By JUSTIN DUYAO October 30, 2023
Today, Morris Hirshfield is widely considered “one of the most critically acclaimed self-taught artists of the 20th century,” according to the J. Paul Getty Museum. Though the artist’s work has been sparsely shown over the last several decades, Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered—a traveling exhibition that coincides with the publication of a scholarly monograph, Master of the Two Left Feet (MIT Press)—has all but revived him.
On view at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center through January 21, 2024, Rediscovered embraces the notorious self-taught artist with equal parts adoration and rigor, featuring more than 40 of the 78 works Hirshfield produced during his short career, alongside several Surrealist artists that Hirshfield exhibited with in New York, such as Yves Tanguy, Kay Sage, and Leonora Carrington, as well as a dedicated section to self-taught artists, such as John Kane, Hector Hippolyte, and Grandma Moses. In the latter section especially, titled “They Taught Themselves,” Rediscovered offers crucial context for artists who “required neither academic training nor access to the elite art world” and participates in a wider resurgence of interest in self-taught art.
Forever an Outsider
While the 20th century tailor-turned-painter has made an appearance in several recent shows with similar titles—such as the 2018 Outliers and American Vanguard Art group show at the National Gallery of Art, as well as Gatecrashers, the traveling exhibition that opened at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in 2022—Hirshfield has more or less lingered in the background of the art world’s “naive and primitive painters,” as MoMa put it, since his death in 1946. The only time his work is revived, it seems, is in the interest of rediscovering self-taught art.
Though every exhibition that has claimed to rediscover his work has approached artists outside the canon of contemporary art from different angles, they all seem to critique the same “willful ignorance of art’s gatekeepers manicuring the pasture of a well-mannered in-group,” as Max Lakin clarified in his essay, “The Enduring Appeal of the Self-Taught Artist.”
“The bitter flavor of exclusion … is a very real history that the art world continues to reckon with,” Lakin concluded. After all, though Hirshfield’s work was praised by art collectors throughout his brief career and embraced by his contemporaries, including Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, and Marcel Duchamp, most critics during Hirshfield’s lifetime considered his work underdeveloped.
In the same year (1939) that legendary art collector Sidney Janis included two of Hirshfield’s paintings in a group exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, titled Contemporary Unknown American Artists, a Newsweek review deemed Hirshfield “the least sophisticated of the lot.” Following his first solo show hosted by the same institution in 1943, the critic Peyton Boswell accused Hirshfield of having “fairly bad taste,” berating his work as “crudely drawn, harsh in color, and static in design.”
Along these lines, Rediscovered is a testament to how much the art world has changed since the middle of the 20th century. In the months following the exhibition’s first run at the American Folk Art Museum in 2022, every major outlet from The New York Times and The New Yorker to Hyperallergic and The Brooklyn Rail has hailed the artist’s work as “delightful,” “hypnotic,” and “highly stylized.”
Rediscovered’s co-curator and author of Master of the Two Left Feet, Richard Meyer, also doubled down on this intent to undo decades of gatekeeping by the art world in a lively conversation with WNYC’s Alison Stewart.
About the highly successful business Hirshfield built with his brother during his professional career, Meyer explained, “This was clearly a very inventive, sophisticated man, not this know-nothing that was presented in the press as a kind of primitivized, ‘just-off-the-boat’ immigrant. That [characterization] was a way to dismiss him and make him remote.”
Though it wasn’t until he retired due to failing health that Hirshfield was able to devote the rest of his life to creating art, “he knew that he always wanted to be an artist. His life, though, didn’t afford him that possibility,” Meyer continued. “What I think is finally beginning to happen in the art world is that, because of the emphasis on diversity … we’re looking at an expanded history of making, not only thinking about the artists who have been seen as the most important with a capital ‘I’, but the artists who were there all along.”
An Expanded History of Making
In many ways, Rediscovered seems to be part of an attempt to make up for the sins of the art world’s past. The only trouble with expanding the world’s “history of making” to include artists like Hirshfield is that, if that expansion is done without understanding the forces that limited its original attempt, it can do very little to help self-taught artists in the long term. Even with the countless, glowing reviews of Hirshfield’s revival exhibition, he still isn’t considered a critically acclaimed artist—only an acclaimed “self-taught” one.
That’s part of the problem with the art world’s obsession with categorization. While the contemporaries who embraced Hirshfield throughout his lifetime are remembered as groundbreaking artists in their own right, Hirshfield is remembered as a Jewish immigrant, tailor, and slipper manufacturer first and artist second.
My only critique of Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered is that it has celebrated the novelty of Hirshfield’s rags-to-riches story over the merit of his art, participating in the same habit of primitivization it critiques. In reality, his art is strong enough to speak for itself.
A Legacy of Bold, Revolutionary, Colorful Work
The worlds Hirshfield created with his brush are singularly mesmerizing. His odd and imaginative depictions of the natural world—Birds on the Grass II (1944), for example—capture the otherworldly feeling of encountering the wilderness for the first time, in all its entrancing patterns and textures. Even his cartoonish reproductions of female figures toy with our expectations of the human figure, undoing our associations with its curves and edges and presenting each individual as a creature like any other.
Hirshfield interrogates each of his subjects with the same piercing interest, so that the stripes on the dress of the Girl with Plumed Hat (1945) are just as swooping and precise as those on Zebra Family (1942), for example. The hair of the figure in Nude with Flowers (1945) is just as ornately textured as the birds who flock around her.
Whether the art world praises or primitivizes artists who find mainstream success by their own means, the resulting exoticization is the same. As long as Morris Hirshfield is lauded as a “one of the most critically acclaimed self-taught artists of the 20th century,” the necessity for his rediscovery will remain. What matters, in the end, is that audiences look to art that possesses them. Just as Janis described the first of Hirshfield’s pieces that she ever saw as “strangely compelling” and “possessing,” we should expect the very same of the art we encounter, whether the artist was self taught or not. WM
Justin Duyao is an art writer and editor based in San Diego, CA. He holds an M.A. in Critical Studies from the Pacific Northwest College of Art and has been published by Variable West, HereIn Journal, Contemporary Art Review, Los Angeles, Southwest Contemporary, Northwest Review, and The Clackamas Literary Review, among others.view all articles from this author