New York

Morris Hirshfield, Girl with Pigeons, 1942, oil on canvas, 30 × 40 1⁄8".

Morris Hirshfield, Girl with Pigeons, 1942, oil on canvas, 30 × 40 1⁄8".

Morris Hirshfield

At age eighteen, Morris Hirshfield (1872–1946) left Poland for New York and joined a wave of Eastern European Jewish émigrés in the city’s garment industry: first as a pattern cutter maximizing the number of designs that could be extracted from a single piece of cloth, then as a tailor and partner in a women’s suiting shop, and finally as a manufacturer of orthopedic devices and embellished boudoir slippers, for which he garnered twenty-four patents. After retiring in 1937, he took up painting, electing to work directly on top of two pieces of art that he already owned. Angora Cat and Beach Girl, both 1937–39, bear pentimento traces of their former lives (a feline tchotchke and a young woman’s face, respectively). They also reveal—especially in their flatness, extreme frontality, enthusiastic decoration, and allover intricately patterned mark-making—the decades that the self-taught artist spent as a sartor.

Hirshfield’s depictions of a bristling cat sitting in an upholstered chair and a bafflingly proportioned beachgoer under a cottony sky are profoundly psychedelic and ornately outré—small wonder that they stopped Sidney Janis, a former shirt manufacturer turned art-world doyen, in his tracks. Upon encountering the works, Janis included them in a 1939 group show, “Contemporary Unknown American Painters,” he was curating at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. MoMA subsequently featured Hirshfield’s paintings in its 1941 collection-based exhibition “Modern Primitives” and mounted a solo presentation of his work in 1943, at the tail end of a gust of institutional interest in outsider art. Yet this midcareer retrospective elicited such vitriol and condescension from the press that it hastened Alfred Barr’s dismissal from his position as MoMA’s director. After a posthumous presentation at Peggy Guggenheim’s Manhattan gallery The Art of This Century in 1947, Hirshfield’s work fell into obscurity.

“Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered” at the American Folk Art Museum is the artist’s most comprehensive retrospective to date. Curated by Richard Meyer, whose writing in the accompanying catalogue underscores the fact that serious scholarship needn’t exsanguinate its subject (not that Hirshfield’s particular brand of magic can be easily deadened), the show highlights relationships between Hirshfield’s garment work and artmaking with a vitrine bearing fourteen of his slipper designs, which were exactingly fabricated with rosettes and pom-poms by artist Liz Blahd. More than forty career-spanning paintings, some of which were included in the derided MoMA exhibition, are grouped by subject matter. Maladroit animal renderings—including those of barrel-chested tigers hulking over entire forests, and dogs floating in front of patterned verdure—give way to depictions of fantasy architectures on manicured grounds. Assembled under the category “The Jewish American” are portrayals of Old Testament figures such as Moses and Daniel, along with a curiously assimilationist image of a Christmas tree with its top lopped off: pieces made during World War II.

Hirshfield’s portraits of anatomically irreconcilable women—who are either flamboyantly clothed or nude, their footwear provocatively cast aside—are prominently featured. Occasionally, a figure’s nose protrudes from a canvas, relief-like, via impasto. The theatricality of erotic femininity, often elaborated with tasseled valances and drapes, is gloriously literalized in Stage Beauties, 1944, in which female entertainers sport gravity-defying ensembles seemingly culled from the realm of burlesque and Hirshfield’s untrammeled decorative imagination. A quieter, dreamlike conflation of prettiness and performance can be seen in Two Women in Front of a Mirror, 1943, in which the wayward reflections of the nude subjects comb a stage curtain made of hair while at their toilette. Naturally, work in this vein chimed with the Surrealists, who included Hirshfield in the historic 1942 “First Papers of Surrealism” exhibition at the Whitelaw Reid mansion in New York (Janis penned the foreword for the show’s catalogue). The retrospective here generously acknowledges this context, displaying Girl with Pigeons, 1942, Hirshfield’s contribution to “First Papers,” amid pieces by artists who showed alongside him in that historic presentation, including William Baziotes, Kay Sage, and Yves Tanguy.

While “Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered” dives into the painter’s unequivocally dazzling oeuvre, it is also interested in questions of legacy—in the writing and rewriting of art history, the interpretive frameworks that are applied or retrofitted to an artist’s work, and the nebulous relationship between the “insider” and the “outsider.” Several of Hirshfield’s paintings returned to MoMA’s walls in 2019 for the institution’s collection rehang before migrating to the retrospective here. I daresay we’ll be seeing more of them.