Al Hirschfeld is the one and only line king

Rodney Dangerfield is famous for the phrase, but ask any illustrator and they'll assure you it is they who truly "don't get no respect." Illustrating is a tough vocation, and success is rare. Styles come in fast and vanish even faster. In the end, those of us who do manage to make a living at it find our work may be well liked but not valued. "Illustration is not art," we are reminded.

Al Hirschfeld was one of those very rare illustrators who not only enjoyed a long, successful career, but whose work has gained enough respect to earn museum showings. The Frye Art Museum will present the exhibition "In Line With Al Hirschfeld: A Retrospective," tomorrow through April 20.

Illustration does seem to have arrived: Norman Rockwell's work, loved for years by an adoring public, has only recently garnered respect by the art establishment. Critics dismissed him during his life, claiming he was not an artist, merely an illustrator. Yet, in 2001 a Rockwell exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum led a New Yorker critic to gush: "Rockwell is terrific. It's become too tedious to pretend he isn't."

The Art of Illustration Gallery, planted defiantly across from the Seattle Art Museum on First Avenue, has for the past two years been exhibiting and selling some marvelous illustrations done primarily for children's books.

Did the definition of art change? Or just get real?

The Hirschfeld show at the Frye is a retrospective documenting the artist's long life, career and, to a great extent, the history of the performing arts in the 20th century.

Hirschfeld's work had become familiar to most Americans through his many years as an illustrator for The New York Times and several other high-profile publications. Comprised of approximately 100 works, the retrospective traces the artist's path from his earliest sculptures to his most recent work, including original pen-and-ink drawings, oils, sketchbooks, clippings, watercolors, sculpture, prints and magazine covers.

Hirschfeld was a caricaturist. For certain circles and many decades he was the caricaturist. Born in 1903, he worked for nearly 80 years until his death just this month, making countless drawings of the rich and famous: actors, writers, celebrities and other notable personalities. Hirschfeld's career outlasted those of many of his subjects.

His early work is expectedly varied, as are most artists searching for their own style. Yet his selective eye shows itself well, even in a 1932 watercolor landscape painted in Bali. A collection of flat color bands easily form themselves into rice paddies and distant mountains. A pair of personal drawings of his plump infant daughter surprised me with its resemblance to centuries-old Chinese brush paintings of Taoist hermits.

A 1927 drawing of Laurel and Hardy, made with what seems like only a dozen or so lines, is classic Hirschfeld, capturing perfect likenesses with minimalist, jaunty gestures.

To achieve such revealing simplicity in a drawing, to do more with less, reveals a mastery of craft. Such succinctness may also be the secret to his longevity. With simple lines of flawless grace and wit, his work transcended time and trends.

His best work danced with an easy graceful rhythm; he was the Fred Astaire of pen and ink. A delightful 1951 illustration of Astaire boasts such an undulating fluidity — it's like seeing a segment of film, rather than a static drawing.

Hirschfeld was not mean-spirited. His exaggerated lines never mocked or became grotesque. Yet he could express character with an originality that was sometimes astonishing.

Like a true master, he always made it look easy, and having done a few caricatures myself, I know that it isn't.

All art is communication. Illustration is simply one of the many forms of visual communication. Great illustrators strive to show us through their work a little bit about ourselves. Some show us who we are, some who we'd like to be. For nine decades, Hirschfeld managed to capture the elusive thing that makes people fascinating and unique.

To use the artist's own words: "I am still enchanted when an unaccountable line describes and communicates the inexplicable."

Paul Schmid has been creating artwork for The Seattle Times since 1989:

Exhibit preview

"In Line With Al Hirschfeld," opens Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays; through April 20, Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; free admission, 206-622-9250.