Fine Line

He's as much a part of the public image of New York City as the soaring vertical lines of Rockefeller Center, the brisk tones of Bobby Short, the carriages along Park Avenue or -- perhaps his closest kin -- the profile of lepidopteran Eustace Tilley. There's hardly a major public figure of this century who hasn't been captured by the lines of his pen. In more than 50 years as a contributing artist to the New York Times, Al Hirschfeld has chronicled popular culture from Eddie Cantor and Gertrude Lawrence to the Three Tenors. He has followed the path of American theater from O'Neill and No, No, Nanette to Stanley Kowalski and Rodgers and Hammerstein, right up to the gargantuan productions of today. His witty and succinct drawing style has weathered every new fashion, capturing the form of an actor or the tone of a play with just a few simple strokes. At 93 (he'll turn 94 next month), artist Al Hirschfeld looks back at his career with a modesty somewhat unexpected in a living legend. "The whole trick is to stay alive" he said in a recent telephone interview. "Live long enough, and everything happens."Even those who aren't familiar with Hirschfeld's name should recognize his work, which has graced playbills, album covers, advertisements, even postage stamps (he designed a 1991 set commemorating great comedians and a 1995 series of silent film stars, and became the first artist allowed to include his name on a U.S. postage stamp), but most consistently in the Sunday "Arts and Leisure" section of the Times, where no star of film or Broadway can truly be said to have made it until they've been the subject of a Hirschfeld drawing. He's the unopposed master of the relatively unappreciated art of caricature, and though some of his admirers regret the low connotations of the term, Hirschfeld pays it no mind. "It's a matter of semantics," he explains. "What is a river and what is a stream? These things change as the vogue changes. I remember in St. Louis we had the River Des Peres, which was never much more than a trickle."What is a Hirschfeld drawing? A flurry of thin, dark, almost animated lines. Eyes become expressive pools or small, impenetrable dots. A tornado of cross-hatching can suggest anything from a fierce growth of eyebrow or the textures of a sweater. Limbs fly out in fluid curlicues of motion. And though his subjects have included presidents and playwrights as well as serious performers, Hirschfeld seems to have a special affinity for the great film comedians. His Marx Brothers are an assault of curls and lightning bolts bursting from the frame as explosively as they storm a film set. His Keaton is an elegant curve defying gravity. W.C. Fields becomes a top-hatted oval, delicately balancing a spiral of cigar ash. With a few strokes, Hirschfeld captures their otherworldly grace, the sheer physicality of their humor that words can rarely describe.And of course there are the "Ninas," the additional surprises that have made Hirschfeld's drawings as popular to puzzle fans as they are to Broadway aficionados. Since 1945, Hirschfeld has carefully hidden his daughter's name in most of his work, in everything from the fringe of a hairline to the broad strokes of a rumpled sleeve, the exact number of hidden Ninas indicated by a number next to his block-like signature. (As I write this, I am looking at a 1976 Hirschfeld drawing on a recording of Rhapsody in Blue showing Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the ghost of George Gershwin. The first of three Ninas is formed from the folds of Gershwin's jacket, a second pops out of Tilson Thomas' sweater, and the third hides among the hairs covering the conductor's ear.)When the New York Times began an oral-history project in 1983 to record the paper's own history, it was only natural that Hirschfeld would be one of the first subjects. More than a decade later, that first series of interviews has grown into The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story, an Academy Award-nominated documentary by Susan W. Dryfoos that's an immensely satisfying talking-heads account of both the artist and his century. The Line King tells Hirschfeld's story (a fascinating one that begins in St. Louis in 1903 and takes its subject from New York to Paris to Tahiti, crossing paths with Charlie Chaplin, touring the world with S.J. Perelman, and collaborating with the likes of Ogden Nash before settling in to his current happy status as Broadway's most renowned portraitist), while detailing the politics and culture of most of the entire century. The Line King shows Hirschfeld at work and in interview, even using home movies to tell his story, but it provides a context for his personal tale, an account of the theatrical and political events (usually illustrated by his own drawings) that inspired him. It's the history of Hirschfeld, but also a Hirschfeld-illustrated history of the American theater, and Dryfoos is the rare documentary filmmaker who understands the historical background as well as she does the subject. Whether studying the line drawings of Japanese masters like Hokusai and Utamaro or revealing Hirschfeld's influence on Disney's Aladdin (where he inspired the look of the genie), The Line King makes the case for Hirschfeld's artistry and celebrates the theatrical world that inspires it.His position at the Times and in our time cemented, Hirschfeld's own view of his work is typically unassuming. "It's difficult to describe," he says. "Almost anything you say about art becomes stupid. You have to see it. Face a blank piece of paper, and you create a problem and solve it. What I try to do is communicate the playwright's intention. You try to capture the character of the play. I don't bring any editorial comment to it at all. The editorial comment is elsewhere. The writers have it much harder. They have no authority. They can be edited. (The Times) may not use my drawing, but they can't change it."What he won't be doing, the artist insists, is retiring. "I don't play golf. I envy people who can retire, but I can't do it. I sit on the beach for 15 minutes, and I get restless. But no complaints. I enjoy what I'm doing."


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