Morris Hirshfield ‘Sheer, Visual Delight’ On View At Cantor Arts Center At Stanford University

Game recognizes game.

Among Morris Hirshfield’s (b. 1872, Poland, d. 1946, Brooklyn) admirers were contemporaries Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti and André Breton.

Peggy Guggenheim collected his work. Preeminent mid-century art critic Clement Greenberg was a fan. Museum of Modern Art founding director Alfred Barr gave the self-taught Jewish immigrant with little education and no connection to high society or elite culture a solo show in 1943.

Barr was fired, in some measure, for doing so.

For every champion, Hirshfield had a detractor. Their names are lost to history now, but at the time, they were influential.

“Art Digest” mockingly titled him “Master of the Two Left Feet” for his tendency to paint figures with that unorthodox trait. Hirschfield painted his subjects–women, landscapes and animals–all out of whack to proportion and perspective. Color and imagery were more fantastical than factual. Out of step with artistic trends, he was dismissed by many critics as an amateur unworthy of serious attention.

A primitive.

Richard Meyer, the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor of Art History at Stanford University, aligns firmly with the admirers. He’s spent the last ten years researching Hirschfield for his recently published book, “Master of the Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered.”

“His admirers recognized the way in which Hirshfield captured a unique vision of the world through paintings that are at once intricate and wildly imaginative,” Meyer told “It is impossible to specify the exact location of any of Hirshfield’s scenes. They exist in a place conjured by the artist. The surrealists saw in Hirshfield a fellow traveler. Modernists such as Mondrian and Picasso saw a painter whose confident use of color and the flattening and stylization of form spoke to their own interests in abstraction.”

Meyer saw his first large-scale Hirshfield painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art while researching the book.

“The longer I looked at the painting, the stranger and more delightful it became,” he remembers. “Hirshfield was bringing a dazzling vision of a world I’d never seen before. His combination of imaginative power, painterly precision, and ornamental overdrive produce magic. This man, I thought, needed a show.”

In addition to the book, Meyer curated an exhibition, “Morris Hirshfield: Rediscovered,” which can be seen at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford from September 6, 2023, through January 21, 2024. The presentation reintroduces this singular artist who against all odds achieved international recognition in the 1940s.

Artwork Meyer describes as “sheer visual delight.”

Morris Hirschfield

Moishe Hirshfield was 18 years old when he arrived in America from Russian controlled Poland. The year was 1890 and Hirschfield was part of a large wave of Ashkenazi Jews seeking to escape pogroms and other forms of anti-Semitic violence in Russia and Eastern Europe.

He was poor and spoke no English.

Moishe changed his first name to Morris and found a job as a pattern cutter in a women’s cloak and suit factory in the garment district on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Working in the garment industry was the most common form of employment among Jewish immigrants in New York City at the turn of the century.

Hirschfield worked his way up through the business, eventually founding the E.Z. Walk Manufacturing Company, for which he was awarded 24 patents from the U.S. government, most for boudoir slipper designs.

Art making was no part of his life. He was too busy earning a living to support himself and his family. It wasn’t until age 65 and his retirement from the footwear industry that he was able to pursue painting.

Working intensively for almost two years, he completed his first two pictures, Beach Girl and Angora Cat, in 1939. In an astonishing feat for an unknown, self-taught artist, both paintings were shown at MoMA the same year they were completed.

Credit for that goes to Sidney Janis.

Sidney Janis

An enormous gulf separated the world Hirschfield occupied from that of New York’s cultural elite. Sidney Janis (1896-1989) bridged the gap. Janis played the most pivotal role in Hirshfield’s career as an artist, single-handedly rescuing the painter from obscurity.

In 1939, Janis sold his men’s shirt company and retired from the clothing trade. Janis had developed a passion for art for which he was also self-taught. Unlike Hirschfield, Janis was wealthy and retired in middle age to pursue collecting and curating modern art full time. He would go on to become one of the most prominent art dealers of the 20th century.

That same year, 1939, Janis discovered two Hirshfield paintings in the Hudson Walker Gallery on 57th Street. The gallery owner had been asked by the Brooklyn Museum to evaluate their quality, and, unimpressed, faced them to the wall. Janis happened into the gallery searching for unknown artists for a show he was guest-curating at MoMA. On his way out the door, he noticed the pair turned away from view.

He saw Hirschfield’s Angora Cat and was stricken.

Janis, like everyone else, had never seen anything like it. He became the artist’s primary promoter, advocating on behalf of Hirschfield to museums and other collectors, stumping for him on trips across Europe traveling with rolled up canvases to show Picasso, Giacometti and others.

The Cantor exhibition opens with Hirshfield’s first two paintings, Beach Girl (1937–1939) and Angora Cat (1937–1939), both of which were painted over preexisting works by other artists.

Modern Primitive Folk Surrealist

Originating at the American Folk Art Museum in September 2022, the exhibition—named one of the year’s best shows by The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—significantly expands at the Cantor. An entirely new section features an international roster of 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 Grandma Moses and Horace Pippin.

“Modern in the sense of belonging to the 20th century and primitive in the sense of untrained and supposedly unrefined,” Meyer said.

The exhibition demonstrates how Hirshfield belonged to both categories—self-taught and modern—bringing together these styles typically seen as mutually exclusive.

“Alone among self-taught artists, Hirshfield was taken up by the Surrealists as a visionary artist—not a visionary folk artist, but a genuine creator of vibrant new dreamworlds,” Meyer explains. “Picasso and Mondrian, likewise, saw Hirshfield as a modern original rather than a novelty or sideshow. Hirshfield was a bridge between self-taught art and modernism and bridges only work if they allow movement in both directions. It is time for art history to acknowledge that Hirshfield did just that.”

Fantastic juxtapositions emerge in a section devoted to “First Papers of Surrealism,” a famed exhibition of international Surrealist painters in New York in 1942. Curators André Breton and Marcel Duchamp included the work of both well-known Surrealists and a single, self-taught artist: Hirshfield. This section showcases his Girl with Pigeons (1942), featured in “First Papers,” alongside works by fellow artists in that show such as William Baziotes, Leonora Carrington, Joan Miró, Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy.

In a spectacular finale to the only full-career retrospective of Hirshfield ever organized, his late work is shown beside that of one of his foremost admirers: Piet Mondrian.

“Following World War II, self-taught painting was increasingly defined as folk art and became, as such, all but invisible within dominant accounts of modernism,” Meyer reminds, shedding light on why Barr’s presentation of a solo show at MoMA was so ill received. “Trustees felt that Barr hard compromised the stature and taste level of the museum.”

As such, following Hirshfield’s death in 1946, the artist’s life and work were largely forgotten, until now.

“Over the past decade, self-taught artists such as Hirshfield have received greater attention from both the art world and the public at large. At the same time, art history has been engaged in a wholesale revision of the discipline so as to make it more diverse,” Meyer said. “One part of this process involves retrieving artists that have been overlooked, forgotten, or never acknowledged in the first place. While these reclamations often occur in terms of BIPOC and female artists, the Hirshfield story helps to expand the map of art history to include more immigrants, observant Jews, and untrained artists.”

In lauding Hirshfield’s “visual imagination and pictorial flair” and the impact his paintings have on viewers, Meyer recalls a 1947 critic’s review of the artist’s memorial exhibition in “Town and Country” magazine which reads: “It was not until I stood in a room surrounded by about twenty of his canvases that I fully realized the radiant strength of his creativity. Hirshfield has made a new world; a bold, revolutionary, colorful world of unsophisticated perspective and curiously shaped inhabitants, and one disquietingly hypnotic to those outside it.”

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