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The Familiarity Of Maira Kalman

Familiarity makes way for nostalgia when you live in New York long enough.  The cheap diner owned by Greek immigrants that you frequent inevitably turns into a clothing boutique for American style fashions made in some 3rd world country; your first apartment gets demolished to make way for overpriced condos, and dive bars you always said you’d get drunk in inevitably are taken over by a crowd you find undesirable (college students, yuppies, American Apparel model clones) before you get your chance.  It’s a simple rule of thumb that if you live in New York you are destined to always yearn for the past – 1 week ago, 1 month ago, 10 years ago.   Things change in the blink of an eye here, and that’s both the allure and biggest pain in the ass when it comes to life in The Big Apple.  But to keep things running smoothly, everybody has their personal list of things that conjure up warm memories of parts of life in the city.  Mine includes (but is not limited to) Paul Simon’s Graceland, the smell of the Times mixed with cheap coffee, and also Ed Koch’s face (for better or worse).  I’d also put the art of Maira Kalman onto that list, but I’m not totally sure I saw much of it growing up; it’s just something that seems familiar, and undeniably New York.   That’s probably why I found myself so enthusiastic to check out her first major museum survey, Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (Of a Crazy World), at The Jewish Museum, which opened last week.

Upon entering the exhibit, you realize you have actually entered Kalman’s world.   There are dozens of gouache painted works ranging from Kalman’s memories of growing up in Tel Aviv, tributes to Saul Steinberg and his influence on every New Yorker artist to come after him, as well as portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Emily Dickinson.  Kalman’s famous post-9/11 collaboration with Rick Meyerowitz, New Yorkistan, is on display a few inches away from The Planes Attacked; a sobering, minimal sky-blue rendering of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Taking advantage of every inch of the Kalman exhibit is of the utmost importance: from watching her fifteen minute TED talk, to viewing objects from the 2005 take on E.B. White and William Strunk’s classic manual on writing and usage, The Elements of Style, that both she and composer wunderkind, Nico Muhly, collaborated on.  The entire exhibit is a showcase of life’s beautiful chaos, and there are moments when the mundane never looked so breathtaking, maybe exemplified best by the painting of an ordinary Snickers bar floating in a pool of pink watercolor.

Every bit of Kalman’s Various Illuminations is a treat.  My only worry is that its being hosted by The Jewish Museum might serve to detract visitors who might be unfamiliar with the artist’s work.  That is no slight on the fantastic curatorial job of the folks at the Museum, but more a possible worry of the shortsightedness of the museum-going public.  Hopefully that won’t be the case, as this is one of the must-see exhibits of the year.

(Photo of the artist by Rick Meyerowitz.  All illustrations by Maira Kalman, courtesy of The Jewish Museum)

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