Museum Spotlight: Al Hirschfeld at The New York Historical Society


Best known for his uniquely styled caricatures that chronicled Broadway for almost a century, the late artist and “character-ist” Al Hirschfeld left a legacy in New York City so profound that it lives on through the theater that bares his name. Now for the first time, nine decades of his art are collected in The Hirschfeld Century: The Art of Al Hirschfeld, an exhibit at the New York Historical Society that documents Hirschfeld’s life and career and, to a great extent, the history of the performing arts in the twentieth century and beyond. New York City Monthly was honored to speak with guest-curator David Leopold, the Al Hirschfeld Foundation’s Archivisit and arguably the world’s foremost authority on the man dubbed “The logo of American Theater.”

What did Hirschfeld set out to achieve with his work?

He wanted to reach an audience, and this audience was huge his entire career. This was a guy who, at the age of 25, was reaching millions of people by being in three New York newspapers at the time – which got him an audience in the tens of thousands, but that was dwarfted by his movie posters which were seen by millions of people all over the world.

Where has the general public possibly seen Hirschfeld’s work without even realizing it?

One of the first I’ll mention is Aerosmith, in 1977 they did an album called Draw The Line and the art director thought it would be great if Hirschfeld did the cover. He’s synonmous with Broadway – there’s a Broadway theater name for him – but he acutally got his start at the movies and many of the great movie posters from the first half of the twentieth century were drawn by Hirschfeld. He did more covers for TV Guide than any other artist. That was the bible of televisision and it was seen by millions of people.

Do you think his style impacted artists today? Where can you see this replicated?

Although Hirshfeld is generally acknowledge as the great caricaturist, he really wasn’t a caricaturist. He preferred to refer to himself as a “character-ist” because what he was really interested in was capturing the character that the playwright created and as he said he would reinvent it for the reader. So animators have always been amazed at how his drawings look more like the people than the people do because they’re so full of all the personality they have – Al would call it the “overloaded portrait.” So animators, whether you’re talking about Eric Goldberg who did the genie in Aladdin that he freely admited he based completely on Al’s drawings, or Brad Bird who won Oscars for Ratatouille and The Incredibles – when he was doing Paris he said we want to make it like a Hirshfeld drawing – where it looked more like Paris than Paris does. I think most animators have studied his work for decades because he can do in one drawing what it takes 24 frames to do.

It is known that Hirschfeld hid his daughter’s name, Nina, in most of his drawings completed after her birth. How did the public react to learning this?

Well it was the worst kept secret, first in New York, and then around the world. After a couple of weeks he realized, “Well that joke has run its course” and he stopped doing it and he got all these letters from people saying, “Spent all day Sunday looking for Nina… where is it?”

What are some of the highlights of this exhibit?

There’s a lot of things that will be unique about it because it brings together some of his greatest drawings and really reunites them for the first time. There will be the very first drawing that had Nina in it. There will be “Nina’s Revenge,” which is a drawing that he did for GQ when Nina turned 21 – he did a drawing in which he hid his name and Nina’s mother’s name in the drawing, as he said, “to restore National sanity.” You’ll also get to sit in his barber chair. I don’t know if you realize that he worked his entire career in a barber chair because he thought it was the last functional chair in America: it went up and down, it swiveled, and if you needed a rest it would turn into a chaise lounge.

How does this exhibit represent the mission of the NYHS?

He traveled around the world and all over the country but he did all of his work in New York. Hirschfeld’s Hollywood… he never went farther west than 12th Avenue! He not only recorded the performing arts but he helped define it as well. Al was more popular at 99 ½ than he was at 25 years. He never fell out of favor. It’s a really remarkable career and that career is a New York story, and so I think it’s perfectly appropriate that the NYHS tell that story.

After familiarizing yourself with Hirschfeld’s extensive body of work do you think there is a current show or star on Broadway he would have loved to characterize?

He loved the larger than life characters, the, what he called, “exploded ventricles,” the one’s that don’t close the door they slam it. He would have loved seeing It’s Only a Play with Nathan Lane. Nathan Lane is exactly the kind of character who Hirshcfeld just found fun to draw because he would say they invented themselves. He loved characters, and the entertainment world is never going to not give us that, or the day that it does, it’s not going to be very entertaining anymore.