Posts Tagged ‘Museum of Modern Art’

Morris Hirshfield TigerThere are so many artists out there, both now and from the past,  that I’m not surprised when I come across an artist with which I am not familiar whose work knocks  me out.  But sometimes I come across work that is so strong and consistent in its vision that I just can’t understand why the name is not known to me.  That’ happened recently when I was browsing through a book on the collection of the American Folk Art Museum and came across the name Morris Hirshfield.  The name didn’t ring a bell but the work was so wonderful.   It had a naive feel in the rendering of the figures but there was a sophistication in the composition and coloring that made me feel that it was anything but folk.

I definitely had to find out more about Morris Hirshfield.

Morris Hirshfield Angora CatBut there’s little to learn about the man.   Not a lot is written, only a few mentions in books. That surprised me.  But his story is pretty simple.

He was born in Poland in 1872 and came to America around 1890 at the age of 18.  Like many many of the Jewish immigrants of that time who settled in the New York area he began working in the garment industry.  With his brother, he opened a coat factory that evolved into a slipper factory which was very successful.  Morris  encountered health problems and retired in 1935, at which point he took up painting, following up on an artistic urge he had as a child but had put aside long ago.

Morris Hirshfield Girl With PigeonsWithin four short years, his work had attracted the attention of collector and art dealer Sidney Janis, who used two of Hirshfield’s paintings for an exhibit he was putting together in 1939 for the Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Unknown American Painters.  MoMA , at that time, was committed to collecting and showing the work of self-taught artists.  In 1941, MoMA purchased two of Hirshfield’s paintings for its collection and in 1943 gave  Hirshfield a solo show.  He had only painted 30 pieces up to that point in his career.   There was great controversy over the show at the time as the critics of the era savaged it.  It was, according to Janis’s biographer,  “one of the most hated shows the Museum of Modern Art ever put on.”  It led to the dismissal of the museum director at the time.

Morris Hirshfield Dogs and PupsBut Hirshfield survived and painted his paintings of animals and the occasional figure for a few more years until his death in 1946.  His career spanned a mere 9 years over which he produced only 77 paintings.

I don’t really understand the controversy of the time or why Hirshfield hasn’t inspired more  writers or artists.  Or maybe he has and I just can’t find  much evidence of it. When I clicked on the Google image page for him, I was immediately smitten.  There was that sense of rightness that I often speak of here.  Just plain good stuff.  Just wish Morris Hirshfield had been around longer so there might be more to see.

Morris Hirshfield Beach GirlMorris Hirshfield Baby Elephant With Boy 1943Morris Hirshfield Lion 1939Morris Hirshfield Zebras




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I was out in the driveway with some old pieces of stone when I heard a voice telling me to pick up my tools and start to work on a tombstone. I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight He hung a tombstone out for me to make.

—–William Edmondson, on his inspiration to begin sculpting


My last post was about the grand paintings of the Renaissance era, beautifully crafted pieces from painters who were extensively trained under master artisans so that they could capture the religious spirit that was the subject and inspiration for most of the work of that time.  But that post made me think about how others, less schooled and less well equipped, translate this same inspiration into forms.

That  thought brought me quickly to William Edmondson,  a man born in 1874 in Tennessee to former slaves.  Edmondson worked in a number of jobs throughout his life, losing his job as a hospital orderly in the late 1920’s when he was in his mid-50’s.  It was at this point that he had the vision he describes above which led to him to begin sculpting for two African-American cemeteries in the Nashville area.

 Using handmade tools such as a chisel made from a railroad spike and working on discarded chunks of stone from building sites, it soon became clear that Edmondson had a true affinity for capturing the essence of figures in stone with forms that were spare but elegant with subtle shaping.  I see a simplified elegance in much of his work that cannot be taught, that is simply an expression of the artist’s self and spirit.

Edmondson sculpted for the next couple of decades until his death in 1951, gaining acclaim as perhaps the finest American folk sculptor of the century.  He was the first African-American artist to be featured  in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1937 and his work is still celebrated today for its extraordinary qualities.

Edmondson’s called each of his sculptures “miracles,”  something that strikes very close to home for me.  I think it’s that feeling of having something emerge from your hand that seems to transcend what you are as a human, something that is more than the sum of your own parts.  I have sometimes been fortunate enough to have experienced this and have felt that same sense of wonder at this miracle of creation.  It’s a wonderful moment that serves as  inspiration to continue to push forward with the work, to continue the inward journey.  It’s a true  pleasure to see Edmondson’s inspirations come to life.

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