Tailoring his art

Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered, at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, is a revelation. Hirshfield’s work is uncannily original, all the more startling for having been mostly unseen since the artist’s death in 1946. His story reflects the exclusivity of the art establishment and its tendency to sideline work by self-taught or unaffiliated artists.

Morris Hirshfield was born in a Jewish shtetl in Russian-ruled Poland in 1872 and emigrated to the United States at eighteen to escape the pogroms. Like many immigrant Jews, he worked in the garment industry in New York when he arrived – first as a cutter of fabric for shirts and dresses, then as a tailor and finally as the owner of a company, EZ Walk Manufacturing, that specialized in “ boudoir slippers”. EZ Walk was successful for a time, but eventually went bankrupt, forcing Hirshfield and his wife to end their days in a cramped apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. This, however, marked the point, at the age of sixty-five, when the businessman turned painter. There is no evidence that Hirshfield had ever picked up a paintbrush before, though the elaborately embroidered slippers in the EZ Walk catalog whose design he patented might have hinted at an aesthetic inclination.

The exhibition, curated by Richard Meyer, the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor of Art History at Stanford University, with the assistance of Susan Davidson and one of the museum’s senior curators, Valérie Rousseau, features forty-two of Hirshfield’s paintings – more than half of his total output. The work brings to mind a cornucopia of disparate references, from ancient to avant-garde art and from religious to popular iconography.

One of the striking features of the work is the way in which it references the artist’s career in the garment industry. The advertisements and catalogs for the slippers Hirshfield’s company manufactured show only the left feet. In the paintings his figures all have two left feet, causing an early critic to refer to him sneeringly as “the Master of the Two Left Feet”. The curators of this exhibition retrieve this denigrating title as an honorific. (A charming addendum to the show is a display of fourteen slippers designed and patented by Hirshfield, and recreated by the contemporary artist Liz Blahd.)

There are other aspects of the work that evoke the artist’s former trade, including dressmaker-dummy shapes for figures, yarn-like imagery for backgrounds and hair, and ornamental elements suggestive of garment trimmings. Hirshfield’s clothed female figures wear dresses with embroidered collars and patterned jackets. His nude figures have rounded white torsos like porcelain dolls. All have wide-open, lashed eyes and tiny hands and feet. There is a sweetness to these figures, but also a kind of haunted erotic charge that complicates the naivety one might assume at first glance. The size of the canvases and the meticulousness of the brushstrokes combine with the whimsy of the figures, both animal and human, to produce a mesmerizing effect.

One of Hirshfield’s most intriguing works, “Inseparable Friends” (1941), shows two naked women apparently looking in a mirror, putting on lipstick and combing their hair. The figures are not mirror images of each other, but are oddly duplicated, like images within a dream; No proportion nor perspective is quite in accordance with reality. (Meyer, in one of several clever analogies in his monograph, compares the painting to the scene where Harpo Marx imitates Groucho, as if in a mirror, in Duck Soup.)

Hirshfield’s paintings of animals are particularly delightful. He is fond of ornamental, patterned birds woven into the background, as though in a tapestry. Different species of animals appear to merge: lions, tigers, leopards, dogs and cats look like amalgams of each other and share the same expression – the kind of woeful wonder that we see in a photograph of Hirshfield, bespectacled and mild, standing beside his stout, ferocious-looking wife.

One work was a gift to Hirshfield’s grandson, who, Meyer tells us, had asked him to draw his dog, Sultan. “Dog and Pups” consists of one large dog and two smaller dogs suspended on an intricately patterned background, and is inscribed: “To my loving grandson, Dennis”. The dogs do not, though, look like Sultan (nor, indeed, resemble any dog ​​in nature), and unsurprisingly Dennis was said to be disappointed. Hirshfield, it seems, was incapable of adjusting his artistic vision to suit anyone else, not even a beloved grandchild.

The story of the artist’s reputation is as interesting in its way as his art. Soon after he began to paint in the last nine years of his life, Hirshfield was discovered by Sidney Janis, a wealthy Jewish collector, dealer and curator who became his tireless promoter. Janis took his canvases to Europe and showed them to as many artists as he could. Picasso, Giacometti and Mondrian were enthusiastic. Peggy Guggenheim bought several paintings, including “Tailor-Made Girl”, one of several works that feature a nose built up with paint so that it sticks out from the canvas. (She sold the picture some years later because, it was said, the nose bothered her). The Museum of Modern Art’s 1941 exhibition Modern Primitives: Artists of the people featured two signature Hirshfield works: “Tiger” and “Girl in a Mirror”. The following year André Breton included two Hirshfield paintings, “Girl with Pigeons” and “Girl with a Plumed Hat”, in his First Papers of Surrealism exhibition at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion in New York, alongside Frida Kahlo, Max Ernst, Mondrian, Leonora Carrington and Yves Tanguy. When we look at his work next to these surrealists, it seems to fit with their floating, anatomically incorrect figures and meticulously unrealistic technique. Yet Hirschfield was not part of this or any other group, and seems to have his style on his own, developed by being alert to the world around him.

In 1943, at Janis’s instigation, Hirshfield was given a solo show at MoMA. One might assume that this would have catapulted him into the first rank of painters of his generation and greatly increased the sale of his work. But this was not the case. His lack of association with the art world, his connection with the world of commerce and perhaps, too, his heavily accented speech made him seem unworthy of such august attention, and the show was excoriated as a terrible lapse in taste and judgment on the part of the museum. Despite an attempt in an explanatory panel by Janis (reproduced in the current show) to outline the influences and imagery in “Inseparable Friends”, critics found both the work and the distasteful explanation: “The most complicated explanations have been grotesquely worked out for the simplest pictures imaginable … The whole performance is too absurd and pathetic”, wrote the New York World-Telegram. The New York Times chose to employ an analogy: “as if Hegel were pausing to demonstrate a lollypop”. Soon after, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founder and then director of MoMA, was forced to step down. The Hirshfield exhibition was one of several reasons used to oust him.

The MoMA show essentially put an end to the reputation of an artist who had never had much of one to begin with. Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered attempts to remedy this neglect. The superb accompanying monograph by Meyer (and comprehensive catalog by Susan Davidson) is insightful about the art and provides a fascinating picture of the snobbery of the art world. (Meyer originally proposed the show to MoMA, which rejected it as “not a good fit.”) The passage of time has only made the work seem much more inventive and delightful. It’s clear that Hirshfield is expressing something born out of a complicated personal history and his art speaks to many who share elements of his background. Its installation at the American Folk Art Museum may reinforce the ghettoized notion of amateur or outsider art, but at least it gives us the opportunity to see it. It is to be hoped that, together with Meyer’s book, this exhibition will help to remove the barrier that keeps artists who are self-taught or unaffiliated from being fully seen.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a dean at Drexel University. Her new book, Talking Cure: An essay on the civilizing power of conversationwill be published next spring

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