Groundbreaking exhibition at Cantor Arts Center repositions the self-taught Modern Art artist Morris Hirshfield

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Groundbreaking exhibition at Cantor Arts Center repositions the self-taught Modern Art artist Morris Hirshfield
Morris Hirshfield, Cat and Two Kittens, 1945. Oil on canvas. Collection of KAWS. © 2023 Robert and Gail Rentzer for Estate of Morris Hirshfield / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

STANFORD, CA.- The Cantor Arts Center is now presenting Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered from and reintroducing 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. 1972, 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.

Cantor Arts Center
Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered
September 6th, 2023 - January 21st, 2024

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