Morris Hirshfield, A Once Obscure Self-Taught Artist, Is Having A Major Resurgence
In 1937, newly retired tailor and shoe designer Morris Hirshfield began to think about painting the animals, people, and landscapes in his head. He would go on to produce a mere 78 works—a function of both his short career and his labor-intensive process.
An upcoming retrospective at New York’s American Folk Art Museum, Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered, will show more than 40 of them. The exhibition coincides with the publication of a scholarly monograph, Master of the Two Left Feet by Richard Meyer (MIT Press), and reflects renewed interest in Hirshfield within a broader rediscovery of American self-taught artists.
In recent years Hirshfield has been included in the 2018 “Outliers and American Art” group show at the National Gallery of Art, and his work is in “Gatecrashers,” a traveling exhibition that opened at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in May. Three of the eight Hirshfield paintings in MoMA’s permanent collection are now on display there in “Masters of Popular Painting,” an installation of the self-taught artists whom MoMA’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., exhibited during his tenure.
For more on Hirshfield’s life and art, read on.
From Poland to New York
Born into a Jewish family in Poland in 1872, Hirshfield emigrated to New York at the age of 18 with his parents and siblings. Changing his first name from Moishe to Morris, he became a pattern cutter in a downtown women’s suit and cloak factory. He worked his way up to tailor, eventually opening a small women’s clothing shop with his brother.
But Hirshfield’s most profitable venture was the footwear business he opened in 1912 with his brother and sister: the E-Z Walk Manufacturing Company. E-Z Walk initially produced orthopedic devices such as ankle straighteners and arch supports before releasing a wildly popular line of embellished boudoir slippers designed by Hirshfield, which sold well even during the Great Depression. (It grossed $1 million annually.)
In the mid-1930s Hirshfield took a hiatus from E-Z Walk due to poor health, leaving the company in the care of two associates under whose management it went out of business. As a result, he and his wife, Henriette, downsized to a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, where Hirshfield tried freelancing as a “foot appliance consultant” before retiring from feet altogether in 1937.
A new career
Hirshfield began to paint, using his bedroom as a studio. Unwilling to spend money on canvas, he took two decorative paintings (relics of more prosperous times) off the walls of his apartment and worked on those instead.
His first two pieces—Angora Cat (1939), of an oversize tabby dominating a sofa, and Beach Girl (1939), depicting a woman standing in a wildly patterned, all-blue landscape—took him two years to complete, as he painstakingly layered countless staccato brush marks to create them.
Collector Sidney Janis (who had also just retired from the garment industry) spotted the works at a Manhattan gallery that was evaluating them for the Brooklyn Museum, where Hirshfield wanted them to be shown. The gallerist was unimpressed, but Janis felt otherwise and eventually bought Angora Cat, describing it as a “strangely compelling creature . . . sitting possessively upon a remarkable couch.”
That year Janis, who was on the Museum of Modern Art’s advisory committee, debuted the two paintings in a group exhibition that he guest curated there titled “Contemporary Unknown American Artists.” A Newsweek review deemed Hirshfield “the least sophisticated of the lot” but also reproduced Hirshfield’s third-ever painting, Tailor-Made Girl (1939).
Infiltrating the avant-garde
Janis worked to keep Hirshfield in the public eye. He arranged for Girl With Pigeons (1942), of a woman lying supine on a striped couch, awkwardly communing with a bird, to be included in a landmark 1942 exhibition curated by André Breton called “First Papers of Surrealism” at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion in New York City.
Hirshfield “would hold his own against any competition,” claimed critic Clement Greenberg in a 1942 review of Janis’s book, They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the Twentieth Century. The artist had similar faith in his skills and was quoted in that book as saying his paintings were “better than a camera could do” in picturing his particular reality.
This stamp of approval from the intellectual vanguard of the day may have encouraged collector and gallerist Peggy Guggenheim to buy her first Hirshfield that year through Janis: Nude at the Window (1941), of a woman framed by scalloped curtains that echo her ovoid breasts and belly. Guggenheim reportedly paid $900 (far more than she paid, combined, for works by René Magritte and Piet Mondrian around the same time) and hung it near a Kandinsky landscape, a Duchamp nude, and a Picasso still life in her home on 51st Street in New York.
A solo show at MoMA
The high point of Hirshfield’s career was a 1943 MoMA solo show, curated by Barr, that comprised all 30 of the artist’s paintings to date. It was widely reviewed, though many felt the honor had been squandered on an amateur.
Referring disparagingly to Hirshfield as the “Master of Two Left Feet,” critic Peyton Boswell pegged him as a clumsy incompetent. “Aside from being in fairly bad taste, crudely drawn, harsh in color and static in design, [the paintings] have yet another defect in common,” he wrote in Art Digest, describing Hirshfield’s twisted perspective, “they are all left-footed.” Already dissatisfied with Barr’s administrative and fundraising skills, MoMa’s president used the exhibition as proof of Barr’s poor leadership and fired him.
The fade into obscurity
When Hirshfield died of a heart attack in 1946 at age 74, Janis (who didn’t open his own gallery until two years later) urged Guggenheim to mount a memorial show at her New York gallery, Art of This Century.
The exhibition opened in 1947 immediately following a Jackson Pollock show and displayed works Hirshfield had painted in the three years after his MoMA solo exhibition. “Hirshfield has made a new world; a bold, revolutionary, colorful world of unsophisticated perspective and curiously shaped inhabitants,” wrote a Town and Country art critic, reviewing the show. “That he did it by accident while believing he was accurately representing our own reality is of no importance. He did it.”
During his brief artistic career Hirshfield had 15 exhibitions, including four solo shows, most arranged through Janis. After his death, his popularity declined. He’s been sparsely shown since, his works shuttered in storerooms and private collections, but museums are again shuffling toward the Master of the Two Left Feet.