The intelligent curating at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art always makes a walk through its galleries worthwhile. The ICA should also be lauded for the tremendous variety of subjects and media that it tackles. In past years, the small museum has explored video art, experimental architecture, ceramics and even puppetry. The Institute’s current offering, a retrospective of author/illustrator Maira Kalman’s art is another unexpected but thoroughly enjoyable show.
Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) is the first museum survey of the artist’s work. On view are 100 framed pictures hung just below eye level and arranged in a line stretching across the gallery’s walls. Four embroideries, which are less interesting than her works on paper, are also on view.
Kalman’s pictures are arranged by theme rather than chronologically. This strategy compliments the whimsical, playful way in which she approaches her subject matter. While her work is narrative, Kalman does not deal with time in a linear fashion. She is interested in exploring life as we perceive it, replete with memories both personal and collective and filtered through the occasional neurosis. Kalman offers us snapshots from history, images from her past, as well as glimpses of quiet, everyday events. When tackling historical figures, she often paints them into lively little scenes. Her gouache, Matisse in Nice (2004-05) depicts the portly artist from the back in the process of painting a zaftig young model. The every-day, quality of the composition makes us feel like we are looking at a snapshot from his life.
Kalman’s politically and societally-focused pieces are as playful and witty as her more personal and autobiographical peices. New Yorkistan, which she designed with Rick Meyerowitz for the cover of the December 10, 2001 edition of The New Yorker is a perfect example. The image, which was created in the aftermath of nine eleven, divides a map of New York into a series of tribal regions, including Bronxistan, Khaffeine, Notsobad, Veryverybad, and Botoxia. In 2005, the American Society of Magazine Editor’s included New Yorkistan on its list of the 40 greatest magazine covers from the past 40 years.
Kalman’s illustrations almost vibrate with an intense humanism and a passion for life. In addition to broader themes, like family, romance, history and loss, her images celebrate life’s small pleasures, such as food, dogs and her love of objects. Several of Kalman’s pictures zero in on specific material things that intrigue her. In one gouache, she zeros in on a Snicker’s Bar. In another, a rubber band is beautifully rendered against a soft green background. For one piece, Kalman arranges a bouquet of flowers in an Aalto vase. To compliment her pictures, Kalman designed an installation in the center of the gallery that explores her interest in everyday things. Like her carefully-composed images, Kalman’s Many Tables of Many Things is an example of well-ordered chaos. On view are objects old and new that she chose for their ability to inspire wonder and for their connection to the her work. Kalman shows us vintage suitcases, fancy men’s shoes, balls of twine, a fez, a comb that bears the inscription ‘the elements of style,’ (a reference to Kalman’s illustrated edition of Strunk and White’s classic). The installation also allows us to admire several products and books designed by the artist. Kalman often collaborated with her late husband, Tibor Kalman’s design firm, M&Co to create clever, witty pieces. One of her tables displays watches by Kalman, including the famous 10-one-4 watch, which is based on one of her drawings. Several of Kalman’s children’s books, such as her classic, Ooh-la-la (Max in Love) rest on a long, green low-to-the-ground table. Visitors can sit in on one of several kid-sized chairs and read through them.
Overall, Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) is a beautifully composed exhibition that gives viewers a thorough introduction to Kalman’s wonderful work. The show will be at the ICA until June 6, after which it will travel to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (July 1- October 26, 2010), the Skirball Culture Center in Los Angeles (November 16, 2010-February 13, 2011) and the Jewish Museum in New York (March 11 – July 31, 2011).