Self-taught artist Morris Hirshfield is rediscovered by Stanford art historian
Richard Meyer introduces Hirshfield to a 21st-century audience with a stunning exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center, an award-winning book, and an undergraduate course examining the conception and realization of a museum exhibition.
He was never expected to make history. He did — twice.
Dismissed and mocked by the old guard as an amusing oddity, but embraced by the avant-garde for his visual imagination, Morris Hirshfield, an immigrant tailor, slipper maker, and self-taught painter from Brooklyn, became an internationally recognized artist in the 1940s, only a few years after picking up a brush in his mid-60s. His work was quickly included in the most important Surrealist show in the United States in 1942, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City gave him a coveted solo exhibition the following year. Yet despite being championed by some of his day’s most sophisticated curators, collectors, and artists, Hirshfield fell into obscurity after he died in 1946.
Now, thanks to Stanford art historian Richard Meyer, the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor of Art History in the School of Humanities and Sciences, Hirshfield’s life and work are deservedly back in the spotlight. The artist is being introduced to a new audience through a scholarly publication and a full-career retrospective exhibition curated by Meyer titled Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered, which is on view at the Cantor Arts Center through Jan. 21, 2024, after debuting last year at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.
The exhibition originated in research for Meyer’s award-winning book, Master of the Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered (MIT Press, 2022). The book traces Hirshfield’s unlikely passage from poor, Jewish immigrant pattern cutter to internationally recognized self-taught painter embraced by influential artists, including Picasso, Mondrian, and Miró, and honored with a one-person exhibition at the most influential American museum of modern art. The book includes a comprehensive catalog of artworks by the curator and art historian Susan Davidson that reproduces every one of Hirshfield’s 78 paintings and reconstructs their history of ownership, reproduction, and exhibition.
“We are thrilled to extend the life of this fantastic exhibition and introduce Morris Hirshfield’s fascinating work to West Coast audiences following its critically acclaimed debut at the American Folk Art Museum,” said Veronica Roberts, the John and Jill Freidenrich Director of the Cantor. “Bringing this exhibition to the Cantor made perfect sense, as Stanford is Richard Meyer’s research home. We are especially delighted to be able to present works by Surrealist and self-taught artists unique to the Cantor’s presentation and to share a striking Hirshfield painting of birds just gifted to the museum.”
The lessons of Hirshfield
Meyer notes that he first encountered Hirshfield’s paintings in a Museum of Modern Art storage facility in Queens, an outer borough of New York City. The paintings had rarely been on view in the museum since the artist’s solo exhibition in 1943. Meyer is thrilled to return Hirshfield’s work to public knowledge and to be able to send his students next door and see it in person. Meyer is taking advantage of this proximity by using the exhibition as a firsthand teaching tool in a fall quarter course. Putting it Together: The History and Practice of Curating explores the production, criticism, and curating of art through the lens of Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered, offering students a behind-the-scenes look at how the exhibition was conceived and realized as well as the challenges encountered along the way.
“I have sought to share with readers and museum visitors the visual power and sheer delight of Hirshfield’s art, which has been insufficiently seen since his death in 1946,” said Meyer. “I want the book and exhibition to be resources for future scholars, curators, and admirers, of which I hope there will be many.”
Self-taught and modern
The installation at the Cantor opens with Hirshfield’s first two paintings, Beach Girl (1937-39) and Angora Cat (1937-39), both of which were painted over preexisting works by other artists. Shortly after they were finished, the pair were discovered by the collector, curator, and future art dealer Sidney Janis, who launched Hirshfield’s career.
Another section examines Hirshfield’s work in the garment industry and slipper business in the decades before his career as a painter. As the founding director of the E.Z. Walk Manufacturing Company, Hirshfield was awarded 24 patents from the U.S. government, most of which were for boudoir slipper designs. Based on Hirshfield’s patent illustrations from the 1920s, the contemporary artist Liz Blahd has created a dazzling set of 14 handmade replicas, bringing the slippers Hirshfield designed, fabricated, and sold a century ago to life today.
Fantastic juxtapositions emerge in a section devoted to First Papers of Surrealism, the famed exhibition of international Surrealist painters in 1942. Curators André Breton and Marcel Duchamp included the work of well-known Surrealists and a single, self-taught artist – Morris Hirshfield. This section showcases the artist’s Girl with Pigeons (1942) alongside works by fellow artists in the show, such as Leonora Carrington, Roberto Matta, Joan Miró, Kay Sage, and Yves Tanguy.
The presentation of Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered at the Cantor expands on the original show at the American Folk Art Museum by featuring more works by Surrealist artists and a section devoted to international self-taught artists who were shown alongside Hirshfield in the 1930s and ’40s. These “modern primitives,” as they were often called at the time, include Camille Bombois, John Kane, Hector Hyppolite, Grandma Moses, and Horace Pippin.
The exhibition concludes with a section demonstrating how Hirshfield brought together two art forms – self-taught and modern – typically seen as mutually exclusive. In a spectacular finale, Hirshfield’s late work is shown beside the work of one of his foremost admirers, Piet Mondrian.