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Morris Hirshfield Worked Most of His Life as a Tailor—Here Are 3 Things to Know About the Self-Taught Artist Who Was Revered by the Surrealists and Is Now a Museum Star


Today, Polish-American artist Morris Hirshfield is considered one of the most significant self-taught artists of the 20th century. But this was not always the case. The term “Outsider Art” was coined in 1972, well after Hirshfield’s death in 1946, but his paintings still suffered from the critical prejudice that frequently accompanies art that is made outside of mainstream modes and contexts. In the decades since, Hirshfield’s contribution as an important Modernist painter has been frequently overlooked, and his work has been relegated to the footnotes of art history.

The American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) in New York has attempted to rectify that, by mounting the most comprehensive exhibition to date of the artist’s work with “Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered.” The critically applauded show, on view through January 29, 2023, seeks to not only introduce Hirshfield to a contemporary audience, but also solidify his standing within the greater trajectory of Modern art and rectify years of critical neglect. And unlike the shows Hirshfield was involved in during his lifetime, this AFAM exhibition has been met with widespread acclaim by critics and audiences alike.

Installation vies, "Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered." Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Installation view, “Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered.” Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Born in 1872 in Poland, Hirshfield led a life largely set apart from the art world—although he dabbled in wood carving and created a sculpture for his local synagogue as a teenager. He immigrated to New York City at age 18, where he initially worked in a women’s apparel factory, first as a pattern cutter before working his way up to tailor. Eventually, he left the factory and went into business with his brother, Abraham, opening a small women’s coat and suit shop.

After 12 years, the shop was shuttered and Hirshfield opened “E-Z Walk Manufacturing Company” with his wife, Henriette. The most successful items produced were “boudoir slippers”—ornate, comfortable shoes meant for home wear—which greatly contributed to the company’s growth. At its height, the business had more than 300 employees and it grossed roughly $1 million dollars a year. The house slippers were arguably Hirshfield’s greatest business success, and 14 of his patented designs from the 1920s were meticulously recreated by artist Liz Blahd for the AFAM exhibition as an homage to this facet of the artist’s life.

Celebrating this novel and intriguing exhibition, we did a deep dive into the life and work of Hirshfield and found three incredible facts about the artist to give viewers more insight into his work.

Installation view, "Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered." Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Installation view, “Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered.” Photo: Eva Cruz/EveryStory. Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

All of Hirshfield’s paintings were made in the last seven years of his life

Morris Hirshfield, Angora Cat (1937–39). Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Morris Hirshfield, left: Angora Cat (detail) (1937–39), right: Angora Cat (1937–39). Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

With an incredibly diverse and varied body of work, it would seem to follow that Hirshfield had a long and storied artistic career, or at the very least a history of informally experimenting with painting. But he spent the majority of his professional career working in women’s apparel and footwear. Forced to retire in 1935 due to failing health, Hirshfield only began to paint at the ripe age of 65. The seemingly immediate ingenuity and resourcefulness with which he approached his practice can be seen in some of his first paintings, like Angora Cat (1937–39). The support for this work was a preexisting painting that hung in Morris and Henriette’s Brooklyn apartment; the lion figurine set on a decorative shelf above the cat’s head is a remnant of the overlaid painting, cleverly incorporated into the new composition. The extreme detail that Hirshfield paid to every facet of his paintings, such as including repeating, intricately detailed patterns across backgrounds and costumes, indicates a rigorous pace to his artistic output. Together, Hirshfield’s oeuvre of nearly 80 paintings were entirely created in the last seven years of his life—perhaps a cogent reminder that it’s never too late to start something new.

Hirshfield’s first major retrospective led to the

museum director’s demotion

Installation view, "Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered." A recreation of part of the Museum of Modern Art, "The Paintings of Morris Hirshfield," (1943). Photo: Photo by Eva Cruz/EveryStory. Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Installation view, “Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered.” A recreation of part of the Museum of Modern Art, “The Paintings of Morris Hirshfield” (1943). Photo: Eva Cruz/EveryStory. Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

One of the most significant (perhaps even infamous) events of Hirshfield’s relatively short career as an artist was his 1943 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York—which made him the first self-taught artist to garner such a comprehensive show at the museum. According to the press release, “The Paintings of Morris Hirshfield” featured 30 “primitive paintings” and was installed under the direction of Sidney Janis, a supporter of Hirshfield’s work and an influential New York dealer and collector who was at the time a member of the museum’s advisory committee. The show was a critical failure, and the press it received was overwhelming negative—with art critics collectively referring to Hirshfield as the “Master of Two Left Feet,” alluding to the planar perspective the artist used in his compositions, particularly of women. Though of course there were other contributing factors, the influx of bad press caused by the exhibition led the trustees of the museum to demote director Alfred Barr—who deemed Hirshfield’s Tiger (1940) an “unforgettable” modern animal painting—before the show had even closed. The exhibition at the AFAM, however, has reclaimed the moniker for Hirshfield, with the catalogue accompanying the current exhibition titled Master of Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered, written by art historian Richard Meyer.

The Surrealists loved his work

Morris Hirshfield, Girl with Pigeons (1942). Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © 2022 Robert and Gail Rentzer for Estate of Morris Hirshfield / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Morris Hirshfield, Girl with Pigeons (1942). Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © 2022 Robert and Gail Rentzer for Estate of Morris Hirshfield / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Despite mainstream criticism of Hirshfield’s paintings, many Surrealists working in New York at the time embraced his singular style. Marcel Duchamp and André Breton were both fans of Hirshfield’s intriguing and unique paintings, and Breton included Girl with Pigeons (1942) in the seminal “First Papers of Surrealism” exhibition of 1942—the first major Surrealist art show in the U.S. That same year, examples of Hirshfield’s work were documented in the home of Peggy Guggenheim, in a photoshoot taken by Hermann Landshoff. In these images, Surrealist juggernauts Duchamp, Breton, Leonora Carrington, and Max Ernst (Guggenheim’s husband at the time), are shown collected around and apparently transfixed by Hirshfield’s Nude at the Window (Hot Night in July) (1941). In 1945, Hirshfield was asked to contribute an artwork for the cover of the October issue of View: The Modern Magazine, a periodical that advocated for avant-garde art, with an emphasis on Surrealism. Hirshfield created a new piece featuring one of his signature flattened women on a meticulously detailed blue field, surrounded by three birds and adorned in geometric flowers and a sash.

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Britney Spears, Allegory of the 20th Century? How the Misunderstood Pop Star Has Inspired Visual Artists as an Avatar of the Early Aughts


In Because of You, French painter Claire Tabouret’s 2016 solo gallery debut in the U.S., the titular works were a pair of portraits of Britney Spears, mostly shorn, with the remnants of a brunette mane still hanging from the back of her scalp. In soft washes of oil paint, the canvases tenderly immortalized the infamous moment in 2007 when the pop star had shaved her own head, as well as the obsessive, particularly cruel media circus that followed. 

That episode was the first Tabouret had ever heard of Britney—but she was instantly struck by the singer’s removal of her own hair, a quintessential symbol of femininity. To her, this was an act of re-appropriating one’s image, a powerful rebuttal to the suffocating demands of unrelenting public scrutiny.

“These are themes that are often present in my work,” the painter told Midnight Publishing Group News, “the representation of the female body in public spaces and the politics of body language.”

Tabouret is not alone in her fascination with Britney’s image. Its undeniable potency recently reentered the headlines with the viral success of Framing Britney Spears, the New York Times documentary on the ongoing battle to #FreeBritney from her father’s conservatorship, followed by Spears’s own explosive testimony in a recent court appearance.

Claire Tabouret, <i>Because of You (Green)</i> (2016).

Claire Tabouret, Because of You (Green) (2016).

Like Tabouret, Framing Britney Spears also reflects on the media obsession with a star who regularly went viral before the invention of the term. It revisits the early aughts, when tabloids responded to the public’s insatiable appetite for Britney by paying up to $1 million for a single photograph, fomenting a spectacularly ruthless and constant invasion of her privacy. 

As Framing Britney Spears and the copycat documentaries that followed examine this startlingly toxic behavior, they join a project that artists had already started: a kind of cultural reckoning where Spears’s likeness becomes a vehicle of serious cultural critique.

Over the years, across painting, digital collage, and other media, Tabouret and others have used the star’s image to pose questions of media ethics; the role of technology in representation; authenticity versus artifice; and above all, pointed instances of sexism that were deemed perfectly acceptable in the very recent past. 

Looking to the past with a fresh pair of eyes, what emerges is an unlikely transformation: a former teen pop star turned allegorical symbol.

#FreeBritney activists protest at Los Angeles Grand Park during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears on June 23, 2021 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

#FreeBritney activists protest at Los Angeles Grand Park during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears on June 23, 2021 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

Pop in the Age of Digital Retouching 

In (Pop) Icon: Britney, artist R. Luke Dubois’s beguiling 2010 work of digital animation, clips from a DVD box set of Spears’s greatest hits morph from one scene to the next in a glowing, almost ethereal haze. Throughout the never-ending sequence, her eyes are unwavering, locked in position within an elaborate gilded frame. Her vocals are haunting, having been digitally hollowed-out to match the acoustics of Italy’s San Vitale Basilica, one of Western Europe’s most important sites of Byzantine iconography.

DuBois presents Britney as an icon in the original sense of the word—an object of religious veneration—while touching on the disruptive technologies that had emerged alongside her career. “She was the first pop star to exist entirely in the age of AutoTune and Photoshop,” he said, having taken digital audio and visual retouching to dramatic heights in his piece. 

R. Luke DuBois, “(Pop) Icon: Britney,” 2010 from bitforms gallery on Vimeo.

The work also references the popular obsession with catching Spears at her most unvarnished and unretouched, an “incredible violation of privacy” that she faced on a day-to-day basis. “I wanted to recontextualize [the media frenzy] in the broader framework of surveillance capitalism and surveillance culture,” he said, noting that the never-repeating imagery of (Pop) Icon: Britney is generated by a facial-recognition software that the U.S. military had developed in 2002, during the ascent of Britney-mania.  

The religious framing alludes to the fact that “Spears’s entire media management ecology was setting her up to maximize the Madonna-whore dichotomy in really gross ways,” he added. The Freudian theory suggests that men can view women as respectable virgins or objects of sexual fulfillment—but never both.

Sexism on a Popular Culture Scale

Although Britney is a talent in her own right, artists have looked less to her creative output than her place in a particularly fraught period in white American culture. Having dropped her first album in 1999, her most active years bookend a mythologized era of starry-eyed Americana: Below the glossy veneer of neoliberal optimism, rhinestoned trucker hats, and teenage romantic comedies (recall 1999 as the year of Cruel Intentions, American Pie, and She’s All That), it was the era of George W. Bush, the rapid expansion of the military industrial complex, and an encroaching economic collapse. Within a decade, the nadir of Britney’s career would coincide with a global recession. 

“The early 2000s seems to me almost the crescendo, the high point, the most dramatic version of sexism on a popular cultural scale,” says artist Casey Kauffmann, whose online practice of digital collage looks back at that period with both nostalgia and contempt.

Casey Kauffmann, <i>#dumphim</i> (2015), iPhone collage. Courtesy of the artist

Casey Kauffmann, #dumphim (2015), iPhone collage. Courtesy of the artist

She layers images of MTV sensations, including a young Britney in bedazzled short-shorts, between princess clip art and sparkling rainbows, the kind of superficial, candy-coated aesthetics that were prescribed to young girls during Kauffmann’s adolescence. On her Instagram feed, a space where women have recently found control over their own images, Britney, Paris Hilton, and other former teen idols appear to revel in the absurdity of each collage, but upon closer inspection, express exhaustion, frustration, and dread.

To Kauffmann, the recent Britney documentary was particularly hard to watch; she was struck by the cavalierness with which grown men could ask a young woman about the status of her virginity, her fitness as a mother, and the size and authenticity of her breasts.

All of this connects to the much longer history of male authorship in the representation of women, she said, which came to a head during the relentless paparazzi culture of the early aughts. According to Kauffmann, “You cannot disconnect Britney Spears from that era of deeply personal exposure, of extreme sexism with only a hint of agency.”

Artifice and Authenticity 

In Christophe Rohan de Chabot’s solo show at Gaudel de Stampa in Paris last year, the artist mounted two identical, close-up portraits of Britney across from two identical paintings of human skulls. Between them, immaculately combed “semi-natural” blonde wigs lay on the floor, suggesting she had been stripped of some synthetic veneer all the way down to her bones. 

“She’s always appeared somehow to me as a product, not simply as a human being,” Rohan de Chabot said, recalling the nervous anxiety he felt as a 13-year-old boy when Spears first appeared on his T.V.

In contrast to Tabouret’s description of Britney in terms of female empowerment, “that was not my vision of femininity,” he recalled, but rather of commercial export—an aggressively over-manufactured, over-sexualized version of the all-American girl. 

Christophe de Rohan Chabot, <i>BRITNEY/SKULL</i> at Gaudel de Stampa, Paris, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Gaudel de Stampa, Paris. Photo: Aurélien Mole

Christophe de Rohan Chabot, BRITNEY/SKULL at Gaudel de Stampa, Paris, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Gaudel de Stampa, Paris. Photo: Aurélien Mole

The reality of who or what Britney truly is gets lost somewhere between these polarized extremes of public opinion. “It’s easy to project on her,” DuBois said, especially given the proliferation of imagery taken without her consent.

Even as Framing Britney Spears critiques the distortions and lack of agency in the singer’s public image, director Samantha Stark admitted that Britney had zero participation in the documentary’s production.

“Since Britney has such a tight circle around her,” she told Entertainment Tonight, “journalists haven’t really been able to interview her freely.” (Britney later condemned the hypocrisy on Instagram, although fans fervently debate how much control she really has over her own feed.) 

What remains is a kind of symbolic abstraction that sits apart from reality, pieced together from snapshots that amount to literal seconds of Britney’s life. But as is the case for any allegorical figure, the accuracy of the depiction is less noteworthy than how it channels the cultural values of a specific time and place. As artists have used Britney’s image to confront various forms of cultural toxicity over the years, their wide-ranging sentiments span compassion, nostalgia, derision, and shame. 

Laura Collins, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in a Car. Image courtesy of THNK 1994 and the artist.

Today, arguably almost a decade since her last hit single, Britney’s ongoing place in the headlines affirms her enduring appeal, the scale and divisiveness of which have been met by few others. 

“Lady Diana was kind of similar, right?” DuBois wondered, recalling how media obsession eventually ended a princess’s life. But for him, the Britney phenomenon is truly singular.

After the commercial and critical success of his work (Pop) Icon: Britney, which is now in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, he and his dealer briefly discussed creating an entire series with other celebrities. DuBois ultimately declined, realizing that Britney’s virality is unparalleled.

“I would have had to come up with a whole other reason, another visual language for other people,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense with anybody else.”

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Don’t Miss These 10 Museum Shows Opening in Europe in 2021, From a Hito Steyerl Retrospective to a Star Turn for Helen Frankenthaler


After 2020’s crush of postponements and cancellations, we are hopeful that 2021 will be different.

While a lot still remains to be confirmed, we have plucked out the most highly anticipated exhibitions to see in Europe in 2021.

 

Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
May 27–November 28

Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly (2000). One-hundred-two color woodcut. ©2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / DACS / Tyler Graphic Ltd., Mount Kisco, NY

Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly (2000). One-hundred-two color woodcut. ©2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / DACS / Tyler Graphic Ltd., Mount Kisco, NY.

This major print retrospective of Helen Frankenthaler includes 30 works on loan from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, spanning from her first-ever woodcut, in 1973, to her final work, published in 2009. The show will examine the artist’s innovative approach to printmaking, defying the woodcut medium’s supposed limitations to create new dimensions of beauty.

 

Lawrence Abu Hamdan: Green Coconuts and Other Inadmissible Evidence
Vienna Secession, Vienna
Through February 7

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, <i>Once Removed</i> (2019). Exhibition view Secession 2020, Photo: Iris Ranzinger.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Once Removed (2019). Exhibition view Secession 2020, Photo: Iris Ranzinger.

This exhibition of the Turner Prize-winning artist’s work investigates sound, speech, memory, and their role in the quest for truth. A key tenet of the artist’s practice is his analysis of acoustic clues and earwitness testimony, and the exhibition will include four works from two series that investigate this, as well as other forms of witnessing. Included will be Abu Hamdan’s audiovisual inquiry into the Syrian torture prison Saydnaya, After SFX (2018), as well as a new series of prints titled For the Otherwise Unaccounted, which is inspired by birthmarks.

 

Untitled: Art on the Conditions of Our Time
Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
February 6–April 5

Larry Achiampong & David Blandy, <i>Finding Fanon Part One,</i>(2015), courtesy of Copperfield Gallery & Seventeen Gallery, London. Image: Claire Barrett.

Larry Achiampong & David Blandy, Finding Fanon Part One,(2015), courtesy of Copperfield Gallery & Seventeen Gallery, London. Image: Claire Barrett.

This group show will bring together 10 British artists who are part of the African diaspora whose work probes key cultural and political questions of our time. It will include new commissions and recent works by by Barby Asante, Phoebe Boswell, Kimathi Donkor, and others. Curator Paul Goodwin says the exhibition will center the works, instead of focusing on Blackness itself. “Questions of Blackness, race, and identity are shown to be entangled in the multitude of concerns—aesthetic, material, and political—that viewers can encounter without the curatorial voice obscuring the works,” he says.

 

Ad Minoliti
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead
April 1–March 13

Ad Minoliti, <i>Cubes</i>(2019). Image courtesy Ben Davis.

Ad Minoliti, Cubes (2019). Image courtesy Ben Davis.

This is the Argentinian artist’s biggest exhibition, and first institutional UK show, to date. The artist, whose work was included in the 2019 Venice Biennale, is known for making colorful paintings and installations that grapple with queer theory and feminism. The show is conceived as space of respite away from the constaints of gender binary, human-centered art and life, in what the artist calls an “alien lounge.” It will host bi-weekly workshops as part of Minoliti’s Feminist School of Painting, which will tackle traditional painting genres in an effort to reimagine historical narratives from feminist, intersectional, and queer perspectives.

 

A Fire in My Belly
Julia Stoschek Collection, Berlin
February 6–December 12

Laure Prouvost <i>They Parlaient Idéale</i> (2019). Courtesy of the artist und carlier | gebauer, Berlin/Madrid.

Laure Prouvost They Parlaient Idéale (2019). Courtesy of the artist und carlier | gebauer, Berlin/Madrid.

Curator Lisa Long is planning a major exhibition drawing on Stoschek’s collection, which includes challenging and cathartic pieces by artists including Barbara Hammer, Anne Imhof, Adrian Piper, and Arthur Jafa. The viewer will be positioned as a witness to acts of violence in a brave look at how it is represented, distributed, and circulated. Rarely seen pieces and several new works that were recently purchased will be on view. The show’s title, “A Fire in My Belly,” is an homage to the seminal work of the same name by American artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, which will also be on view.

 

 

Hito Steyerl
Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
February 3–June 7

How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic EducationalHito Steyerl (2013). Image courtesy of the artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin .

The acclaimed German artist’s largest-ever show in France was pushed back from its original date last summer. The exhibition, which was first presented last fall at K21 in Düsseldorf, includes a best-of of Steyerl’s major works, including her break-out 2013 piece, How not to be seen, and Factory of the Sun from the 2015 Venice Biennale, as well a new production. Part of the show will incorporate the unique architecture of the Centre Pompidou as a point of departure.

 

Beuys: 2021
Various Venues in Europe
Throughout 2021

Joseph Beuys Photo: Behr/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

Joseph Beuys Photo: Behr/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

The conceptual artists is the subject of a major blockbuster program next year that will take place in 12 German cities, as well as in Warsaw, Poland, Vienna, Austria, and Manresa, Spain. We are particularly looking forward to the exhibition at K20 in Düsseldorf, called “Everyone Is an Artist: Cosmopolitan Exercises With Joseph Beuys,” which opens on March 27. The show will presents many contemporary artists in dialogue with Beuys, questioning or expanding on the practice of this most enigmatic artist. In October 2021, the Krefeld Museum will offer the first exhibition ever to juxtaposition Beuys with Marcel Duchamp.

 

Slavery
The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
February 12–May 30

Unknown, Multiple leg cuffs for chaining enslaved people, with 6 loose shackles, ca. 1600-1800. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, schenking van de heer J.W. de Keijzer, Gouda.

Unknown, Multiple leg cuffs for chaining enslaved people, with 6 loose shackles, ca. 1600-1800. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, schenking van de heer J.W. de Keijzer, Gouda.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is planning a major show that looks at the history of slavery across the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. The show will look at the Dutch involvement in the slave trade, taking up 10 true stories of individuals who were either victims or profiteers of the trade. More than 100 objects and artworks will be on view from the Rijksmuseum collection and elsewhere. “This past has long been insufficiently examined,” museum director Taco Dibbits said.

 

Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective
Gropius Bau, Berlin
March 19–August 1

Yayoi Kusama, <I>Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show</i> (1963). Courtesy: Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Yayoi Kusama, Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show (1963). Courtesy: Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

This major survey show will focus on the early development of Yayoi Kusama’s work, including the early paintings and sculptures that eventually led to her immersive environments, which will also be on view. The show is curated by the museum’s director, Stephanie Rosenthal, in collaboration with Kusama’s studio, and charts the Japanese artist’s often overlooked activities in Europe and Germany from the 1960s onward. The show will travel to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in late 2021.

 

Sonsbeek
Various Venues, Arnem
April 10–June 21

sonsbeek curatorial team. Courtesy sonsbeek.

Sonsbeek’s curatorial team. Courtesy sonsbeek.

Taking place about every four years, “Sonsbeek” brings international artists to the small town of Arnem in the Netherlands. This edition is helmed by the Berlin-based curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, who has turned the concept for the exhibition on its head: it will now open in 2021 and will unfold over the next four years. Topics including race, gender, and the state of the working class will be central to the show, which includes artists Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Laure Prouvost, Oscar Murillo, and Willem de Rooij, among others.

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