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Who makes great art?

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Morris Hirshfield, Stage Beauties, 1944, oil on canvas, 40 x 48 inches, collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Richard Meyer is the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History at Stanford. Recent books include What Was Contemporary Art?Art and Queer Culture, and Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles. His first book, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art, received the Charles C. Eldredge Prize from the Smithsonian.

Professor Meyer is interested in the relation between the academic discipline of art history and the practice of museum curating. Since joining the Stanford faculty in 2012, Meyer helped launch the Stanford-in-Washington Arts program, which enables students to hold full-time internships in museums and other cultural institutions in the nation's capital. Meyer has served as guest curator of “Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered” at the Jewish Museum in New York and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and of “Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. His current book project, The Master of the Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield and 'Modern Primitive' Art, has inspired a new one-man exhibition of Hirshfield’s work that will open at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice in October 2020. 

Who or what is the focus of your current research? 

I am currently writing the first book-length study of the self-taught painter Morris Hirshfield (1872-1946). A Brooklyn tailor and slipper manufacturer who took up art at the age of 65, Hirshfield created wildly stylized paintings of animals, landscapes, and often-nude female figures. The painter attracted a great deal of attention, both positive and negative, during his relatively brief artistic career in the 1940s. Admired by Picasso, Mondrian, and André Breton, his work was included in the “First Papers of Surrealism” exhibition in 1942 and purchased by Peggy Guggenheim that same year for display in her “Art of this Century” gallery. 

Hirshfield’s peak moment of public visibility occurred when the Museum of Modern Art presented a one-man show of his work in 1943. The exhibition was widely reviewed, though mostly reviled, by the press. Critics were incensed that the museum lavished curatorial attention on an unschooled amateur while ignoring the work of deserving professional artists. Hirshfield was gradually erased from narratives of twentieth century art following his death in 1946. My project aims to restore this painter to visibility and historical memory.

What drew you to this topic?

Seeing Hirshfield’s paintings firsthand, rather than in reproduction, came as something of a revelation to me and ultimately inspired the idea for a book. The first painting I saw “in the flesh” was Stage Girls (1944), which had been newly donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014. I had not expected the visual dazzle, intricate brushwork, flamboyant palette, and sheer, even delightful, strangeness of the painting. Viewing Stage Girls (and subsequently, many other paintings and drawings by Hirshfield) convinced me that Hirshfield deserved more art-historical attention. The remarkable trajectory of his work—from immigrant tailor to MoMA artist—seemed well-suited to a book-length project.

In addition to the book, my research on Hirshfield has led to a large, one-man exhibition of his work that will open at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice in October 2020. The idea for the exhibition was my belief that there is no substitute for seeing Hirshfield’s paintings firsthand. 

How are you conducting your research?

Research during my year at the Stanford Humanities Center has focused on three major areas related to Hirshfield’s life and work: Jewish immigration to America in the 1890s; the garment industry and manufacture of women’s shoes in the early twentieth century; and the critical reception of Hirshfield’s art in the 1940s. My research ranges from archives (for example, the Museum of Modern Art original files on its Hirshfield show) to interviews with collectors of Hirshfield’s work and with his grandson in Reseda, California.

What were you most surprised to learn during your research?

I was surprised to learn that Hirshfield was the holder of 25 patents issued by the U.S. government between 1910 and the early 1930s, for slipper and shoe designs, arch supports, and ankle straighteners. He was, in effect, the “Dr. Scholl’s” of the early twentieth century.

Why is it valuable to study this topic?

Hirshfield’s erasure from narratives of twentieth century art was part of a larger trend that swept American folk artists out of the history of modernism. Since the Hirshfield show in 1943, the Museum of Modern Art has not mounted another exhibition of a folk or self-taught artist. In fact, recent survey texts claiming to cover the history of twentieth century art treat folk art simply as source material for the avant-garde. By restoring Hirshfield to visibility and historical memory, my project offers a needed reconsideration of the meaning and contribution of outsider and self-taught artists.

Ultimately, I present Hirshfield’s unlikely career as a painter not only as a missing episode in the history of twentieth century art but also as a case study of the ways in which artists “go missing” from scholarly knowledge and historical memory. By looking at the various ways in which the artist mattered in the 1940s, I hope to make vivid how much we have yet to learn, and to see, of the visual past.