Stanford art historian explores appeal of painter who bridged the amateur, avant-garde

Photo by Do Pham / Stanford University

Richard Meyer investigates the life and work of the genre-busting painter Morris Hirshfield in a new book and exhibition on view at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.

Pablo Picasso called him “great.” He was admired by avant-garde artists Piet Mondrian and Marcel Duchamp. He “would hold his own against any competition,” the influential critic Clement Greenberg wrote. So why has Morris Hirshfield, the Brooklyn slipper-maker-turned-painter, remained largely ignored since his death in 1946?

That is what Richard Meyer, an art historian in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, asked himself in 2015—and determined to redress—shortly after visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he spotted Hirshfield’s painting Stage Beauties (1944).

“I kept staring at this painting of three women in wildly flamboyant, colorful costumes. I was—it’s hard to think of the right word—I guess enchanted, or drawn in,” said Meyer, the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History. “I went to look at some other paintings, but Stage Beauties kept calling me back. I felt like there was a glint in the eyes of the three figures. Had the artist used glitter or a little bit of silver foil? And I kept looking closer and closer, and I couldn't find anything except oil paint. Then the guard said, ‘Sir, could you please move back? You’re too close.’”

Meyer explores the life and work of this self-taught, genre-busting painter in his new book, Master of the Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered (MIT Press, 2022), which The New Yorker named one of the best books of 2022. While writing the book, which is intended for a general readership, Meyer was inspired to organize an exhibition of the artist’s work. “I wanted people to have the experience of seeing the paintings firsthand,” he said. The exhibition, which runs through Jan. 29 at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, was called one of the best art shows of 2022 by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Meyer said he hopes that bringing attention to the painter will broaden people’s understanding of what constitutes modern art. He noted that in the early 20th century, the work of self-taught artists was considered a pillar of modernism, along with abstraction, surrealism, cubism, and other styles of the vanguard. It was only later that what’s often referred to as naive, or folk, art was demoted to a separate, subordinate category.

“Major artists, including Marcel Duchamp and the writer André Breton, did not treat Hirshfield like a novelty act or sideshow,” Meyer said. “They never even called him self-taught or untrained. They saw him as a peer, and that’s very important to me because that’s not how so-called folk art is generally treated. I wanted to bring that sense of the artist back. What does it mean to take him seriously as a modern artist with a unique vision of the world?”

Reclaiming a derisive moniker

Hirshfield was often dismissed by critics. The title of Meyer’s book comes from one such appraisal in the journal Art Digest, which sneeringly dubbed Hirshfield “master of the two left feet” because the figures he painted often featured this anatomical quirk. The moniker is a sarcastic allusion to the convention of “naming important but anonymous artists in early modern Europe after the place, format, or subject matter with which they were associated,”  Meyer writes in the book. For example, one such artist, a 15th century painter and engraver, is known both as Master of the Housebook and Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet.

Meyer considers this facet of the paintings in a distinctly different light—specifically, as just one example of the non-naturalistic qualities Hirshfield intended for his work. “Hirshfield made deliberate choices about the imagery he wanted to bring onto the canvas, including dogs that resemble horses and a woman who resides inside a harp rather than plays it,” Meyer said. “He had no interest in painting a version of social reality. His female figures could never be mistaken for the bodies of actual women. You don’t see any place that looks like Bensonhurst, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where he lived, or anything you could call contemporary American culture in the 1940s. What you see is an imagined world far from material reality, and that’s what I think so appealed to the surrealists and other avant-garde artists.”

Hirshfield emigrated to the United States from Poland in 1890, when he was 18. He took a job in the garment industry, as did many Jewish European immigrants of that period, and his artistic sensibilities were influenced by his time in the “rag trade,” Meyer said. The title of one of his early paintings, Tailor-Made Girl (1939), is a playful nod to the fact that a former tailor produced the artwork.

In a painting titled Waterfall (1940), Meyer writes that “the sky and clouds resemble strands of white and blue yarn. … The waterfall, painted in black, beige, and white rather than the expected blue, suggests an open weave, salt-and-pepper tweed.”  

Master of footwear, foot care

In 1912, Hirshfield started a successful footwear and orthotics business, the E-Z Walk Manufacturing Co., in New York City with his brother, sister, and wife. He was awarded 24 patents for slipper designs and orthotic devices. As part of the exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, the artist Liz Blahd fabricated slippers according to the specifications of 14 of those patents.

Meyer said that he often impresses upon his Stanford students the fact that professional artists are not the only inventive, creative people; those qualities appear across various walks of life and professions.

“Clearly, this was a man who thought about material design, who thought about what cut of a garment or patterning of a shoe would be successful,” Meyer said. “He was someone who always wanted to be an artist, but his material responsibilities to his family and his origins as a poor immigrant meant he didn’t have the opportunity to pursue art as a primary career until late in life.” Hirshfield did not begin painting till he was in his mid-60s. 

The AFAM exhibition is the first major show of Hirshfield’s work since New York’s Museum of Modern Art gave him a solo show in 1943. A year earlier, Hirshfield’s Girl with Pigeons (1942) was included in the surrealist exhibition First Papers of Surrealism, in midtown Manhattan, along with works by luminaries (or soon-to-be luminaries) such as Duchamp, Picasso, Mondrian, Max Ernst, Frida Kahlo, Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, and René Magritte.

It’s not hard to see how the surrealists would have taken to the work: Human and animal figures cast unsettling gazes at viewers; body parts are disproportionate, often anatomically impossible; colorful, meticulous patterns jump out from the canvas; and the distinction between foreground and background is generally nonexistent.

“Hirshfield reworks recognizable figures and objects into something quite remote from our everyday experience, and yet at the same time his paintings are extremely engaging to viewers,” Meyer said. “He brings together supposedly mutually exclusive categories—folk and fine art, avant-garde and amateur. Hirshfield really was a bridge between these worlds. His dazzling art and unlikely life story deserve to be remembered.”