A richly illustrated study of the artist who richly illustrated publications, marquees, and other venues for eight decades.
Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003) was, in the words of museum curator Leopold, “a visual journalist who ‘reported’ what he saw, with no interest in picking winners or losers, but looking for character whether it was expressed in word, music, or movement, which he would then translate into his signature line.” That signature line, swooping and evocative, could not be mistaken for the hand of any other, and so influential was Hirschfeld that, in Leopold’s witty assessment, after he drew the Marx Brothers, the troupe “started to look more like Al’s drawings, rather than the other way around.” A favorite of Franklin Roosevelt and Frank Sinatra alike, Hirschfeld lampooned and japed, and though he tried his hand at serious work—some of his early pieces on display here resemble Chagall, while others clearly borrow from Gauguin and perhaps less clearly from Covarrubias—it is his whimsical show-business portfolio for which he is best remembered, and particularly his broad-stroke portraits of Laurel and Hardy, Milton Berle, and other stars of a bygone era. (Yet he kept himself current: two of Hirschfeld’s final portraits portrayed Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia and comedian Jerry Seinfeld.) As Leopold notes in this critical but by no means arid study of the art, Hirschfeld was extraordinarily prolific, completing more than 10,000 pieces over a long life. He was a “Zelig-like character in a good bit of cultural history of the twentieth century.” He was good-natured about it, too, joking that he supported the capitalist system as a machine “so sloppily and benevolently conceived that even I could wind up owning a house.”
An intelligent, carefully representative look at Hirschfeld’s work that ably shows why the artist deserves to be remembered today.