by David M. Roth
In 1939, a 65-year-old unemployed tailor and footwear entrepreneur named Morris Hirshfield (1872-1946) decided to take up painting after his business failed. His experience, dressmaking and slipper design, seemed unlikely harbingers of success. Yet, two years after completing his first two canvases, the self-taught artist, with backing from Sidney Janis, the massively influential New York collector and dealer, penetrated the citadels of modernism with phantasmagorical pictures of people, animals and landscapes that were wholly out of step with prior trends and those just starting to emerge.
The speed of his ascent was startling. In 1941, his work figured prominently in a traveling exhibition (They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century) curated by Janis that opened at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA). A year later, Andre Breton, the founder of French Surrealism, included the artist’s works in The First Papers of Surrealism, the most important exhibition of its kind to hit the US. Then, in 1943, the Museum of Modern Art (to which Janis had close ties) mounted a solo show of Hirshfield’s work organized by its founding director, Alfred Barr. New York critics didn’t take kindly to this unschooled interloper from the “wilds” of Brooklyn. They denounced him as a naïve primitive, unworthy of serious attention. The uproar, which was vituperative, led to Barr’s firing and the decades-long institutional neglect of self-taught/outsider artists, a situation that changed only in recent decades. All the while, artists (Picasso and Mondrian), contrarian critics (Clement Greenberg) and collectors (Janis and Peggy Guggenheim) were hailing Hirshfield as a singular visionary.
Why were so many of the era’s critics so at odds with leading figures of the 20th-century avant-garde, and why was Hirshfield all but forgotten so soon after his death? Clues reside in a spellbinding exhibition titled The Master of Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered, on view at the Cantor Arts Center through January 21. Organized by Richard Meyer, a Stanford professor of art history, the exhibition, which debuted in 2022 at the American Folk Art Museum, tracks Hirshfield’s short but prolific career, arguing through a selection of key paintings and a superbly written and exhaustively researched catalog for a reappraisal – one that rejects the classification of his work as that of a naïf. That unfortunate characterization arose, in part, from the artist’s habit of painting figures with two left feet, a practice that earned him the pejorative that Meyer repurposed as the exhibition’s title.
The epithet was not unearned. With off-kilter bodies and skewed spatial relationships — the very features critics seized upon to claim Hirshfield couldn’t paint – the canvases, at first glance, recall Indo-Persian miniatures. But as the exhibition demonstrates, it’s precisely those sorts of liberties that cast a mesmerizing spell. The weirdness of it all doesn’t hit at once; it registers slowly, giving way eventually to the realization that a lack of knowledge or training didn’t hobble Hirshfield; rather, as Meyer points out, he used the things he knew best – color, fabric and mannequins – to create a fairytale world in which fantasy trumped physical truth.
Angora Cat (1937-39), one of Hirshfield’s first two attempts at painting, depicts a larger-than-life feline, so large it dwarfs the settee on which it’s perched. The animal stares out with a gaze more piercing than any I’ve seen from a cat – or, for that matter, any animal. It’s electrifying. Girl with Angora Cat (1944) shows what looks like a shrunken lion with a face closely resembling that of the artist; it sits on the lap of a woman whose skirt seems disproportionately voluminous. Close inspection reveals other oddities: a billowing orange shape at the top, a pair of gargoyle-like faces embedded in the chair’s arm supports, and sandal straps overlapping the woman’s insteps such that they indicate two left feet.
The paintings also exhibit something Hirshfield’s early detractors overlooked: meticulous brushwork, evidenced in thousands of marks forming each animal’s hair. It’s not hair as we know it; it’s something closer to the textiles Hirshfield spent his life cutting, sewing and measuring. Angora Cat, for example, shows a pelt like that of an angora rabbit, the animal whose hair sweaters are made of. In Girl with Angora Cat, the painted hair follicles resemble rope or yarn rendered in loose parallel lengths, akin to what you’d get if you cropped and thinned the coat of a Hungarian Puli.
Meyer calls this process “textile imaginary,” citing Waterfall (1940) as a leading case in point. “The sky and clouds,” he writes, “resemble strands of white and blue yarn. The waterfall…suggests an open weave of salt-and-pepper tweed. The gray pathway that warps around the left side of the pool before veering off to the right could be a strip of fabric – perhaps velvet…The two-toned grass in the foreground suggests low-pile carpeting.”
If the figures Hirshfield inserts into these imaginary landscapes seem inordinately stiff, that is because he modeled them after mannequins, something he took no pains to disguise. In at least one instance, he makes visible the “seams” separating the mechanical arms from the torsos, and in many others, he leaves their hairless pubic regions open to view, indicating a possible obsession with pre-pubescent girls. Clothed or naked, nearly all of Hirshfield’s women appear listless, devoid of expression, their eyes locked onto things outside the frames. Others seem laughable in their prudish eroticization. Nude with Flowers (1945), in which blossoms cover the breasts and pubic area, has the figure swarmed by elaborately painted pigeons, some in flight, others improbably “perched” in midair against a background of leafy branches.
It’s tempting, given Hirshfield’s birth in 19th century Poland and his orthodox Jewish faith, to call at least some of his visions mystical; however, there’s no evidence to suggest Hirshfield was a devotee of spiritualism, as were many of his peers during the era in which he grew up. (He immigrated in 1890.) The fantasies, Meyer asserts, were the product of the artist’s imagination.
Some of the best paintings in the show pose perceptual challenges. Two Women in Front of a Mirror (1943) contains no reflections – only laterally reversed heads and bodies painted to create the illusion of figures reflected in a mirror. The giveaway ruse – identical views of one woman’s posterior – doesn’t take long to dismantle once you realize something’s amiss, namely that there is no mirror. Even so, the pictures do force you to question your senses. Attentive viewers will notice other anomalies, too, like the right-facing knee of the woman on the left that, according to the picture’s logic, ought to be pointed forward. A mistake? Consider that before Hirshfield began painting, he made and lost a fortune operating EZ-Walk, a manufacturer of orthotics and felt slippers for which he held numerous patents. With that in mind, we can speculate with a high degree of confidence that the “mistakes” attributed to him by critics weren’t mistakes at all.
The artist’s landscapes evince a similar disregard for veracity. Dog and Pups (1944) shows four canines looking more like fattened lambs than dogs. They hover atop a tapestry-like forest whose flatness calls attention to the disparity between the size of the animals and the low-relief “topography” against which they frolic. Another zinger: He placed the animals’ eyes on one side of their heads as if, like those of a flounder, they’d somehow migrated across the skulls.
To provide historical context, The Master of Two Left Feet re-stages portions of the two exhibitions that preceded Hirshfield’s one-person show at MoMA: They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century (1941) and The First Papers of Surrealism (1942). In the first, Hirshfield’s works appear alongside those of a half dozen artists who weren’t his equals. (Grandma Moses, anyone?) The second fares better. It contains what may be Hirshfield’s most extraordinary painting, Girl With Pigeons (1942), accompanied by masterworks from Roberto Matta, Piet Mondrian, Leonora Carrington, William Baziotes and Yves Tanguy, along with photos and ephemera documenting the exhibition and its participants. To be clear, Hirshfield was not, in the main, a surrealist, but if you wanted to call him one Girl with Pigeons would be Exhibit A. The figure, Meyer informs, was painted vertically, but with the canvas swiveled horizontally, she floats slightly above a couch and stares vacantly, like a corpse with eyes wide open. In that orientation, the pigeon resting on her fingertips defies gravity.
Nonsequiturs of this sort can be found in almost any of the 80 paintings Hirshfield made between 1939 and his death in 1946. (A supplement to the catalog, compiled by Susan Davidson, an independent curator, contains photos of each and their respective exhibition histories, making for what amounts to a catalog raisonné.) The appearance of 30 of them here stands as a long overdue corrective, one that, for many, will be their first glimpse of a visionary artist whose work is seldom seen.
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“The Master of Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered” @ Cantor Arts Center through January 21, 2024.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.