When the Broadway caricature master Al Hirschfeld drew a powerful CBS executive for a major newspaper, he received an angry phone call from CBS, complaining that the character in the drawing looked like “a gorilla.” “That’s not my doing,” Hirschfeld responded. “That’s God’s work.”
This was a time when “Hirschfeld” was a verb. “You got Hirschfelded” meant you had officially made it in show biz, or any biz, really. Hirschfeld, whose career spanned 82 years, made drawings that were often said to look more like the person they pictured than the actual person himself–gorilla-esque or otherwise, they were never mean-spirited, just accurate. His linear calligraphic style captured the essences of stars from Whoopi Goldberg to Martha Graham to Arthur Miller to Carol Channing. These portraits and more are featured in “The Line King’s Library,” the largest yet exhibition of Hirschfeld’s artwork and archival material, now on view at The New York Public Library’s Donald & Mary Oenslager Gallery.
Curator David Leopold is arguably the world’s greatest Hirschfeld expert–as the artist’s archivist for 18 years, he no doubt knows Hirschfeld’s body of work more intimately than anyone else. When the New York Public Library asked Leopold to help gather all the Hirschfeld works in its collection to put together an exhibition, “I was like a kid in a candy shop,” Leopold tells Co.Design. “I was so thrilled. We discovered drawings; we discovered prints. I don’t know what other people do for excitement or thrills. I don’t skydive. But going into a library and finding buried treasure, that’s pretty exciting for a curator.”
He goes on: “If you said 20 years ago, who will get a Broadway theater named after him first–Tennessee Williams, or Al Hirschfeld? You’d think Tennessee Williams, no question, but we only saw 15 years of Williams’s work,” says Leopold. Hirschfeld, on the other hand, spent 82 years translating Broadway stars into dazzling pen-and-ink drawings. He never suffered any kind of real creative block, and avoided peaking and burning out, like some artists do. The Al Hirschfeld Theatre was thus named June 21, 2003, which would have been his 100th birthday. (He had died just five months before.) “Hirschfeld’s drawings play such a big role in what we know of Broadway. More people have seen his drawings than the shows they portray.” And that’s a legacy that continues. Says Leopold, “He can do in one drawing what it takes 24 frames to do in animation. His drawings are always moving. They’re not static.” As the artist Jules Feiffer put it, Hirschfeld’s drawings “always seem to happen in the present.”
“The Line King’s Library” features a whole case devoted to Nina, Hirschfeld’s daughter, whose name was camouflaged into characters’ hair or stitched into their clothing in his drawings for the Sunday Times. Numbered next to his signature, he created a kind of “Where’s Nina?” game for readers. Also showcased are letters from stumped, obsessive fans who can’t find the last Nina in a given illustration. In addition to influencing contemporary illustrators, from the animator of Ratatouille to Jules Feiffer, Hirschfeld had scores of underage imitators, and featured here is the work of child artists who hid Ninas or their own names in Crayola compositions.
“Hirschfeld was one of these individuals that change the way we see things,” says Leopold. “He wasn’t the best at what he did. He was the only one who did what he did.”
The Line King’s Library is on view at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Donald & Mary Oenslager Gallery through January 4th, 2014.