By: Alix Cohen
December 17, 2022: Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003) spent seven decades as figurehead at the prow of the New York Times Arts and Leisure section. Drawings were delivered wrapped in brown paper inscribed “Do not fold, bend, stomp on or dunk in chicken fat.”
The artist said he realized he had become an institution when editors stopped critiquing his work and personalities began to emulate it. When the Marx Brothers signed with MGM, Hirschfeld started depicting them. All subsequent drawings simulated his. In fact, the studio hair department did everything it could to make Groucho’s dark mop resemble the two pronounced triangles executed in the iconoclast’s art.
Capturing the essence of someone’s likeness with minimum strokes, observation was required. Brooks Atkinson called them “nimble lines that fly humorously over pieces of white Bristol board.” Hirschfeld had a light touch. “Caricaturist” is a misnomer. There was sometimes humor, but never narrow malice in his work. His skill and creativity is visual poetry. The icon was a two time Tony Award winner and posthumous inductee into the National Academy of Arts and Letters.
Al Hirschfeld in his barber chair 1999 (Photo by Alan Behr)
At 23 years old, incipient curator David Leopold came across Hirschfeld’s name while researching theater illustration. Too shy to telephone, the young man wrote. He was sent “the warmest letter I received by anyone other than family,” and invited to the artist’s Upper East Side brownstone to “quaff” tea. The two famously hit it off.
“When we started, he was almost four times my age. We talked about art, what shows we had seen.” Leopold was eventually asked to organize the archive of Hirschfeld’s work. “Al was 86. I thought it would be an interesting job, but not last long.” What followed was 13 years of once or twice a week journeys from his then Pennsylvania home to spend loquacious time with the man sitting in an antique Koken barber chair. Their relationship was warm.
Creative Director David Leopold
In 2014, the curator/author was invited to become Creative Director of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation. (Louise Hirschfeld having stepped down. Its current president is Lynn Surry.) Leopold wrote three books about the man and his art, two for The Foundation. The American Theater 1962-2002 as seen by Al Hirschfeld, was just published in tandem with an exhibition he curated at the brand new Museum of Broadway.
Exhibition at The Museum of Broadway
Before his death, Hirschfeld set up a not-for-profit arm “to promote interest in the visual arts by supporting non-profit museums, libraries, theaters, and similar cultural institutions.” (The Al Hirschfeld Foundation.) Under the aegis of imaginative, evangelical Leopold, community involvement blossoms.
During lockdown, the creative director oversaw curating a series of themed online exhibitions such as Socially Distanced Theater – 25 images of solo shows and Lost in the Stars, a Black performer retrospective – in direct reaction to the George Floyd debacle. Apparently Duke Ellington’s first national tours were facilitated by Hirschfeld drawings when photos of the band would’ve stopped them in their tracks. “In Hirschfeld’s world, the color of a person’s skin is no more important than their costumes.” (The collections remain accessible online.)
Last September, Leopold appeared onstage at Bucks County Playhouse telling Hirschfeld stories from both a professional and an affectionately personal point of view. Video and slides accompanied the presentation. The venue sold tickets and hosted a pop up gallery of Hirschfeld hand signed limited edition prints. Half the proceeds went to the theater. Between the the single biggest audience garnered all season and artwork sales, $12,000 was raised for the theater.
Leopold modestly calls the event “proof of concept.” The point was not just funding, but getting people back into an environment they hadn’t been frequenting over the last couple of years, perhaps eliciting upcoming ticket sales.
David Leopold onstage at Bucks County Playhouse
Also this fall, in partnership with Heritage Auctions, 21 limited-edition prints by the artist – signed by the iconic stage and screen stars featured in images – were auctioned online to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the Al Hirschfeld Foundation. $50,000 was raised. Over the years Leopold tells me, The Foundation has raised $200,000 for Broadway Cares and the Al Hirschfeld Foundation. These unique print sales are an annual event.
Next spring, Leopold takes his show on the road to The Eastman School of Music in Rochester where he and his technical help will be joined by a 28 piece student orchestra and singers saluting Broadway. It won’t cost the school a penny. In fact, as he’s in the neighborhood, the impresario is thinking of busing the entire production up to Buffalo and perhaps Canada. The two (or three) person iteration is available to theaters across the country.
Al Hirschfeld and Nina; NINA by Al Hirschfeld
Nor does The Foundation confine itself to those of us who’ve seen the shows and searched for NINAs. (Hirschfeld’s daughter’s name was hidden in the art.) In conjunction with the New York Board of Education, The Hirschfeld Arts Curriculum engages students K through 12 in a wide variety of arts activities. “We go in and do workshops at schools outside New York City as well.” Leopold hopes to expand the program to underserved schools across the country. The Foundation leaves pens, mugs and/or books behind.
There are four sections to the inspired curriculum, each further divided, all using HIrschfeld art to evoke awareness and creative thought. They are, exemplified by a few posed questions – Dance/ Movement: What is the difference between dancing and posing? Are the dancers in Hirschfeld’s images dancing or posing? Discuss how Hirschfeld captures movement in a single moment.
Music: Rhythm is one of the musician’s most important tools. How does a visual artist use rhythm? Study Hirschfeld’s drawings and discuss each one’s connection to musical rhythm. Is the drawing’s rhythm smooth or jagged? Continuous or interrupted?
Theater: What are the characters feeling in the scene Hirschfeld depicts? What about their posture, gestures, and facial expressions tells us about the characters’ feelings? Create a list of feelings and emotions from the drawing. Visual Art: Hirschfeld used pieces of wallpaper for Laurel and Hardy and household items and cut sheet music for The Marx Brothers. What special effect do these materials add to the drawings?
“The young today see his work more like he saw it. They have no real life memories of the works or the actors,” Leopold notes. Aesthetics, technique, and the character take center stage. “Look at Disney’s Snow White. She and the Prince are mannequins. It’s the dwarves who have personalities.” Animation is a first cousin to this work. An exhibition sale is annually mounted at The Animation Guild in California.
The Al Hirschfeld Foundation educates/ illuminates and gives back to the theater which was, through his lifetime, the artist’s greatest pleasure. Opportunities for collaboration abound.
All photos courtesy of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation
Opening: Left-2001 photo by Louise Kerz; Right- Hirschfeld by Hirschfeld
CALL TO COLLECTORS
The Foundation is compiling a comprehensive catalogue of Al Hirschfeld’s works in private and public collections. If you own works by Hirschfeld, or know of works in other collections, please contact The Foundation. Your name will be kept confidential if you wish. The Foundation would also like to hear from anyone with correspondence from the artist or personal reminiscences.