The Line King: Al Hirschfeld at the New York Public Library

hirschfeld entrance
Yesterday I went to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center for a delightful exhibition of work by Al Hirschfeld, the beloved illustrator and caricaturist whose work defined an era on Broadway and in Hollywood, while providing joy to generations of New York Times readers.

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Born in St. Louis in 1903, Hirschfeld moved to New York around the age of twelve, and by 1920 was working alongside the Mexican caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias on West 42nd Street, producing posters, programs, trade ads and billboards. Hirschfeld grew out from the jazz age, rapidly developing his own style that drew almost solely on the graphic possibilities of line. This interest was enhanced by an extended stay on the island of Bali in 1932, after which he gave up easel painting altogether.

hirschfeld hepburn
Hirschfeld’s name became so synonymous with showbusiness that it eventually became a verb. To be “Hirschfelded” signaled one’s true arrival on New York’s theater scene. Beyond Broadway Hirschfeld was perhaps best known for his trick of hiding the word “Nina”, the name of his daughter, somewhere within his weekly illustration accompanying the theater review in Sunday’s New York Times. What began as a one-off gimmick soon descended into what Hirschfeld himself called “a national insanity”, as the artist would be inundated with mail on the occasions when he neglected to include a NINA or if a missing NINA continued to stump Section Two’s most eagle-eyed readership.

hirschfeld chair
Hirschfeld worked from his home on East 95th Street until his death at the age of 99. His drawing table and famous barbershop chair (purchased on the Bowery for ten dollars in the twenties) greet visitors at the entrance to the library. The exhibition includes countless illustrations and archival material including posters, books, newspaper cuttings, correspondence, awards and videos. There is even an interactive “Find the NINA” game, which is much harder than it sounds.

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The Line King: Al Hirschfeld at The New York Public Library is at the Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery at Lincoln Center until January 4, 2014. For more information click here.

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