Cabaret, by Al Hirschfeld

The McNay's Al Hirschfeld exhibit follows the evolution of the pen-and-ink illustrator's work

If you know the work of the celebrated caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, you undoubtedly also know the fun of Nina-hunting. Hirschfeld, a pen-and-ink illustrator whose work graphically defined The New York Times Sunday Arts & Leisure section from 1928 to 2003, hid the name of his daughter, Nina, in most of the drawings done since her birth in 1945. In many cases, a small numerical notation appended onto his signature tells the aspiring Nina-hunter how many hidden names are to be found in that particular drawing.

As easy as it might be to think of Hirschfeld as just the creator of light-hearted portraits of artsy folks with built-in puzzles, do resist that temptation. The centennial tribute to his work that opened at the McNay on June 15 and runs through August 17 will help. Curated by Frederic Woodbridge Wilson of the Harvard Theatre Collection, the exhibit presents a representative range of Hirschfeld's work, from his best-known portraits and production scenes, to his lesser-known political drawings, book illustrations, and even some of his original sketchbooks.

More than anything else, Hirschfeld's work represents 20th-century theater in America. During his tenure at the Times, he witnessed broad cultural trends: the growth and maturation of American theater, the heyday of the Broadway musical, and the ascent of off-Broadway theater, to name a few. The works on display at the McNay portray defining moments in plays such as Member of the Wedding, The Miracle Worker, and A View From the Bridge, as well as musicals such as West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Zorba, and Cabaret. The walls of the McNay's Tobin Gallery also boast a veritable Who's Who of the theater and art worlds: Martha Graham, Orson Welles, Truman Capote, Ella Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, and Irving Berlin.

What is most obvious when viewing these drawings in person is the enormous vitality under the restraint and precision

Drawings From The Harvard Theatre Collection

10am-5pm Tue-Sat
Noon-5pm Sun
Through Aug 17
McNay Art Museum
6000 N. New Braunfels
of Hirschfeld's pure line. "I want to keep simplifying my graphic description of someone's character," Hirschfeld once said.

The McNay exhibit makes it possible to follow the evolution of that desire: from an early portrait of Ethel Waters, showing cubist influences, to the highly detailed middle-period scenes and book illustrations, culminating with his later, often sparer portrait drawings such as the minimalist masterpiece of John Lithgow in M. Butterfly.

So, when you pause in your Nina-hunting, take a moment to appreciate the sheer scope and skill of the work that, in the best tradition of artistic genius, has been made to seem effortless. And one word of caution: There is no pointing at the drawings from less than 12 inches away. Concerns about someone being bumped in mid-point and impaling the priceless original drawings are being taken very seriously by the McNay's security staff. For those of you who can't resist Nina-hunting as a group activity, there is a table in the gallery with several books full of plastic-covered reproductions. You can poke away to your heart's content. •

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