The Outsider Art Fair celebrated its thirtieth anniversary this past March. Its continuing viability as a commercial enterprise points to an abiding interest in artwork done by—well, what to call its creators? “Outsider” is but one label for the unschooled; other descriptors include “folk,” “primitive,” “naive,” “visionary,” “vernacular,” “intuitive,” and, of course, “Art Brut,” the tag drummed up by the painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet. This kind of work, he wrote, is the product of “pure and authentic creative impulses . . . more precious than the productions of professionals.” Dubuffet was, in this regard, prescient. The popularity of outsider art has increased in direct proportion to a “professional” art world ever more given to novelty, grievance, provocation, and theory. Who wouldn’t prefer the hermetic doodlings of a backwoods loner or a patient sequestered in a psychiatric institution to the latest iteration of the emperor’s new clothes?
Sincerity and marginality, in other words, have their appeal. The influence that Henri Rousseau’s fantasies had for avant-gardists such as Pablo Picasso, Robert Delaunay, and Constantin Brancusi can be traced to the work’s lumpish charms, to idiosyncrasies of form and image that poked holes in reigning orthodoxies of taste. Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, followed their lead in exhibiting work that both enlarged upon and contested a canon that was conventional in nature and largely Western in aesthetic. Art and artifacts from Africa and Mesoamerica, along with the output of “modern primitives,” had a new degree of distinction conferred upon them. Among the artists Barr selected for emphasis was a Jewish émigré of Polish extraction who toiled in New York City’s Garment District: Morris Hirshfield (1872–1946), a pattern-cutter and tailor whose stock-in-trade was women’s clothing.
Hirshfield’s specialty was, in point of fact, women’s shoewear. E-Z Walk Manufacturing Company, the business he established in conjunction with his brother and sister, regularly grossed in the seven figures, with his line of ornamental slippers being particularly popular. Ill-health forced his retirement at age sixty-three; Hirshfield dedicated the remaining years of his life to painting. Sidney Janis, whose Manhattan gallery was among the most prominent in the burgeoning 1930s art scene, took notice of Hirshfield’s quirky pictures. Janis’s imprimatur led to Hirshfield’s art being taken on by luminaries such as the Surrealist macher André Breton, the gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim, the critic Clement Greenberg, and Barr, who mounted a solo exhibition of Hirshfield’s paintings in 1943. Popular response to Hirshfield’s art was, however, mixed. At the time, a critic for The Art Digest dismissed the pictures as clumsy, crude, harsh, and static. The higher-ups at MOMA, already fishing for a reason to oust its director, took “The Paintings of Morris Hirshfield” as the final straw and showed Barr the door.
The American Folk Art Museum show is the first Hirshfield retrospective since that ill-fated venture. Assembled by Richard Meyer, the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History at Stanford University, “Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered” includes some forty paintings—over half of Hirshfield’s output.1 Meyer is no small admirer, having authored a recent biography of the artist, Master of the Two Left Feet. The title, deployed ironically, comes from the aforementioned critical review of the MOMA exhibition. Given the stylizations that characterized Hirshfield’s art from the start—you can see them in his first two attempts at painting, Angora Cat and Beach Girl (1937–39)—this criticism, even for the time, seems willfully misplaced. Hirshfield had already put into motion a coherent visual iconography, what with its subtle luminosities, sumptuous surfaces, and looping distortions. The work’s self-standing integrity puts it a considerable step above that of untutored contemporaries such as John Kane, Bill Traylor, and Horace Pippin. Indeed, Hirshfield’s mastery, if we can call it that, recasts even the grand eminence of Rousseau as a fallow talent.
Hirshfield’s oeuvre is marked by the narrowness of vision that is typical of outsider art, but it does have focus and, most indelibly, form. Hirshfield considered the entirety of the pictorial field as a receptacle for painterly invention, and he didn’t stint on lavishing it with tender loving necessity. Horror vacui, for Hirshfield, was an avowal of visual splendor, of decorative motifs given the leeway to expand and flourish. The patient application of pattern and texture likely stems from his years in the fashion industry, as does his use of the female form (Hirshfield worked from mannequins). But that only goes so far in explaining the puzzling magnetism of his animal portraits or the clarified mystery put forth in Inseparable Friends (1941), a riff on the Three Graces that includes an inventory of Hirshfield’s designer shoes. The American Folk Art Museum has included a vitrine with the actual shoes on display and has situated Hirshfield’s paintings within a Surrealist context. But Hirshfield doesn’t need the company of Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, and other hangers-on to make a case for his art. Its richness, eccentricity, and rigor is plain to see. “Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered” is a delight.