After retiring as a women’s tailor and footwear manufacturer in 1935, Morris Hirshfield, a Russian-Polish Jewish immigrant living in New York City, began painting at age 65. While quickly gaining prominence, even earning a solo retrospective at MoMA in 1943, the self-taught painter was ceaselessly derided by critics for his seemingly naive style. The work on display in Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered at the American Folk Art Museum shows the opposite: Hirshfield’s singular vision manifests palpably in exuberant figures and colorful patterns on canvas. Untethered from the restrictions of commercial garment work, the artist infused his decorative sensibilities and craft expertise into paintings that depicted women, landscapes, and animals in wholly unique ways.
“Angora Cat” (1937–39), only Hirshfield’s second painting, depicts a spectral white feline with a direct, piercing yellow gaze splayed over a disproportionately small couch. The mesmerizing cat is made remarkable through the artist’s decorative vernacular — the fur enlivened through innumerable, tactile white lines appearing like soft fabric. Hirshfield’s arresting compositions continued to develop, as seen in “Two Women in Front of a Mirror” (1943). The title’s concept is depicted with an impressive mirror whose surface looks like combed black hair and is bordered by extravagant geometric gold, white, and blue designs. Two women stand naked before the mirror, their backs to the viewer, and in an uncanny moment, their mirrored images also reflect their backs to us. The scene is astounding in its rejection of logical expectations — psychologically fraught for hesitating to depict fully nude women, it embodies Hirshfield’s relationship to female forms. While acknowledged by the exhibition’s didactics as a frequent subject, there is no substantial analysis regarding the artist’s preoccupation with women.
Other works like “Christmas Tree and Angels” (1946) also raise questions: Why would an observant Jewish immigrant render overtly Christian imagery? Fortunately, exhibition curator Richard Meyer probes more deeply into Hirshfield’s biography while offering insightful interpretations on the artist in The Master of Two Left Feet (MIT Press, 2022) for those who want to explore more. Despite not fully engaging every concern its presentation raises, Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered elucidates the legitimacy of Hirshfield’s aesthetic, showing the need for more research on twentieth-century self-taught American artists, who, like Hirshfield, were marginalized by restrictive art historical narratives.
Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered continues at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Square, New York, New York 10023) through January 29, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Richard Meyer.