Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered
A groundbreaking exhibition repositions the self-taught artist as an important figure of Modern Art as it expands and returns home to Stanford
Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University
September 6, 2023 – January 21, 2024
(June 22, 2023 – Stanford, CA) The Cantor Arts Center is pleased to present Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered from September 6, 2023 – January 21, 2024 and reintroduce a singular, self-taught artist who, against all odds, achieved international recognition in the 1940s. Curated by Richard Meyer, Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor of Art History at Stanford, the exhibition builds on ten years of research on the artist for the recently-published book, Master of the Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered (winner of the 2023 Dedalus Foundation Exhibition Catalogue Award), and is now returning home to Stanford following its critically-acclaimed debut at the American Folk Art Museum in New York.
An immigrant tailor and slipper manufacturer in Brooklyn who took up painting at the age of 65, Morris Hirshfield (b. 1872, Poland, d. 1946, Brooklyn, New York) attracted a great degree of attention during his brief career as an artist. His pictures were championed by Sidney Janis, embraced by the Surrealists, collected by Peggy Guggenheim, and featured in a highly publicized solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. At the same time, the artist was dismissed and mocked in the media as the “Master of the Two Left Feet” for his tendency to display the female body in an unorthodox fashion. After his death in 1946, the artist’s life and work were largely forgotten—until now.
“As the only full-career retrospective of Hirshfield ever organized, this exhibition offers visitors a unique opportunity to experience the vibrant imagination and sheer visual delight of the artist’s work,” said Meyer. “By displaying his paintings alongside avant-garde artists such as Piet Mondrian and Yves Tanguy, the show reveals the vital dialogue between vanguard modernism and self-taught art of the mid-twentieth century.”
Originating at the American Folk Art Museum in September 2022, the highly lauded exhibition—named one of the year’s best shows by The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—will significantly expand as it travels to the Cantor. Here, it will feature more works by Surrealist artists and a section devoted to self-taught artists, thus shedding light on the Hirschfield’s contemporaries, peers, and influences.
Director Veronica Roberts says: “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. Bringing this exhibition to the Cantor made perfect sense, as Stanford University 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.”
Featured sections of the exhibition will explore a range of themes that highlight the artist’s interests and unconventional career path. The installation 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. Shortly after they were finished, the pair were discovered by the collector, curator, and future art dealer Sidney Janis, launching Hirshfield’s career.
Another section examines Hirshfield’s work in the garment industry and slipper business in the decades prior to 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 hand-made replicas, bringing the slippers Hirshfield designed, fabricated, and sold a century ago to life today.
An entirely new section that the Cantor has added to the exhibition 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 Camille Bombois, John Kane, Hector Hyppolite, Grandma Moses, and Horace Pippin.
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—Morris Hirshfield. This section showcases the artist’s Girl with Pigeons (1942), which was featured in First Papers, alongside works by fellow artists in the show, such as William Baziotes, Victor Brauner, Leonora Carrington, Roberto Matta, Joan Miró, Kay Sage, and Yves Tanguy.
The exhibition concludes with a section that demonstrates how Hirshfield brought together two forms of art—self-taught and modern—which are typically seen as mutually exclusive. In a spectacular finale, Hirshfield’s late work will be shown beside the work of one of his foremost admirers, Piet Mondrian.
Meyer will teach two related courses that will coincide with the exhibition. An undergraduate course titled “Putting it Together: The Art of Curating” will take Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered as a point of departure to discuss the practice and history of curating in the U.S. throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In addition, Meyer will teach a graduate seminar, “Overlooked and Understudied,” focusing on once well-known artists who have been largely obscured or forgotten. The seminar will explore the stakes of recovering such artists today.
Meyer’s book, Master of the Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered, accompanies and helped inspire the exhibition. It traces Hirshfield’s unlikely journey from poor immigrant garment worker in Brooklyn to painter at the Museum of Modern Art. The book is the only full-length study of the artist’s work in print. Featuring over 200 full-color illustrations, the book includes a catalog of works compiled by curator Susan Davidson that illustrates and documents the artist’s entire body of painting. The New Yorker named Master of the Two Left Feet one of the “Best Books of 2022” and it has been hailed as “superb” (TLS), “fascinating reading” (New York Times), “a labor of love” (The New Yorker), and “audacious and provocative” (Oxford Art Journal). It will be available for sale at the Cantor during the exhibition. Master of the Two Left Feet won the 2023 Dedalus Foundation Exhibition Catalogue Award, which recognizes an outstanding exhibition catalogue that makes a significant contribution to the scholarship of modern art.
ABOUT RICHARD MEYER
Richard Meyer is the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History in the School of the Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, where he teaches courses in twentieth-century American art, the history of photography, art censorship, curatorial practice, and gender and sexuality studies. His first book, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art, was awarded the Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Outstanding Scholarship from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Subsequent books include What Was Contemporary Art? and Art and Queer Culture, a survey co-authored with artist Catherine Lord. He curated Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. and co-curated, with Peggy Phelan, Contact Warhol: Photography Without End at the Cantor Arts Center. Most recently, he wrote an amicus brief for a case before the U.S. Supreme Court focused on Andy Warhol and the question of fair use. Shortly after the case was decided, Meyer published an op-ed in The New York Times titled “The Supreme Court is Wrong about Andy Warhol.”
ABOUT THE CANTOR ARTS CENTER
Serving the Stanford campus, the Bay Area community, and visitors from around the world, the Cantor Arts Center provides an outstanding cultural experience for visitors of all ages. Founded when the university opened in 1891, the historic museum was expanded and renamed in 1999 for lead donors Iris and B. Gerald Cantor. The Cantor’s collection spans 5,000 years and includes more than 41,000 works of art from around the globe. The Cantor is an established resource for teaching and research on campus. Free admission, tours, lectures, and family activities make the Cantor one of the most visited university art museums in the country.
Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered is organized by the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM), New York, and curated by Richard Meyer, Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor of Art History at Stanford University. Major support to date provided by Pamela and David Hornik and the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.
Major support to date provided by the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.
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