He’s been variously dubbed Mr. Broadway, the Line King and just plain Al. But the bearded draftsman who produced 10,000 drawings in an 82-year career — most from the seat of a barber’s chair — is being lauded as an artist, too, at a new show at the New-York Historical Society.
“The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld” is a tribute to creative genius but also to hard work. The 20th century’s master lineman practiced his art every day, from 10 to 5, with breaks for lunch and tea, guest curator and Hirschfeld archivist David Leopold said during a spirited tour of the exhibit. As Leopold writes in his new book, The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age, Hirschfeld regarded talent as “’a drug on the market’ ... it was discipline that mattered.”
The fruits of his labors, more than 100 original works, are on parade at the Society, with drawings that defined pop culture in the last century organized by decade. Leopold emphasized that the man renowned for his caricatures of theater, film and dance personalities preferred the term “characterist” to caricaturist — the former denoting an artist in search of the signature gesture or movement that captured a subject’s essence. His works in the early years were used by Hollywood film studios to promote their productions and later graced the pages of The New York Times, among other publications, for nearly 75 years.
Unlike artists whose careers waxed and waned, Hirschfeld never saw a decline in the quality or quantity of his output. He worked until the day before he died in 2003 at 99, and the work just got better and better, the curator marveled as he pointed to the 2001 drawing, “Ted Shawn at Jacob’s Pillow,” with the dancer’s pose mirroring the arc of a row of trees.
Despite his Broadway bona fides, Hirschfeld was born in St. Louis in 1903. A “sickness for drawing” at an early age prompted a move to New York with his family when he was 11 to hone his art skills. In 1924, he befriended Mexican caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias, who became his roommate and exerted a profound influence on his decision to pursue caricature, along with illustrator John Held Jr. Hirschfeld famously said that he had little interest in anatomical drawing — what he derisively referred to as “eye, ear, nose, and throat portraits” — preferring exaggerated portrayals of his subjects that revealed their true character and personality.
But he became convinced that line drawing, not painting, was his true métier after a trip to Bali in 1932. There he saw the sun bleach out figures and reduce them to “pure line.” And shadow puppets, which “revealed how much character one could articulate through a simple outline,” Leopold writes.
The Society’s show is a mix of iconic works and less familiar ones, some on exhibit for the first time. It opens with Laurel and Hardy in bed (“Laurel and Hardy,” 1928), with a patchwork quilt fashioned from scraps of wallpaper covering the grinning duo. It moves to a wild and woolly collage fabricated in 1935 to promote the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera,” featuring Harpo with cotton-ball hair, Chico with Brillo-pad hair, and Groucho with fur hair jutting out from both sides of his head in the shape of triangles. As Leopold tells it, Hirschfeld knew he was hitting the mark when his subjects “started to look like the drawing, rather than the other way around.”
Some greatest hits in a show of greatest hits include a 1993 portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, which cartoonist Jules Feiffer pronounced Hirschfeld’s best work, the curator said. “Nina’s Revenge” (1966) is a charming portrait of the artist’s daughter as a young woman. People of a certain age will recall spending Sunday mornings searching for the “NINAs” hidden in Hirschfeld’s drawings for The Times’ arts section.
Born in 1945 to Al and his second wife, Dolly Haas, Nina was Hirschfeld’s only child. He started surreptitiously embedding her name in his drawings shortly after her birth, adding an Arabic numeral next to his signature in 1960 to denote the number of concealed names — a response to a request from Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger by way of a reader who did not know when to stop hunting. “Nina’s Revenge” boasts no NINAs at all — just the names of her loving parents, Al and Dolly, in her hair curls and clothing.
By the end of his life, Hirschfeld was named a “Living Landmark” by The New York Landmarks Conservancy and had a Broadway theater named after him. As his third wife and the show’s organizer, Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, quoted Al at a preview of the exhibit: “If you live long enough, everything happens to you.”