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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Painter Tschabalala Self Wants to Keep Her Life Separate From Her Work. Will the Art World Let Her?

For as long as women have been making art in the public domain, (often male) critics and curators have looked to their work to offer some great revelation about their personhood—their mental health or their beauty or their niceness or their rudeness. Yayoi Kusama’s art is “driven by her inner experiences” and “visual hallucinations.” Alice Neel is “brimming with politically charged empathy.”

These artists’ gifts, the narrative goes, come from a place deep within, inextricable from their character or spirit. Helen Frankenthaler’s biographer Alexander Nemerov once wrote that appreciation of the artist’s work required him to “abandon his expertise.” 

This is not to say that female artists—particularly those, like Frankenthaler, who had money and whiteness and virtually every privilege at their disposal—have not enjoyed robust careers or scholarship. But it has been nearly impossible to prevent the bleeding of their lives into their work—whispers about how daring or rebellious this one was, or how everything that one made comprised an act of resistance.

Viewers are often asked to separate the art from the artist, but only if the artist is a man who has behaved badly. They are almost never asked to do so if the artist is a woman—especially if she is a young woman, even more so a young woman of color. 

Tschabalala Self, Sapphire (2015). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Tschabalala Self, Sapphire (2015). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.


If ever there were an artist working today who understands this dilemma—how revealing any real part of you can, through subsequent projection, forever inflict upon your work an irremovable stain—it is Tschabalala Self.

The 31-year-old artist has, over the past few years, become one of the most sought-after young creators in the United States. The glare of the spotlight has left her extremely deliberate about how much of herself she reveals. When we spoke about her major solo exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art (through September 19), she was precise and careful with her language. In conversation, she rarely goes off script and has a tendency to dive deep into historical references, careful not to betray any glimpse of the umbilical cord that tethers what she makes to the core of her.

“I actually prefer people not to know any real facts about me,” Self said earlier this summer. “It’s more interesting for them and for me, for people to just assume things and then for it to be ambiguous about whether or not it’s true.”

“Whatever they come up with I am sure will be more interesting than the truth,” she added.

Tschabalala Self, "Sunday" (2016). The Byron Nelson Family Collection. © Tschabalala Self

Tschabalala Self, Sunday (2016). The Byron Nelson Family Collection. © Tschabalala Self

While carefully maintaining her personal boundaries, Self has spent the past year and a half pushing herself to become vulnerable within the confines of her work. For the Baltimore Museum, she created three new paintings in response to works by Matisse—an experience she called “inspiring” and one that required her to reach beyond the safety of her purview, linking her work to something external. 

This fall, Self will create her first live performance, for the Performa biennial in New York. It marks her first time working with real bodies in lieu of fabric subjects. The piece—in which two actors, one male and one female, face off in a non-linear dialogue—will push her to relinquish some of the control she has so carefully cultivated.

“I want to take more risk in regards to what I’m willing to incorporate into my practice, to keep exploring my ideas and amplify them,” Self said. “Maybe I’m a little more open-minded now.”


It is no surprise that Self’s relationship to success in a predominantly white art world is fraught. She is uneasy when her works end up in the wrong homes or at auction, where collectors bid on Black bodies with wine glasses in hand. She has made her views on this abundantly clear in previous interviews

Her market ascent began shortly after she finished graduate school at Yale in 2015, where she came away with an M.F.A in painting and printmaking after completing her undergraduate degree in studio art at Bard College. 

By the time she entered the art world as a professional, eyes were already on her—she had little room to experiment privately. She signed with her gallery, Pilar Corrias, in 2017. She’s had solo shows at the Hammer Museum and the ICA Boston. Her 2019 Hammer exhibition, “Bodega Run,” which featured a series on the local bodega as a bedrock of community in Harlem, received rapturous critical acclaim.

It is easy to see why: to look at Self’s work is to be jolted by her layered figures who are, more often than not, lone Black women depicted as assemblages of hand-painted and found fabrics like blue denims, floral prints of dinner-table cloths and sundresses, and tan brown textiles that recall the color of Timberland boots. Together, they map the textures of Self’s childhood in Harlem, where she was raised by her mother and a close-knit community of women, many of whom had deeply personal relationships to style.

Tschabalala Self, "Loner" (2016). Craig Robins Collection. © Tschabalala Self

Tschabalala Self, Loner (2016). Craig Robins Collection. © Tschabalala Self

Self’s prodigious body of work has placed her among the ranks of excellent Black female artists who are at least 20 years her senior: Amy Sherald, Calida Rawles, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kara Walker among them. In the art history of the future, these women will undoubtedly be grouped together for reinventing, in remarkable ways, Black figuration for the Black community.

For everyone else—non-Black viewers—appreciation can happen, but there will always be a gulf between them and a life experience that is not theirs by birthright. Within that gulf, projection, fetishization, glorification, and appropriation can flourish. Emotion is conflated with understanding and encroaches upon an artist’s ability to present work on their own terms. 

Just as Self is hyper-aware of how she as a creator may be perceived by the public, she is also conscious of what it means to have non-Black viewers take joy in her work. To admit to liking Self’s art as a non-Black person is to confront what compels you to linger before it: the winking, goddess-like energy of her figures, with their fulsome hips and thighs and breasts, their hair full of health.

Look even more closely, and you may find that the expressions of Self’s characters contrast with the energies of their bodies. They are contemplative, neutral, occasionally blank. Are you sure you are really seeing me? they seem to ask.


“I’m not very good at looking at myself in the third person,” Self said. “I can’t fully wrap my head around what other people truly think of me. I have ideas, you know… but I don’t know how accurate those are. I think that’s probably for the best because if you were to see yourself the way other people do, I would imagine that would be very toxic.” 

Tschabalala Self. Two Women (2019). Rubell Museum. © Tschabalala Self

Tschabalala Self, Two Women (2019). Rubell Museum. © Tschabalala Self

Self’s uneasy relationship with her audience should not be confused with a refusal to articulate what her work stands for. On her website, she proclaims that her pieces are “dedicated to naming” the phenomenon of how “collective fantasies surround the Black body, and have created a cultural niche in which exists our contemporary understanding of Black femininity.” Her art speaks truth to power pointedly and publicly—but that doesn’t mean she has to do the same as Self, the person.

When Self and I talk about how Black women artists are fetishized and how this might be prevented, she becomes a little less vague. “As an artist I believe you can take the reigns and assert some level of agency in the scenario if you choose to,” she said. “One must create boundaries and control their narrative. You do not have to concede and be complicit with that narrative that is projected onto you, you know what I mean?”

She is also wary of cultivating a kind of art-star persona that might make her less accountable for her actions. “If you think about how people talk about artists in films and biopics, they’re often depicted as these mythic figures,” she said. “All their sins are overlooked, all their bad deeds are explained away because they’ve become so godlike.” 


In an interview I conducted last year with Self and her partner Mike Mosby, a curator and DJ, Mosby described Self as “not really” a social person. She is selective about art events she attends and with whom, usually sticking to a tight-knit group of artist friends. 

Over the course of 2020, Self made daily pilgrimages from the home she shares with Mosby in Hudson, New York, to her studio in New Haven, stopping for breakfasts at Barbara’s (one fried egg, bacon, and two pancakes) and pizza at Brick Oven. She thought often about loneliness, and the loneliness of her figures. 

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that her two latest projects—the Baltimore show and the Performa performance—put her once solitary bodies in groups or couples. 

Installation view of Tschabalala Self: By My Self at the Baltimore Museum. © Tschabalala Self

Installation view of Tschabalala Self: By My Self at the Baltimore Museum. © Tschabalala Self

The inspiration for the Baltimore show came out of research Self conducted into the museum’s large Matisse collection. She came upon on a rare sculpture, originally titled Two Negresses, that portrays Black women embracing one another.

Self created three paintings to play off Matisse’s work, which was specifically intended for the white male gaze. Her figures, kinetic and bodacious women portrayed in bright colors and various textures, seem to challenge Matisse’s to a sort of contest of the spirit. They are also a celebration of the fact that Black women can now be depicted in the halls of museums by artists who look like them.

Installation view of Tschabalala Self: By My Self at the Baltimore Museum. © Tschabalala Self

Installation view of Tschabalala Self: By My Self at the Baltimore Museum. © Tschabalala Self

Self is still ambivalent about how much of herself to show to the world beyond her work. In lieu of performing in the Performa commission herself, she opted to hire actors. But after spending a year disconnected from most people, she is newly inspired to explore connection. 

“I think one positive thing that’s come out of this chaotic time—2020 to me was the straw that broke the camel’s back after several chaotic years—is that I’m more open to doing things I wouldn’t have considered doing otherwise,” she said. “Why not? Everything else that’s happened has happened. You might not ever get the chance to do these things ever again.”

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‘They Are Given a New Life’: Watch Ghanaian Artist El Anatsui Weave Bottle Caps Into His Monumental, Innovative Sculptures

Ghanaian artist El Anatsui creates monumental assemblage sculptures woven from colorful, shiny objects, creating tactile curtains that seem to breathe on their own. The works sell routinely for more than one million dollars each at auction, but their beginnings are humble.

The works may be made from pieces of wood, metal, ceramic, and—most often—bottle caps, but they are not rigid at all. In fact, Anatsui says “as a matter of principle” the works don’t come with installation instructions: “since they are so free and so loose and so flexible, it would be difficult to have a specific format for any one of them at any time.”

The artist now lives in Nigeria. He employs local studio assistants from his neighborhood to create an environment of camaraderie and community.

Studio assistants working on El Anatsui's massive assemblages. Photo: production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 6 episode, "Change." © Art21, Inc. 2012.

Studio assistants working on El Anatsui’s massive assemblages. Photo: production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 6 episode, “Change.” © Art21, Inc. 2012.

In an exclusive interview with Art21 filmed back in 2012 as part of the Art in the Twenty-First Century series, Anatsui explained why he uses bottle caps from discarded liquor bottles as such a primary medium. “How did liquor come into my culture and what does it mean?” he asks in the film, before describing the system of European traders who descended upon Africa, ultimately trading drinks for slaves who were brought to America to “grow more cotton and sugar cane to make more drink”—a continuous a cycle of trauma and colonization. 

Another reason the artist was drawn to the caps is because an accumulation of the colorful, shiny baubles appears to replicate the popular kente cloth fabric of Ghana, though he adds that this provided its own difficulty because viewers began to look at the works as textiles, an art form that is often derided and not appreciated as fine art.

The artist is adamant that his practice shouldn’t be considered a form of recycling, because he says it doesn’t pertain to the industrial process. Instead, the process is more akin to reincarnation. “I don’t, for instance, return the bottle caps back as mere bottle caps,” telling Art21. “They are given a new life and I make them not objects that do something utilitarian, but objects of contemplation.” 

Right now through November 14, El Anatsui’s work is on view at the Conciergerie in Paris in a site specific exhibition curated by  N’Goné Fall, general commissioner of the Africa2020 Season at the institution. Metal assemblages are installed surrounding the Hallway of Men-at-Arms in a winding route that alludes to the Seine, tracing a path through the medieval architecture of the city and its myriad cultural influences.

The rivers flow, they do change their course,” the artist tells Art21, “And I think my work has principally been about change and non-fixity of things, the fact that things are there and they have to grow old and change and do all kinds of things.” Laughing he insists, “It’s not because I’m old now!”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. “El Anatsui” is on view at the Conciergerie through November 14, 2021.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Midnight Publishing Group News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at

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Here’s the Real-Life Story Behind ‘Reefa,’ a New HBO Max Film About the Life and Death of a Miami Street Artist

This weekend, a new biopic of sorts will arrive on HBO Max, telling the story of Israel Hernandez-Llach, a real-life Miami street artist who was killed by police in August 2013.

Hernandez-Llach, 18 at the time, was spray-painting an abandoned McDonald’s when a local police unit approached. The artist fled; the officers chased and ultimately stopped the high-schooler with a taser. Hernandez-Llach later died in their custody. 

After dropping their target, the officers exchanged high-fives, according to the young artist’s friends who witnessed the incident. 

Dramatized versions of those moments form the climax of Reefa, the film written and directed by Miami-based filmmaker Jessica Kavana Dornbusch and named after Hernandez-Llach’s graffiti name.  

The rest of the movie, meanwhile, lays out the stakes for the titular subject in the summer leading up to that fateful night, often with a heavy dose of creative license.

Hernandez-Llach is depicted as a voraciously creative, constantly skateboarding, and skirting choleric cops through neon-lit streets, or butting heads with his father, a Colombian immigrant anxiously awaiting the arrival of green cards for his family. He wants to move to New York for art school.

The film opens with the street artist plotting his “magnum opus”: a statement mural on a derelict Miami hotel (a stand-in for the McDonald’s) that will introduce him to the city’s art world.

“I wanted to focus on Israel’s life in the last couple of weeks before he passed away,” Dornbusch told CBSMiami in April. “He had just gotten an art scholarship. He was about to go to New York. He had found love for the first time. He was spending time painting and time with his family and friends, and then the tragic ending.”

Originally meant for the 2020 Miami Film Festival (which was canceled because of the pandemic), Reefa debuted this spring on video-on-demand and in a few theaters. The movie will likely command its biggest audience yet when it hits HBO this weekend.

“Sadly, we could not plan a more timely moment in history to release this film,” Dornbusch said. “I think it will resonate. It puts a name and a face to the statistics.” 

Dornbusch worked on Reefa for more than six years, she explained in a recent blog post. Getting the project off the ground was a grind involved multiple fundraising efforts and a run-in with the Miami Beach police that resulted in the production temporarily being shut down. 

Tyler Dean Flores, the Harlem-born, Puerto Rican actor who plays Hernandez-Llach in the film, told CBS that he hopes “it raises a ton of awareness on his case and plenty of other cases that involve police brutality.” 

“I also hope that people feel very inspired by Israel’s family’s creativity and pursuit of whatever their passions are,” Flores added. “No matter what situations you’re in, if you want to create, create. If you want to express yourself, express yourself.”

A still from "Reefa" (2020). Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

A still from Reefa (2020). Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

Following their son’s death, Hernandez-Llach’s parents held a press conference in which they called for an independent investigation. Roughly two years later, in 2015, a Miami-Dade attorney announced that no criminal charges would be filed against the officers involved in the incident, saying that medical examiners had determined the death to be accidental.

In 2017, the City of Miami Beach reportedly paid $100,000 to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the victim’s family. They admitted no wrongdoing. 

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Damien Hirst Chats With Friend and Fellow Artist Wes Lang About Life, Death, and His New Show in Aspen

Even before Kanye tapped Wes Lang to design the t-shirts for his blockbuster Yeezus tour in 2013, Lang’s illustrations and paintings—a spiky synthesis of pop culture icons, Wild West mythology, and callouts to the giants of postwar art—had courted controversy and caught the eye of collectors, including none other than Damien Hirst.

No wonder: the two artists share a fixation on death and its opposite, living, that has only been heightened during the pandemic. Below, Hirst quizzes Lang about his creative process, art-world absence, around his upcoming show at Almine Rech Aspen.

Damien Hirst: As you know, I’m a huge Wes Lang fan, and I got some brilliant works from you. I’ve visited you in your sprawling studio in L.A. and seen your creative process in action, but what else can you tell me about your rhythms and rituals? What gets you out of bed in the morning? How do you find your pathway through the darkness?

Wes Lang: I paint in my studio in downtown Los Angeles, the one you visited me in, but—and I’m sure you can relate—I’m never not working in my brain. I typically have upwards of 30 paintings going at the same time. I like to have many things out in the studio so that if I’m not motivated by one body of work, I can move to another. It’s always been important to me that I don’t get stuck being an artist that makes one signature painting that looks like every painting that preceded it. The older I get, I hope you can see the cohesion among all my bodies of work if you take the time to sit and study them. I was incredibly inspired by what you did with the “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” exhibition in Venice a few years ago. I recently started a new body of work that I plan to take the next five to six years on. It will be grand, ambitious, and—if I’m lucky—beyond what anyone thinks I am capable of.

Jay-Z and Wes Lang. Photo: Eric Minh Swenson/Splash News

Jay-Z and Wes Lang. Photo: Eric Minh Swenson/Splash News

DH: You’ve stayed pretty “off the grid” for the last decade. Why is that? Can you share a little about this recent period and what’s come out of it?

WL: I was living in New York and had been working with a gallery for many years. I wasn’t happy with the direction they were pointing me in and it didn’t feel like the support I needed anymore. So, I left them and took a gamble in the spring of 2011 by renting a room at the Chateau Marmont for six weeks. I took every penny I had and rolled the dice, living as though I was supposed to be there. That culminated in a one-night exhibition in the penthouse. It was wildly successful and totally changed my financial state. It showed me that I was right, that there was a world in which I could do things on my own terms. In 2012 I decided to move to L.A. permanently. I packed my car, drove across the country and moved back into the Chateau Marmont. I just knew I had to be here.

I remained without a gallery for a stretch, because it seemed like every time I picked up a paintbrush and made something, people wanted to come to my studio and buy it. I was able to make whatever I wanted and sell directly to my clients. I’m an introvert, really, but like all artists I want my work to make its mark in the world. I saw that I was going to be able to do just that if I could take complete and total control of what I was doing. That brought you into my life, and you gave me an opportunity that was and continues to be life-changing. I don’t know how much of this you want to be publicly known—and we can edit this out if you want—but you gave me an opportunity to make a large body of work over a period of time that freed me up to do what I wanted, without the necessity of a gallery. Having you believe in what I was doing at that point in late 2013 was really a clear eureka moment for me, and one that I will be forever grateful for.

DH: Say what you want, brother, we don’t need to edit anything out. I know you work at a crazy pace and make tons of art and you’re a hoarder. Do you have an Aladdin’s cave filled with lots of works that people have never seen before?

WL: Tons. At the time, social media was starting to take over the art world, and I really didn’t want to participate. If you look me up online, you don’t see much past 2009 besides little bits here and there—which I’m totally O.K. with, by the way. It’s how I want it. But now I have a big book coming out this year titled Everything that is being published by Rizzoli. It won’t reveal even close to all the works I’ve ever made, but it will be a well-selected survey of works from the 1990s until present day.

The flip side of working independently for so long is that very few of my paintings were seen publicly. A few years ago, at the exact moment when things became unmanageable, between both creating the work and running the business of selling my work, I mentally put it out there into the universe that I needed help. Almine Rech showed up at my studio in the latter half of 2019, and we started working together, which has been fantastic. I greatly admire what she’s done and why she does it. So it was just the perfect storm.

Wes Lang, Big Time Believer, 2021. © Wes Lang, courtesy of the Artist and Almine Rech. Photo: Wes Lang Studio.

DH: Your work is full of symbols, especially symbols of death—Grim Reapers, skulls. But are they celebratory? A provocation? Where do you get your inspiration for all this iconography? What does it mean to you?

WL: They’re definitely a celebration. There’s nothing morbid about what I’m doing. I intend for my paintings to be joyful reminders of how lucky we are to be alive and to make the most of it while we have the opportunity to do so. The symbols are representations of the freedom we all strive for.

I’m also influenced by other artists, some of whom I unabashedly steal things from, as I’m sure you have. Art is a great, long conversation among the people who are willing to make it their life’s pursuit. Anything that I look up to is itself riddled with appropriation. I know, for instance, that you and I have a common interest in Francis Bacon. He made his whole life studying a very focused group of art by very specific people. All the great artists are influenced by their predecessors. As Jean-Michel Basquiat once put it, ‘You’ve got to realize that influence is not influence. It’s simply someone’s idea going through my new mind.’ If you can look to the past and learn, that’s how you can become great. Without any shame, I look to the great artists of the past to help me do just that.

DH: You’ve definitely never been afraid of appropriation, like with the Native American motifs. Has the way that debate has evolved in the last year or two changed your approach?

WL: My earliest memories are of toys, ads in the back of comic books, and novelty store catalogs. I would just collect and collect, holding onto these little talismans. They were so personal, I wouldn’t let anyone see them. I knew back then I would be an artist. To this day I still spend countless hours hunting for reference material. New characters may enter, but they are all still part of that same Wes Lang universe.

I’ve never looked at what I do as being provocative. So have I changed what I’ve been doing in the last couple years? No. I’ve never really changed what I do, and I don’t intend to. I am fighting my battle on the side of truth. We’re here with a purpose, to live and make the most out of this complicated and wonderful world while we can. That’s solely and completely what my work is about.

Wes Lang, No. 2 In E Minor, 2021. © Wes Lang, courtesy of the Artist and Almine Rech. Photo: Wes Lang Studio.

DH: What are you most interested in creating these days? What’s driving your practice through this fucking weird world-ending period we are all living in and adapting to now?

WL: The last year and a half, with the lockdowns and deaths upon deaths surrounding us, has taken me on all different kinds of rollercoasters. I’ve been painting the world’s events more than I used to, but trying to find the positives amid the hellish mire we are swimming through. I feel that for artists, if you’re not paying attention to the situation and it’s not affecting what you’re creating, you’re not doing your job. Artists owe it to the world to speak about this situation. So there are works I’ve been making that are quite apocalyptic. I’ve always been obsessed with Pieter Breughel the Elder’s painting The Triumph of Death, ca. 1562–63. I’ve struggled with talking to this painting my entire adult life. I have always wanted to reinterpret it with my own version; however, it was impossible to truly tap into what Brueghel was doing because I didn’t live through the reality in which he painted it. But now I’m living through our own version of the plague. There’s a plague on the health of people, and there’s a plague on our minds happening at the exact same time. And a plague on the rights of people. There’s been no other time like now. On the other side of that, now that things are opening up and people are feeling better, my works are becoming extremely positive and bright and full of hope for a better world. Despite the scary aspects of it all, I’ve used this time as an opportunity to try to get even better at what I do. These days I feel unstoppable in the studio.

The building in Aspen housing pop ups by Lehman Maupin, Carpenters Workshop and Almine Rech. Courtesy: Lehman Maupin

DH: What can you tell me about your show in Aspen?

WL: I created a series of medium-to-large-scale paintings called “Endless Horizons.” I think they are all portraits of how I’m starting to feel, and how I want to continue feeling. I’ve been calling them propaganda posters for positivity. The words, images, compositions, and the colors in these paintings are very vibrant, playful, and lively. They feel like they are plugged into the wall; there’s a great electricity to them. That’s how I’m feeling in my brain and I’m just trying to put that across in the canvas. I’m pretty sure I’ve succeeded at it with this series. I’ve looked back to some of the earliest influences in my work, like Ellsworth Kelly, Martin Kippenberger, and Mark Rothko. Things that really blew my mind. So compositionally I was definitely influenced by them, especially in the backgrounds. Something that may strike people as “new” is actually something I’ve been doing forever, which is the use of lettering as opposed to handwriting. In my late teens I was a sign painter, and the only college course I ever took was a lettering and layout class at a community college in New Jersey in 1991. It taught me how to have a steady hand, and how to pull good lines and curves. For some reason with these paintings I felt that I needed to use fonts. So there are bold, mantra-like statements and phrases: “There Is Magic… Here It Is… And It Is Just So… Wonderful… Only This Moment Is Real, Where The Light Enters You… .” If you allow yourself, you will see something bright and new and positive, and if you know what I do you will know it’s rooted in practices that I’ve been doing for many years, and hopefully will be doing for many more years to come.

DH: You’ve spoken about how some of your artistic practice is rooted in studying and practicing the Tao Te Ching, using it as a sort of manual for living life. How does this play out in your work?

WL: I want my work to make people feel good, but that’s only going to happen if I feel good.

The Tao Te Ching really is the only thing that I’ve ever found that makes real sense to me. It helps you shed the detrimental sides of your ego and allows you to push yourself to be exactly who you want to be. Most of time we look to outside sources to make us feel better instead of looking inside and understanding that everything we’ve ever wanted is already there, and really always has been. If you study the Tao and look at it with an open mind, you can understand that this world is set up for you to succeed if you let it. The more you try to push XYZ to happen for you, the less likely it is that it will happen—quite often it will produce the opposite result. The older I get, the more I let go and try to let the world show me what it is that I’m supposed to be doing. The attention you need is often markedly different from the attention you think you need.

Endless Horizons” is on view at Almine Rech Aspen, August 27–September 12, 2021

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