Humor, wonder & insight

  • by Kevin Mark Kline, Director of Promotions
  • Thursday July 15, 2010
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Self-Portrait (with Pete), gouache on paper, 2004-5, by Maira Kalman. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York.
Self-Portrait (with Pete), gouache on paper, 2004-5, by Maira Kalman. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York.

Although many won't recognize Maira Kalman's name, they're likely familiar with her witty covers for The New Yorker magazine; her online, illustrated odysseys for The New York Times such as "Principles of Uncertainty" or "And the Pursuit of Happiness," an apolitical exploration of American democracy soon to appear in book form; and her alter ego, Max the Poet Dog, the incurably romantic canine with an affinity for Paris who's the lovable hero of her captivating children's books.

Artist, illustrator, author and inveterate New Yorker, Kalman may well be contemporary Manhattan's answer to Alexis de Toqueville. Chronicling the telling details of everyday life and the vagaries of the culture in what amounts to a journal of her life, she could also be compared to a latter-day Jane Austen as she roams her Greenwich Village neighborhood or wherever she happens to be, observing, drawing, taking snapshots and noting her views on what she sees and thinks about. Kalman is so quintessentially New York in her sensibility, it's difficult to imagine her originating reports from the front out of, say, sun-soaked, walking-phobic LA - she'd be as beached as Woody Allen in Annie Hall - but it sure would be interesting to get her take on the West Coast. Now, in a sense, she's here. The work she has produced over the last 30 years in a hand-made, self-styled, largely uncalculated career has been assembled for her first museum retrospective, Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World), on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in SF through October 26.

An antidote to the summertime blues, this thoroughly enjoyable exhibition features over 100 original works on paper, preliminary sketches, paintings, whimsical illustrations for publications such as Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, as well as photographs, textiles and the fruits of collaborations with fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, choreographer Mark Morris, and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. Visitors wanting a glimpse of 13 Words, her recent project with Lemony Snicket, can gaze upon "Panache," a gouache depicting a festive birthday party in a bright yellow room whose VIP guests include a masterful dog in a red overcoat and a young man wearing glasses and bunny ears. Kalman has just completed a guide to the best hotels to get breakfast in bed, and has lobbied The New Yorker for a cover celebrating "National I Won't Get Out of Bed Day." One need not look far for a theme here.

The child of Israeli immigrants who relocated to New York City when she was four, and a descendant of Holocaust survivors, Kalman would seem to have commonality with the subject of another CJM show, Maurice Sendak, also an illustrator, children's book author, immigrant/outsider and dog-lover. But Kalman isn't magnetized by the aggression and terror that preoccupy Sendak. Her colorful illustrations and paintings, often inscribed with commentary in her own hand, are entrancing, a combination of humor, naivete, swift intelligence, wonder and insight. With an exuberance tempered by both optimism and skepticism, and only hints of loss and troubled waters, they are more dream than nightmare visions.

Rooms and destinations, real or imagined, play a central role, as does the fertile terrain of dreams. Take, for instance, the majestic "Celeste Hotel" in Algiers, "Dream in Venice," or the exotic, insistently orange "Rajastani Room." Wherever her journeys take her is fodder for her art practice, which is informed by nearly everything, from Saul Steinberg and Matisse, whose influence can be seen in Kalman's deceptive simplicity, to music, architecture, literature, film and nature. And let's not forget the Supreme Court. After meeting Ruth Bader Ginsburg and immortalizing her with an illustration, Kalman reflects in a caption: "I think, move over Jane Austen as my imaginary best friend forever. Make room for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would have gone to my high school for music, if her parents had let her. Whose favorite artist is Matisse. (I rest my case.)"

In 2000, The New York Times Magazine sent Kalman to cover the Paris runway shows, an inspired idea resulting in "Couture Voyeur," an illustrated essay that's surely a departure from the average fashion coverage. "Woman with Face Net" is a portrait of a severe-looking redhead in cropped hair and black turtleneck, one of those scarily brutal fashion doyenne-types, while "Viktor & Rolf" has a split-screen effect: a willowy model in a pink dress with flowing asymmetrical hem and white fur stole is seen in the upper-left panel, a handbag rests on an inviting red chair in another.

Witty text and equally charming illustrations make "Ooh-la-la (Max in Love)" enchanting. In this inaugural entry in a series of stories about the poetically inclined Max Stravinsky, who arrives in Paris and stays at an establishment run by the pungent Madame Camembert, Max, duly smitten, is prone to rhapsodizing: "You played the legato/ my heart went staccato/ my musical muse/ no longer confused/ I have found my raison d'etre/ It is you/ My crepes suzette." "Man Leaping While Man Talks on Phone," in which a male dancer is sublimely aloft as an elegant Parisian gentleman chats on a sofa in a well-appointed, old-world apartment, perfectly complements the book's effervescent prose.

Excerpts here from And in the Pursuit of Happiness, Kalman's earnest yet tongue-in-cheek search for the real America, show a group of Washington, DC Baptist Church ladies in elaborate Sunday best hats and, later, presents a query-and-response straight from the author's heart: "Why swear on the Bible, not the Constitution?" it reads. "A good question. But now we're taking a short break and opting for naivete."