Why It’s Worth Savoring Leonor Fini’s Enchanted Surrealism at Kasmin + Other Things to See and Read

Well, one month of 2023 already gone. I started the year with a New Year’s Resolution to write a bit more about art outside of the automatically must-cover big shows or controversies. That’s hard—every pressure of media life pushes towards becoming a brain in a vat plugged directly into trending topics.

But I do want to try! Despite the general bad vibes of our moment, people go on doing and saying interesting things and trying to figure it all out. We’ll see how the year goes. In the meantime, here are a few things I saw and liked, or read and felt worth recommending, in the last weeks.


Things to See

Work by Leonor Fini at Kasmin

Work by Leonor Fini at Kasmin. Photo by Ben Davis.

Leonor Fini at Kasmin

Leonor Fini (1907-1996) is a Surrealist great, and also one of those figures who has been greatly under-appreciated. I mean, just a few years ago, it took New York’s Museum of Sex to give her a first big American retrospective. More recently, the Argentinian-Italian artist’s star has been ascendant, with her declaration that she wanted to be seen as a “witch rather than as priestess” making her perfect for the feminist-Surrealist vibe of the recent Venice Biennale. Kasmin’s mini-survey has Fini’s numinous, libidinal paintings accompanied by her theatrical self-made outfits, freaky masquerade ball masks, and even a pair of clip-on gold devil horns. The show contains magic, maybe in metaphorical and non-metaphorical ways.


Installation view of Alfatih, "Day in the Life," at Swiss Institute

Installation view of Alfatih, “Day in the Life,” at Swiss Institute. Photo by Ben Davis.

Alfatih at Swiss Institute

The Switzerland-based new media artist’s slick, strangely engaging black-and-white digital animation in the basement of the S.I. centers on the doings of a seemingly super-intelligent cartoon baby, looping endlessly through different permeations of daily domestic rituals (cooking, taking a bath) within the confines of some kind of stylish domestic purgatory. If someone told me that I would be moved by something best described as—I dunno—“Yoshitomo Nara meets Spielberg’s A.I.” or “Limbo meets Boss Baby,” I wouldn’t believe them. But that’s why you don’t judge an art show based on pithy little riffs like that. A vignette where the enigmatic child plinks at the piano as rain pours and lightening strobes all around continues to circle in my brain long after I have left the cartoon creature to carry on with its own devices.


Installation view of Carrie Schneider, "I Don't Know Her," at Chart

Installation view of Carrie Schneider, “I Don’t Know Her,” at Chart. Photo by Ben Davis.

Carrie Schneider at Chart

A 16-mm film installation concentrating on a looping image of the Mariah Carey “I don’t know her” meme (the singer pretending not to who Jennifer Lopez is, often used to cast shade), multiply abstracted and reprocessed. It’s an old-fashioned film film showing a phone showing a meme made from a TV show clip of a pop star talking about another pop star. Of course there’s a Pavlovian ’90s nostalgia element to just seeing Carey’s stone-cold quip reframed as art, but I Don’t Know Her (as the work is called) wrings an unexpected bit of beauty from freezing this circulation of media into a shimmering suspension, the image abstracted and pockmarked as it acquires personal associations like a worn-down lucky penny. Fun and brainy and weirdly hypnotic.


Things to Read

Why Is Everything So Ugly?” by the Editors, in n+1

From the Winter issue of n+1, the scene-setting lead editorial on “the New Ugliness” made the rounds last month because it names something worth naming: the generally crappy, greige-colored sameness of the urban creative world now, presented via an entertainingly and convincingly cranky ramble across the full landscape of consumption, from architecture to advertising. “One paradox of the new ugliness is that it flattens the distinction between the rich, the very rich, the superrich, and the merely fortunate by ripping them all off in turn.”

TikTok’s Enshitification” by Cory Doctorow, in Pluralistic

A nice complement to the n+1 rant, and maybe its internet-specific corollary of the “New Ugliness.” The trigger for Doctorow’s screed is a consideration of the implications of recent revelations about how TikTok “boosts” key creators with the end of luring them into their platform with a fake sense of its potential. But really this is a famed web thinker’s master theory of why the internet feels so bad now, backed up by a pretty convincing, historically informed political economy of platform capitalism’s tendencies towards making its own services worse over time, i.e. “enshitification.” (While you are at it, Christopher Byrd’s conversation with Doctorow for the New Yorker last month is also well worth checking out.)

Finding Awe Amid Everyday Splendor” by Henry Wismayer, in Noema

As an argument, this one is a bit scientistic for my tastes, but I like its summary of the history and present research on the aesthetic concept of “awe.” The key argument here is that, in calling us to visceral awareness of our own smallness, awe is actually our brains signaling that we need each other. It is thus an emotion that “binds social groups in common purpose” (from which it follows that a society so jaded that it can’t make time for real moments of awe is also one that has lost one of its resources of holding itself together).


Things Also Worth Mentioning…

Outside Dunkunshalle for the book launch of Filip Kostic's Personal Computers

Outside Dunkunshalle for the book launch of Filip Kostic’s Personal Computers. Photo by Ben Davis.

Rachel Rossin’s Dunkunsthalle in FiDi

The scrappy art space in a repurposed Dunkin Donuts is worth keeping an eye on. It was a great site last week for the launch of L.A.-based Filip Kostic’s Personal Computers, a very amusing, long-in-the-making compendium of found photos showing the surreal lengths some hobbyists go to kit-out their PCs (gotta love the guy who built his CPU tower into a taxidermied beaver). Watching random passersby seeing Kostic fans packing the space, then peering slowly up at the “Dunkunsthalle” name in signature Dunkin lettering, and trying to figure out what was going on, was a bonus.

Josh On relaunches

The project, debuted in 2001, is a net art classic and a very early and important example of what Albert-László Barabási recently termed “dataism.” Via crisp, no-nonsense web animation, it compiles a catalogue of the names on the boards of the major companies in the U.S. and shows how they interlock. The new version of TheyRule has updated data for our even more corporate-dominated present, with an autoplay feature endlessly walking you from one end of the network to the next via branching graphics. The site is searchable by name or company, so it can serve as a research tool—but it’s also very much an artwork, something like an x-ray image of the economy so that you just see the unsettlingly alien bone structure underneath.

The artist modestly calls TheyRule a “one-liner,” but it’s a one-liner that hits, maybe even more than when it first launched.

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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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Erotic Collages and Mysterious Hats: How a Whitechapel Gallery Show Is Making Sense of the Surreal Art of Eileen Agar

For years, the Tate has held a trove of artworks by 20th-century British artist Eileen Agar without even necessarily knowing it.

“Interestingly, [her assemblages are] in their archive, not in their collection of artworks,” says Laura Smith, the Whitechapel Gallery curator who organized an Agar retrospective opening this May. “But she made them as artworks.”

Eileen Agar wearing a "Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse." The picture was taken in 1936. © The estate of Eileen Agar.

Eileen Agar wearing a “Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse.” The picture was taken in 1936. © The estate of Eileen Agar.

This misplacement isn’t entirely the Tate’s fault. Agar’s assemblages are hard to define and full of natural curios, like a shell calcified to the top of a sea urchin or small vertebrae glued to string.

They’ve been at the Tate archive along with Agar’s unpublished stories and around 1,000 photographs that she took from the mid-1930s onwards. Few of her photographs of fellow artists or sculptural rock formations in Brittany have ever been publicly seen.

Eileen Agar's photograph of "Bum and thumb rock" in Ploumanac’h (1936). © Tate Images.

Eileen Agar’s photograph of “Bum and thumb rock” in Ploumanac’h (1936). © Tate Images.

“The majority of her photographic archive exists as negatives, rather than prints,” exhibition co-curator Grace Storey wrote in the show’s catalogue. Around 50 of these negatives have been printed for the first time for “Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy,” the artist’s retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery, and are, like her unseen assemblages and the rest of her obscure work, slowly coming to light.

“Angel of Anarchy,” which coincides with the release of a brief Agar biography published by Eiderdown Books, is the largest exhibition of Agar’s work to date, and is named after two sculptures she made in the 1930s by shrouding plaster busts with silk blindfolds, burlap, beads, and turquoise feathers.

Eileen Agar, <i>Angel of Anarchy</i> (1936–40). © Tate Images.

Eileen Agar, Angel of Anarchy (1936–40). © Tate Images.

“It’s a description of Eileen as much as it is a title for the show,” Smith said. Frustrated by how Surrealists liked to peg women artists as their muses, the unconventional Agar wanted to flip that stereotype with these heads, which were molded after the face of her partner, Joseph.

Though Agar didn’t quite change the gender imbalance outside her Kensington studio, her retrospective and a simultaneous Whitechapel Gallery show devoted to British women of Surrealism fall within a wave of exhibitions attempting to correct that movement’s art-historical record.

Last year, “Fantastic Women: Surreal Worlds from Meret Oppenheim to Frida Kahlo” at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt exhibited a group of 34 female Surrealists, and in 2019 the Tate Modern hosted solo shows for photographer Dora Maar and painter Dorothea Tanning. In 2015, a solo exhibition was dedicated to painter Leonora Carrington at Tate Liverpool.

Dorothea Tanning, <i>Voltage</i> (1942). Collection Ulla und Heiner Pietzsch, Berlin. © The Estate of Dorothea Tanning/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020. Photo: Jochen Littkemann, Berlin

Dorothea Tanning, Voltage (1942). Collection Ulla und Heiner Pietzsch, Berlin. © The Estate of Dorothea Tanning/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020. Photo: Jochen Littkemann, Berlin

Agar isn’t as big a name as some of her peers, partly because she remained in England after World War II, unlike other Surrealists who moved on to places like Spain, Mexico, and Paris.

But the bigger issue is that her work is tricky to pin down. “The way that she brought abstraction and Surrealism together, with this approach to color and nature and joy, it creates a very unique style that doesn’t exist anywhere,” Smith said. “She didn’t waver or change what she was doing to fit into any particular tendency, which, historically has probably been difficult.”

Agar’s work is an idiosyncratic combination of painting, photography, collage, and sculpture—fused in original configurations and using bizarre materials.

Photograph of "Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse." 1936. © The estate of Eileen Agar.

Photograph of “Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse.” 1936. © The estate of Eileen Agar.

“I surround myself with fantastic bric-a-brac in order to trigger my imagination,” Agar wrote in her autobiography, A Look at My Life (1988), of the fossils, textiles, leaves, and bones that she found and brought home. Collage was a central part of her practice that she described as “a displacement of the banal by the fertile invention of chance or coincidence.” 

Agar also liked mixing non-figurative elements with the playful irrationality of Surrealism, and by 1939 was showing regularly at international Surrealist exhibitions.

In her Erotic Landscape, a collage from 1942, for example, Agar combined abstract patterns with recognizable images of fish and a nude woman. A cut-out piece of red paper could be a tendrilled bit of seaweed, or a purely abstract shape.

Eileen Agar, <i>Erotic Landscape</i> (1942). © The Estate of Eileen Agar. Photograph courtesy Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. © Doug Atfield.

Eileen Agar, Erotic Landscape (1942). © The Estate of Eileen Agar. Photograph courtesy Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. © Doug Atfield.

“I see nothing incompatible in that,” Agar said. “Indeed we walk on two legs, and for me, one is abstract, the other surreal—it is point and counterpoint.” 

Agar always marched away from convention, and towards the mysterious. “Above all she wished to avoid the banal,” critic and curator Andrew Lambirth wrote in the exhibition catalogue, based on his weekly visits to Agar’s studio during the last six years of her life. (She died in 1991.)

“Agar leads us to a new place, not quite on this earth though very much of it, a world of wonder, play, and glory. She gives us access to the kingdom of the imagination.”

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