It is a testament to the achievement of the self-taught tailor-turned-shoe-designer-turned artist Morris Hirshfield that — nearly 80 years after his death — his paintings can still take getting used to.
Even now they seem brash and slightly confrontational, with their distorted, blond nudes; extremely touchy, bizarrely furred animals; buzzy all-green landscapes and clunky buildings and, articulating all of this, the mesmerizing patterns, textures and colors that give the best paintings their optical magnetism. Like most of his staring figures and usually glaring creatures, Hirshfield’s paintings themselves seem eternally alert, with an absolute stillness and absence of narrative that seem notably modern.
But the unfamiliarity of Hirshfield’s paintings may also reflect the fact that since 1950, they have been more or less out of sight. And therein lies the complex tale of Hirshfield’s brief, eventful career, and its sometimes detrimental intersections with the New York art world of the 1940s, especially the Museum of Modern Art. These events form the spine of “Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered,” an extravagantly orchestrated exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum that is one of the season’s best.
Hirshfield, who was born in Poland in 1872 and immigrated to the United States around 1890, had wanted to be an artist all his life, but was perhaps too conventional and impoverished. He married, had four children and two successful careers, first as a tailor of women’s cloaks and dresses and then as a shoe designer whose biggest hit was his patented designs for wool felt boudoir slippers, produced by his company, E-Z Walk. He did not turn to painting full time until well after 1935 when, in his early 60s, ill health forced him to retire. His art emerged almost fully formed in nearly 80 paintings created in the last seven years of his life.
The prime mover behind Hirshfield’s career was thewell-connected collector (and later art dealer) Sidney Janis, who, in 1939, stumbled upon the only two paintings Hirshfield had yet made (they’re hanging at the start of this show). Janis was instantly smitten, transformed into the artist’s ardent advocate. He drummed up interest in his work among cultural heavies in New York (Peggy Guggenheim, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian) and Europe (Picasso, Giacometti, André Breton and the Surrealists).
From start to finish this show’s 42 paintings resemble an obstacle course. For one thing it is lavish with information, visual and not,,— and so effectively accessorized that it gives the term bells and whistles a good name. One corner holds an enchanting display of 14 of the rainbow-hued E-Z Walk slippers, exquisitely remade by the artist Liz Blahd. Another summons the ghost of the historic 1942 “First Papers of Surrealism” exhibition, organized by Marcel Duchamp where Hirshfield was represented by “Girl With Pigeons,” one of his greatest paintings. A third corner evokes the most notorious event of Hirshfield’s career — his 1943 solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The evidence is an overwrought word-and-image explication concocted by Janis for “Inseparable Friends,” one of the painter’s nudes-plus-mirror creations.
But mainly, the art on the walls constantly slows you down with shocks to the system, forcing you to sort through Hirshfield’s art from his inspirations: burlesque posters, movies, Old Testament heroes, folk art.
Some paintings shock with their absolute perfection, like the sublime “Girl With Pigeons.” It features a mannequin-like blonde in a black and lavender party dress lies stiffly on avelvet couch. (Its red, black and yellow, quasi-Egyptian Revival fittings are something of a Hirshfield trope, recurring in other works, for example“Harp Girl,” whose clothed subject stands on a gaudy instrument like a ship’s figurehead.) But back to the couch, whose occupant is attended by seven of the artist’s signature birds, made, it seems, of painted wood. And everything is framed by an aureole of crisp fern leavesreaching to the canvas’s edges — a many-pointed crown.
Less known but also superb is the symmetrical “College Ground” of 1941, where a dollhouse hybrid of a darkened crystal palace and a Spanish Mission church’s red tile roof, is approached along a path of many-colored tiles that maintains symmetry as it extends to the painting’s bottom edge.
But other paintings challenge or even repel with their weirdness. For me, this includes many of the artist’s famous nudes, with a bland emptiness at the center. After surveying their distorted bodies and their impossible reflections in mirrors, my eye wanders off to the framing apparatuses of lavish curtains and valance.
Things improve when the central void is embellished, as in “Nude With Flowers,” where six strategically placed blossoms adorn another blond nude, surrounded by painted five birds against a background of green-on-green sprigs, their lines of leaves pointing in opposing directions. But even off-putting Hirshfields often have wonderful, welcoming details that can grant you entry. With “Christmas Tree and Angels,” I was turned off by the Formica-like white and gray background, but intrigued by the little silver posts and hinges on either side of the metal gate at the bottom edge. They opened up the whole painting for me — hovering angels and cherubs and, especially, the odd Torah-shaped evergreen at its center.
The year after Hirshfield’s triumph in the “First Papers” exhibition, Janis organized an exhibition of 30 paintings — the artist’s oeuvre to date — at the Modern. It came about because Janis belonged to the inner-circle of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the museum’s revered founding director, who saw self-taught art as a major force in the story of modernism. But the show’s prolonged savaging by critics, who offended most of all by what they saw as Hirshfield’s crudeness and incompetence. Their reviews seem to have so unsettled and embarrassed the museum’s trustees that, while the show was still on view, they unceremoniously removed Barr as director. The Modern’s interest in self-taught artists (except the French painter Henri Rousseau) came to an abrupt halt, casting a shadow over the entire field and, perhaps most tragically, narrowing the museum’s focus to a very pure concept of modernism for decades.
This exhibition has been organized by Richard Meyer, the Stanford University art historian and Hirshfield expert, with advice from Susan Davidson, an independent curator long affiliated with the work of Robert Rauschenberg and his foundation, and coordinated by Valérie Rousseau, the Folk Art museum’s senior curator of self-taught art and Art Brut. It coincides with the publication of Meyer’s “Master of the Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered” — its title echoing one of the damning reviews of the MoMA show — which gathers new information about Hirshfield’s life, art and his relationship with Janis although the book sometimes feels padded. But Meyer elaborates the chief influence on Hirshfield’s art and its unwavering artifice: his years spent working with all manner of textured and printed fabrics and the abbreviated female forms of paper patterns and female dress-dummy torsos.
The book also contains a catalog of some 78 of Hirshfield’s paintings assembled by Davidson that is itself fascinating reading. It reveals, for example, that most of the paintings here are being exhibited for the first time in decades and that all but about a dozen of the known Hirshfields passed through Janis’s hands. And many stayed there: the breathtaking gift of 103 works that the Janises gave to the Modern in 1967 contained 5 outstanding Hirshfields; his sons have lent 15 paintings to the current show and have also given major paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Jewish Museum, among others.
The Hirshfield-Janis relationship that fueled the artist’s career must have been a key element in the art collector’s transformation into an art dealer. In a eulogy at Hirshfield’s funeral in 1946, Janis touchingly described himself as the “companion” of Hirshfield’s “life as an artist.” The two men will forever be joined in one of modernism’s great bromances.