NEW YORK — A new exhibition on caricaturist Al Hirschfeld begins with a video of Whoopi Goldberg talking about his wicked sense of humor.
Goldberg tells how Hirschfeld embedded the word “NINA” 40 times into a poster of her 1984 one-woman Broadway show after she complained of not being able to find the signature trademark he began inserting into his line drawings after the birth of his daughter Nina in 1945.
“The Line King’s Library” opens at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center on Thursday. The exhibition, on the 10th anniversary of Hirschfeld’s death and 110 years since his birth, was compiled from the library’s extensive collection of Hirschfeld material.
Hirschfeld, who died in 2003 at the age of 99, was celebrated for his linear calligraphic caricatures of theater, dance and film personalities. The drawings appeared on album covers, magazines and in The New York Times for 75 years.
Being “Hirschfelded” was “akin to getting a Tony award,” said David Leopold, the show’s guest curator and Hirschfeld’s archivist for the last 13 years of the artist’s life. “It meant you had arrived.”
The exhibition includes drafts, sketch books, journals and video of Hirschfeld and some of his most famous subjects talking about each other, including Arthur Miller, Carol Channing, Carol Burnett and Zero Mostel.
His 1970s series on Pulitzer Prize-winning plays and their authors on Broadway, including Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” is also included.
Another highlight is a print so rare that even Hirschfeld didn’t have: an extraordinary lithograph of the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham in motion. Created in 1969, only one print was ever made.
Hirschfeld created some 10,000 drawings during his lifetime. About 70 are in the show in addition to more than 250 other works in slide shows and on iPads.
Choosing what material to include was like “saying we’re going to make an exhibition from King Tut’s tomb,” Leopold said. “You know you’re going to find gold in every drawer and every shelf and then you get to decide which gold is the best.”
The exhibition also focuses on his influences, including Balinese shadow puppets that he saw while on a 10-month trip to the Indonesian island in 1932. A painter at the time, Hirschfeld noticed how the bright Balinese sun bleached out all the color.
“The shadows and light and dark lines he saw on the landscape were a very important part of his changing from watercolors to just line drawings,” said Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, the artist’s widow who also is president of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation.
The exhibition is a cross-section of his well-known theater drawings and lesser-known works, such as his early movie and advertising posters, she said.