It’s Art if I Say It Is

When considering American folk artists from the 20th century, one of the things we must ask ourselves is how did the establishment come to embrace certain artists and their vision? Because it’s institutions, from galleries to curators to scholars, that bring forward an artist, essentially assigning a label or category for their work, then introducing the public to this person. Sometimes it happens that the work survives the first flush of attention, becoming part of a larger narrative in art history, or perhaps simply a treasured image in a museum collection. Other times, ideas and tastes change, reducing the art to a fad, like a novelty Christmas song.

The latest exhibition from the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM), ‘Morris Hirshfield Reconsidered’, takes a fresh approach to the noted self-taught painter, whose works and career benefited from a unique moment in 1940s American contemporary art. At that time, critics and curators felt that most US artists were leaning too heavily on European ideas and methods, being imitators, rather than innovators. This line of reasoning wasn’t strictly accurate: plenty of American artists working with local themes and were most definitely not part of European training or ideals were getting good reviews and supported by collectors and museums during this era. But there certainly was a desire for something more, something that could be claimed as authentically ‘American’. Enter folk art, a genre that encompassed a wide variety of people, backgrounds, and media, almost all self-taught (that is, without any formal scholastic training), whose works could be interpreted in a variety of ways by the art establishment and even by other artists, without threatening or offending the status quo of anyone.

Unfortunately, no one told Surrealists André Breton and Marcel Duchamp, who included Morris Hirshfield’s painting Girl with Pigeons in the 1942 landmark art show First Papers of Surrealism, accepting him as a modern artist, not a ‘folk’ or ‘primitive’ one, shocking many who did not believe that a self-taught artist had any place with professionals. But that’s Surrealists for you, always smashing up the carefully erected barriers and trashing the place. And actually, they weren’t wrong. Hirshfield was an accidental Surrealist, filtering images and his thoughts through a multi-faceted prism, then painting the results. He thought they looked truer than a photograph, the Surrealists accepted his truth, and everyone else could only see the flaws, not what the artist meant. A classic Surrealist moment.

Sadly, the accreditation didn’t last long. Hirshfield died in 1946 and after a 1947 posthumous show at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery he essentially faded from view, remembered as a folk artist and nothing more. Now, thanks to curator Richard Meyer, curatorial advisor Susan Davidson, and coordinating curator Valérie Rousseau, AFAM is presenting a comprehensive look at Hirshfield’s work, his supporters in the art world, and a reassessment of his role as a Modernist artist. It’s a fascinating look at a forgotten bit of art history that played out in New York City.

Another example of an artist whose work triumphs over simplistic labels is now at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), which is presenting ‘Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle’, featuring the works of multi-faceted designer and performance artist Machine Dazzle. His costumes are a sensory overload: decorated with anything and everything; painted, stitched, and glued, in a dizzying array of colors. Best known for his collaboration with Taylor Mac, whose musical extravaganza, Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (2016), used his costuming, with its keen sense of American culture in all its ugliness and glory, to great effect, Machine Dazzle’s creations pull triple duty as stage props, set design, and embracing the kaleidoscope qualities of queer maximalism aesthetic. Trust us – you have absolutely never, ever, seen anything so fabulously amazing as his work.

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