Saturday, July 3, 2010

Maira Kalman at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Woman with Face Net. Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York.

I had to admit that I drew a blank when the press release from the CJM landed in my in-box - Maira Kalman? Who was she? Well, it turns out that I knew her work through my love of children's books but I was unaware of the scope of her talent - from the whimsical and ironically astute covers and drawings for The New Yorker, to her blog at the NY Times, "And the Pursuit of Happiness,"  to her books for children. Kalman¹s art appears everywhere in the foreground of today¹s visual culture, illuminating contemporary life with joy and humor, intelligence and insights, curlicues and question marks. Viewing this show was a great way to deal with the horrific stress of moving my mother to a retirement facility and getting her house ready for sale. What made this show even more delightful was the chance to meet the artist. I was part of the second-sting group of journalists, those of us who write for the "alternate" publications. There were several very young journalists, some apparently still in high school and then there was me, many many years out of high school. We were a nervous and awkward lot (well, me anyway) but she could not have been nicer or more generous with her time and I found myself wishing for a one-on-one conversation.

Among her books for children are such classics as ""What Pete Ate, A-Z" and "Swami on Rye," full of her visual puns and delightful illustrations. Her books for adults showcase the same mind-bending wit, inventive typography and colorful, faux-naif illustrations. The exhibit presents many of her books, including the Illustrated "Elements of Style."

Who but Kalman could come up with such funny and yet profound texts and illustrations to what is sometimes a daunting style book. "Wondering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve, " and "be obscure clearly" are just two of her delightful visual puns.  She also invented (if that's the right word), an opera for the "Elements of Style", to be performed on "eggbeaters, Rolodex, clattering tea cups. saucers, bells, slinkys and jars of buttons." 

Dog Reads Book, 1999. gouache on paper 17 1/4 x 13 1/2 inches  Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York.
Born in Tel Aviv but living in New York since the age of four, Kalman comes across as the best type of New Yorker - witty, astute, and bubbling over with ideas. She speaks of her work as a form of journalism. She knew early that she wanted to be a writer and started keeping journals at the age of 18, but the form of what type of writing evolved more slowly. Now, hers is a daily discipline of creativity based on photography, travel, research, walking, talking, and open observation. She loves distraction and has several projects going at once, reaching constantly into her own "Cabinet of Curiosities" for inspiration. Abundant depictions of fashion, food, art, and architecture represent life’s great pleasures. At the same time, rubber bands, pieces of moss, bobby pins, and snacks stake claims for smaller forms of satisfaction.

 New York, Grand Central Station, 1999, gouache and ink on paper .15 3/8 x 22 1/4 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York.

The exhibition features a selection of original works on paper that span 30 years of illustration for publication. Also on view are less widely seen works in photography, embroidery, textiles, and performance. As a context for this survey, Kalman has created a special installation, furnishing the gallery with chairs, ladders, and “many tables of many things,” drawn from her collections and indicative of how she sees the world both inside and outside the studio.

Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz. New Yorkistan, 2001. gouache and pencil on paper
20 x 14 3/4 inches. Collection of Erica and Eric Schwartz

“People of all ages are immediately drawn into the whimsy, fun and intelligence of Kalman’s work,” says Connie Wolf, Executive Director of the CJM. “Kalman is a delightfully original commentator on contemporary American society, and she inspires us to open up the way in which we see the world. The exhibition and the unique programs we are planning are an invitation to come experience Kalman’s mad passion for the everyday and to make you look at art, culture and life from a new perspective.” If I had one critique to make of the show, it would be of the endless repeats of a small video showing her learning to play the accordion - the song is delightful but maybe it should not be on endless repeat?

Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World): Works on paper, books and ephemera. Through Oct. 26. Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. (415) 655-7800.

1 comment:

Zoomie said...

Aaaahhh, welcome back! I'm sure it was a labor of love to get your Mom settled in a new place. Must feel good to have that behind you! Charming work - I may have to come in to see that myself!