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Contemporary Jewish Museum Presents Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)

“I was out walking the dear dog and I saw 500 things that made me want to make art.” – Maira Kalman

San Francisco, CA – This summer, the Contemporary Jewish Museum presents Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World), the first major museum survey of the work of award-winning illustrator, author and designer Maira Kalman.

Well-known for her covers and drawings for The New Yorker, Kalman has also written and illustrated over a dozen books for children and adults, authored two celebrated illustrated blogs for The New York Times, and has collaborated with the likes of fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi and choreographer Mark Morris. Kalman’s art appears everywhere in the foreground of today’s visual culture illuminating contemporary life with joy and humor, intelligence and insights, curlicues and question marks.

The exhibition, organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, features a selection of 100 original works on paper that span thirty years of illustration for publication as well as less widely seen works in photography, embroidery, textiles, and performance.

Kalman, born in Tel Aviv in 1949, immigrated to the United States at the age of four with her family. She has lived in New York ever since.


The 100 works on view — from preliminary sketches to paintings — are quickly paced and hung as a running narrative of personal memories, cultural references, life’s abundant pleasures and distractions, and the chaos of profound events — all rendered in Kalman’s now signature blend of written text and drawings and infused with her keen sense of the absurd. “I think everything I do is narrative. It’s things that are from my life, and things I’ve seen, and things I’ve seen in books. It’s always telling stories,” she says.

Nothing is lost on Kalman for whom the everyday charm of a nicely wrapped package or an interesting fez holds as much interest as the state of democracy in America today. “As an artist, I’m reporting the big things and the small things. And sometimes you don’t know which is which.”

Kalman’s art is a discipline of daily creativity and observation, and she speaks of her work as a form of journalism. Taking photographs, collecting objects and arranging them, writing in notebooks, drawing in journals, painting pictures, making lists – these are the tools she uses to render an ongoing account of the world as she sees it. “Being curious is a completely natural part of it, and being a busybody, and wanting to know what people are doing, and why, and how it works. And why are you wearing those shoes? And what’s that hole puncher for? The nature of curiosity is both about how people live their lives and about the bigger picture of how the world works,” says Kalman.

Expressive of her habits as a collector of odds and ends, traveler, reader, and avid walker, Kalman has created a special installation as a context for the survey furnished with chairs, ladders and “many tables of many things”– balls of string, things that have fallen out of books, moss, lists, bobby pins. The installation invites viewers to observe her way of structuring the world in and outside of the studio.

Specific Works on View

The exhibition includes selections from many of her 12 children’s books including the beloved Oooh-La-La (Max in Love), chronicling the adventures of a Parisian dog poet, and Stay Up Late, her first children’s book created in collaboration with the Talking Heads’ David Byrne. These whimsical books have attracted admirers of all ages, including Ruth Reichl, American food writer and co-producer of PBS’s Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie. “Anybody who has read any of Maira’s books for children will have, as I did, a fantasy of what kind of a world Maira lives in because there is nobody on earth that has a more open imagination, a more exciting way of looking at the world,” says Reichl.

Images from Kalman’s books for adults are included, such as an illustrated edition of Strunk and White’s classic grammar guide, The Elements of Style. In it, Kalman imagines scenes for some of the book’s wonderfully quirky sample phrases and its sage rules (The encouragement to “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand.” is the inspiration for Chocolate and Champagne Party). The work Man Dances on Salt became the well-known cover for The Principles of Uncertainty, a picture book of essays based on a yearlong column for The New York Times devoted to her musings on life’s complexities, absurdities, and joys. “That column was the greatest thing because it talked about how nobody knows what’s going on, but we keep going on,” says Kalman. Soldier, a portrait of a soon-to-be-deployed soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, is one of the works on view from her second online epic for The Times (soon to be released as a book) And the Pursuit of Happiness, which wanders through the subject of democracy in America.

Covers and drawings for The New Yorker are a highlight of the exhibition. “What distinguishes her work is that it is beautiful, but that it also has something to say,” says Francoise Mouly, the art editor at The New Yorker. Kalman’s widely celebrated cartoon map of New Yorkistan (created with cartoonist Richard Meyerowitz), provided a welcome burst of humor after 9/11 with its tongue-in-cheek tribal territories like Pashmina, Irant, Irate, Kvetchnya, and Botoxia. Her cover illustration Dog Reads Book is one that the artist considers a self-portrait of sorts. Misery Day Parade, in which one marcher wears an “I feel rotten” button while another carries a flag for the “Paralyzed with Panic Brigade” was the result of watching a parade on Fifth Avenue. “I thought it looked terribly phony,” she says. “What if people paraded in the way they really felt, I wondered.”

Other works for magazines include a series called “Mad About the Met” for Departures, Aalto Vase with Poppies for The New York Times Style Magazine, an illustrated essay on Vita Sackville-West’s legendary garden for Culture + Travel, a portrait of Dolce & Gabbana’s yellow Labradors and other fashion pet portraits for Interview and My Tel Aviv for Tablet.

Also in the exhibition are a number of works on textile, an area that has increasingly been of interest to Kalman. Her Spilt Milk is one of a number of clichés she has embroidered onto linen napkins after being told by a physic, “Don’t cry over split milk.”

A relatively more secret aspect of Kalman’s identity is the “M” in M&Co, the revolutionary design firm founded by her late husband, Tibor Kalman, with whom she was a constant collaborator. Many of the objects they created together such as the firm’s famous 10-One-4 watch based on one of her doodles are featured as part of Kalman’s installation of objects.

Kalman has often collaborated on design projects such as the fabrics she created with longtime friend and neighbor, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. “Besides being the greatest artist in the world, she is the greatest arbiter of all things,” says Mizrahi. Her other collaborators have included the textile company Maharam, Pucci (mannequins), Kate Spade (cosmetic bags) and Mark Morris (stage sets). Yet another collaborative effort was Kalman’s recent mini-opera created with composer and art-rock celebrity Nico Muhly based on her illustrated The Elements of Style, performed with an ensemble of musicians playing teacups, slinkys, and typewriters. Elements of many of these projects will be displayed in her object installation as well as in short films created by her son Alex Kalman.

Kalman at the CJM

To enhance the experience of the exhibition, the CJM will be offering a number of programs for the public inspired by Kalman’s work and ideas. One of those ideas is called MILTON. Kalman’s vision for MILTON is a conceptual space for pleasure and exchange where a proprietor-of-the-day engages the public in music, poetry, card playing, or even ironing. Kalman herself will inaugurate the first MILTON on the opening day of the exhibition, July 1 from 5-6 PM, which will include acts of unbridled whimsy by local artists and thinkers.

The Museum is also planning an all-day reading event, Kalmania, featuring an ongoing rotation of writers reading from Kalman’s books on October 10, 2010. Many programs for children and families will be available as well including a pre-school hour in the exhibition once a month starting in July.

“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.”

Image: Maira Kalman, Woman with Face Net, 2000, gouache on paper, 17 x 14 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York

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