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Preserving the legacy of artistic giants, Leopold holds the line


Bucks County's David Leopold is putting it all on the line.

Well, not everything. But a big branch of this Bedminster resident's illustrious career as an activist of an archivist and curator is devoted to the late legendary Al Hirschfeld, “The Line King,” whose crowning accomplishments as caricaturist extraordinaire have graced journalism's giants (the New York Times), galleries and the grateful hearts of theater and movie aficionados mesmerized by the magic of this much-missed auteur of an artist.

In the still of the night, lights down, anticipation rising, setting the stage for his eruditious artistry, Hirschfeld would work his playful pencil’s magic as the actors on stage worked theirs. When they vocalized their lines, he scripted his own, on pieces of paper primed to become full-blown masterpieces by one whose every graphically inspired sketch captured the quintessence of the art in front of him.

For those who might kvetch that a sketch of Hirschfeld is incomplete without acknowledging the line drawn between the artist and music, well, turns out it's just a whine before it's time: Leopold has lined up an especially soulful and intoxicating exhibition at New York's City Winery — the first stop on a national tour — where you can come hear the music play as the ultimate palette pleaser: "Al Hirschfeld's Music" draws on the artist's archive of inarguably the primo players of the last century.

How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they're seen art par excellence? No problem for Leopold, whose Bedminster farm is a bedrock for a career of curating as well as writing. It was on this 34-acre spread — which he had been to often while visiting its owners, his great-Aunt Rae and her husband, Ben Solowey — that he first helped link the lines of the hirsute Hirschfeld and the legacy of Solowey, who had his own wizardly way with a paintbrush and canvas.

When Leopold noticed, at 22, that Solowey's work often ran alongside that of Hirschfeld's in the New York Times, he dropped a line to the caricaturist from his great-uncle's studio at the farm. Intrigued, Hirschfeld responded with an invitation to visit him at his tony townhouse in New York.

It was a date — and even better, an opportunity for Leopold to see the girl from New York he was dating. Date night evolved into a wedding date with Laura Rathgeb; the Bucks couple has been married for 28 years.

So, what's the story on how he came to work for Hirschfeld as archivist for 13 years, a position that ultimately laid the foundation for his taking his current role as creative director of the philanthropic/educational Al Hirschfeld Foundation? The story is..."He was a great storyteller," recalls Leopold. "And we did hit it off."

As exceptional an expert as Leopold is, he recalls now with a laugh, he was no exception to the rule. "I felt great about it until I learned he hit it off with everybody."

But every body depicted, first sketched in pencil, then, for the final formal piece, in pen and ink with a crow quill, had their own story to crow about. "He treated me as an equal; we had a rapport. We talked about art and theater almost exclusively."

It all worked out even though Hirschfeld defined the word differently. Hirschfeld revealed "that he did what he wanted to do his entire life. The only work he claimed he ever did was in his garden."

If Hirschfeld seemed forever planted in his barber's chair, it was from that barbershop setup that he would offer a razor-sharp quip and a cut to the quintessence of the character he was quill-penning.

"He used exaggeration for emphasis," says Leopold. "He used his talent not to laugh at his subjects, but to laugh with them."

Some of the jokes were gems. Known for positioning the name Nina in his drawings — in honor of his daughter — Hirschfeld often put his friends' faces in the crowds of some of his work, including Leopold.

But Leopold is no mere face in a crowd; his bio is crowded with singular accomplishments and honors: A portrait of this artistic archivist is a line-after-line-after-line epic, drawing on a life well-documented, illustrative of his scholarly insight and his insider's perspective. Certainly he makes book on the heralded Hirschfeld — Leopold has penned volumes about the pen and ink artist — as well as others worthy of his frame of reference.

There is, of course, the constant curatorial attention he pays to the works of his late great-uncle Ben Solowey, in a way perpetuating his relative's absolute, resolute importance in the art world. "I grew up with his great paintings," he says, calling that influence “crucial.”

Solowey, who died in 1978, was a portrait in grand avuncular pride of his nephew and Leopold had wonderful experiences visiting the Solowey homestead as a kid. "I was one of five children and when we visited," he says, "my mother was always concerned that we would knock something over."

No knock on the homestead but when his great aunt Rae asked Leopold if he would take over the farm, he said “no” at first and thought of farming the ownership out. Ultimately, he decided to helm the Solowey legacy after all. "We have longform retrospectives of Ben's work, and we have all his many pieces — those he didn't sell, of course."

Should Leopold ever want to explore another line of work, he is told that the Eagles are looking for someone who could ... hold the line.

He laughs, but, possibly nothing in sports gives him a bigger rush than the Fightin' Phils.

As Leopold regales with the power plays of this tenacious playoff-bound baseball juggernaut juggling dreams and dramatic finishes, he gets serious about its World Series prospects, rattling off the names of its slugging stars. Obviously this homer of a fan is well familiar with who hits where and when.

But, of course: After so many years of chronicling and crunching history with major hitter Hirschfeld, who better than Leopold to be an expert on coming up with a winning…line-up?

Michael Elkin is a playwright, theater critic and novelist who lives in Abington. He writes occasional columns about theater and the arts.

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