​"The Line King": Al Hirschfeld's incomparable art

A "Short Take" on the long career of artist Al Hirschfeld is quite a challenge -- a challenge our Faith Salie is happy to take on:

"I found myself drawing more and more in line and less and less in color," Al Hirschfeld told "Sunday Morning" in 1998. "I developed an affinity for line that hasn't left me."

Bottom line: He became the legendary caricaturist.


"I like to think it's like poetry where the writer finds just the right words to summon up a whole lot of things, and that's what Hirschfeld was about -- he wanted every line to count," said David Leopold, the curator of the Al Hirschfeld exhibit, now at the New York Historical Society.

"Hirschfeld really wasn't the best at what he did. He was the only one who did what he did."

The exhibit outlines Hirschfeld's nine decades of creation, with wall-to-wall caricatures of Hollywood and Broadway stars.

"Nothing against the Oscar, Emmy or Tony, they are all wonderful awards," said Leopold. "I know performers like to win them. But the thing they have in the center of their living room is their Hirschfeld drawing. When they got drawn by Hirschfeld, they really knew they had arrived."

Immortalizing celebrities wasn't his only claim to fame.

In addition to his signature style, Hirschfeld gained renown for slipping his daughter Nina's name subtly into his drawings. Whoopi Goldberg's hair is made up of Ninas.

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The Ninas in Whoopi's hair.
© The Al Hirschfeld Foundation

According to Leopold, Hirschfeld worked Nina's name into his drawings to the end of his life. "He tried to stop several times, but people would not let him. So he started putting a number next to his name when there was more than one Nina."

"Most artists put a number meaning how many prints there are," said Salie.

"Or the year, exactly. And he was concerned that since they really came out organically, that sometimes he had to look for the Ninas just like everyone else when the drawing was done, and he knew that if he got it wrong, people would write in and be irate."

Hirschfeld passed away in 2003. By that point he had drawn thousands of images, earning the nickname "The Line King." But as he had explained to "Sunday Morning," the power of those simple lines was a mystery, even to him:

"I've been trying to find out across all these years, what makes it communicate to the viewer, and I don't know any more about it than when I started," he said. "Suddenly some kind of magic takes place, some kind of alchemy, and the drawing appears and it looks pretty much what you had in your mind. And when it works, the drawing begins to look more like the person than the person really looks like."


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