Upon entering Lou Hirshman’s Philadelphia row house in the mid-1970s, a first-time guest was bemused by the livingroom walls where several artworks hung. He had heard Hirshman was a local artist of note – but not specifically of caricatures and collages fashioned out of everyday objects: Albert Einstein with a wild mop of hair; duelers locked in the crossed swords of a child’s scissors; a psychiatrist staring through framed glasses of handcuffs. “I know what you are,” the visitor remarked, turning to Hirshman. “You’re a sophisticated junk collector.”
While intended as sarcasm, that observation captures the heart of the art of Lou Hirshman.
For most of his career, creating in his home-based studio – a second-floor backroom sanctuary few ever entered – Hirshman composed in a “junkyard” of organized clutter with everyday items systematically stowed away for retrieval. Not only had he created the perfect artist’s refuge for a creator of collages, the studio itself was a collage of shapes.
Even Hirshman was a collage – a pastiche of the working class, the intellectual, the philosopher and the humorist. His artworks were at once good for a lighthearted laugh and wholehearted reflection.
As the child of a poor Jewish printer who had immigrated from Russia to the US soon after his son’s birth in 1905, Hirshman sailed later with the rest of his large family, arriving in 1909. In his teens, he began studying art, first trying his brush hand at serious oil painting. After a brief foray into avant-garde filmmaking, he shifted to painting caricatures. This developing skill caused a minor flap in the press when a ballerina, incensed by an unflattering likeness in caricature, tore up the piece and slapped him in the face.
During the 1930s, Hirshman had also started experimenting with what was to become his hallmark as an artist – caricatures of the famous, not as paintings, but using three-dimensional items arranged on a two-dimensional flat board for framing. For more than 25 years in the mid-20th Century, his found objects found the essence of the well-known – the dictatorial visages of Hitler and Mussolini; the anarchistic Marxes of film, Groucho and Harpo; and the main Marxist himself, Stalin – all with a wit of form verging on genius.
In 1963, after creating three parodies of the Cold War poker players Nikita Krushchev, Fidel Castro and President John F. Kennedy, the assassination of the latter led him to rarely ever satirize the famous again. Instead, he concentrated on humorous collages of stereotypes (Topless Waitress, Glutton), animals (The Hunt, Dog with Fleas) and scenes of everyday life (Shopping Mall, The Promenade). In this period he increasingly added dream-like – and sometimes nightmarish – fantasies to his reportroire (The Trip, A Sure Cure for Baldness). This style may have stemmed from the secret devotion of a man seeking the spiritual in “things,” who recorded the meditations of Eastern philosophers in a daily journal and practiced hatha yoga in the solitude of his studio, all perhaps hints as to why the self-effacing artist shied away from the brash marketing of his work – and himself.
His public persona as the faculty director a prestigious evening art school administered by the Philadelphia Museum of Art was balanced by his daytime, almost monklike, life sequestered in a studio where he communed with creations that were instilled with what one could term “insightful” humor. It was not jokiness. His was the satire of the Mark Twain-ian school, an observationalist whose reflections were mirrored not in a twist of the verbal, but the tweak of the visual. Where others saw things, he saw forms. His was not a world of words. Hirshman spoke in shapes.
William Hirshman, March 2017