow eyes occupies a green loveseat. Sidney Janis, the art collector and curator (whose own background was in the garment business), said the creature “took possession” of him when he first saw it in 1939 at a Manhattan gallery. Janis was largely responsible for Hirshfield’s phenomenal success, presenting his work at MoMA that same year in a show of self-taught artists.
The exhibition, organized by theme, presents in its section on animals a fearsome tiger against a textured sky that Meyer likens to yarn. Meyer says the artist brought a “textile imaginary” to his practice based on his experience in the rag trade, with surfaces that often seem woven, as well as figures inspired by clothing patterns. Extreme detail is another feature: a magisterial lion hovers over a miniaturized landscape rendered with thousands of brushstrokes.
The hypnotic Girl with Pigeons (1942) appears in a section devoted to Hirshfield’s surrealist connections. In this dreamlike work, a woman with an absent gaze lies stiffly on a couch, surrounded by pigeons. She could be an analysand, an association the surrealists would have relished; they saw Hirshfield—who painted an internal reality of impossibly configured, dreamlike subjects—as a fellow traveler, exhibiting him alongside artists like Yves Tanguy and Max Ernst at the group’s first major US exposition.
Nude at the Window, complete with a three-dimensional nose, is here in all her glory. As in many other of Hirshfield’s artworks, the figure’s feet face the same direction, a feature that critics would make hay with. Peggy Guggenheim purchased it in 1942 for 900 dollars, compared with the 75 dollars she’d paid for Magritte’s Key of Dreams the same year. It was around this time that Hirshfield’s wife, as Janis tells it, “practically locked him in his room and said, ‘Paint!’”
Hirshfield was elevated to the loftiest regions of the art world in 1943 with a solo show at MoMA, whose founding director Alfred Barr was interested in distinguishing self-taught artists with a distinctive style and talent from “folk artists.” But the exhibition was met with extreme ridicule. Hirshfield was dubbed the “Master of the Two Left Feet,” and critics emphasized his status as an outer-borough primitive in articles with an anti-immigrant tinge (and references that also signaled his Jewishness). Newsweek described a “character in a fairytale” from “the wilds of Brooklyn,” with a “thick Russian accent.” Yet the Polish-born artist had been in the States for more than forty years and commuted for decades to Manhattan. The debacle led in part to Barr’s firing, and MoMA did not mount another solo show of a so-called “folk artist” until 2021-22, when it exhibited the work of Joseph E. Yoakum.
As for the two left feet, Janis noted a precedent in Hittite friezes and cited Hirshfield’s “rich unconscious stores.” Janis’s intricate diagram to illustrate the precedents for the work is on display here. Such “errors” have inspired other artists, including acclaimed Chilean sculptor and poet Cecilia Vicuña. She remembers being twenty and glimpsing a Hirshfield at MoMA for the first time. Feeling like an outsider herself, she felt affirmed by the inclusion of this self-taught artist’s “strange” painting: “It was like a mistake. I completely connected with that mistake! I am that mistake!”
In a telling anecdote, Janis reports that when Hirshfield first saw Henri Rousseau’s The Dream (1910), which Janis owned, he remarked, “Shrubs. Good shrubs. But the lady—she’s too swollen. I can fix her up for you.” While this furthered the popular narrative of naïve amateur, Meyer argues that the comment may demonstrate Hirshfield’s confidence in his skills or his performance of the modern primitive, a role the public demanded he play.