Monday, November 29, 2010

Maira Kalman - narrative of wit & whimsy

Maira Kalman, Self-Portrait (with Pete), 2004-2005, gouache on paper, 16 x 15 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York.

There's a new must-see exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center: Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World). I was lucky to attend a preview the night before it opened to the public, and got to hear an intriguing presentation by Kalman and Ingrid Schaffner, senior curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art,  Philadelphia - and curator of this exhibition.

This is the first museum survey of Kalman's prolific career as an illustrator, writer and designer - although she defines her work as a form of journalism or archaeology. Kalman has written and illustrated 12 picture books, including Ooh-la-la (Max in Love), as well as adult classics such as the illustrated version of the Strunk and White bible of grammar, The Elements of Style. She has contributed editorial pieces to The New Yorker and The New York Times including two blogs - The Principles of Uncertainty and more recently, And the Pursuit of Happiness - both published as books.

This exhibit features a selection of 100 works on paper - culled from 30 years of illustration for publication - as well as photographs, embroidery, performance art and an installation of inspirational objects from Kalman's studio. The works on paper, mostly painted in gouache, are characterized by a vibrant palette, a vast emotional spectrum, perspective shifts, tiny detail and a delicious witty flair.

Essentially, Kalman is a self-taught artist, as she explained in the conversation with Schaffner:

"I didn't study art or painting, and I don't want to know how to do it. I want to struggle through."

What emerges from viewing her work is a pure artistic instinct, refined through years of practice.  One of my favorite pieces is a simple work on paper, Exaltations /Observations, mostly a montage of words, with a few drawings interspersed. For example, there's a profile of a dignified man wearing an extravagant hat, accompanied by some notes: "1. What/A Hat/Spinoza?"

She documents her fondness for cake, and the practice of reading the obituaries at breakfast:

STARING (sic.)

In the conversation with Schaffner, she elaborated on this habit:

"I wake up in the morning and I read the obits, which gives you a sense of time, gets you going. It puts you in touch with the epic moments."

In the midst of random unrelated notes, she produces a list:


I couldn't stifle my delighted laughter while viewing much of the exhibit. Most of the paintings are figurative, although there are exceptions - such as a realistically rendered portrait of a Snickers bar.

Maira Kalman, Snickers, 2002, gouache on paper, 11-1/8 x 12 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York.

The installation pieces were a wonderful complement to Kalman's art, inviting us to step inside her world. I was enchanted to accept.

At the end of the presentation, a young audience member asked Kalman a question about her life as an artist. She offered this piece of advice:

"My tip is, first, don't try to be a big artist. Just stick to it, and do what you love. Don't have any preconceptions." 

Whether you're a picture book aficionado, a fan of wonderful art and witty social commentary, or just enjoy viewing the world through a lens of a fanciful and absurd imagination, go see this exhibit - at the Skirball Cultural Center through February 13, 2011. I plan to return for a second look myself.


Lori W. said...

Kalman sounds like such an interesting woman. Loved the quotes you chose to include here.

As someone who has no skills in art, I really enjoy looking at it and learning about it, maybe because my mom is an artist. Sounds like a very cool exhibit.

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

Hmmmm...Snickers. I wonder if she illustrates chocolate chip cookies?

He Who Can't Draw Worth a Lick

Laurie Young said...

It is a truly wonderful exhibit, not to be missed. I walked away full of whimsy and inspiration. Thanks for reminding me of some of the highlights, I would love to see it again!

Joan Charles said...

Wonderful article, Megan. Can't wait to see the exhibit!

Megan Frances Abrahams said...

Thank you Lori, He Who Can't Draw, Laurie and Joan for commenting.

Lori, I would have liked to include more quotes, but I didn't want this post to get too long. Maira Kalman, and her art, are both fascinating and fun. The exhibit is wonderful.

To He Who Can't Draw - may I point out that Kalman is also a writer? As for chocolate chip cookies, I looked through my signed copy of the exhibit catalog, and didn't see any. I did come across a wonderful painting entitled, "Chocolate and Champagne Party" though, and given Kalman's obvious penchant for cake and Snickers bars, I think it's quite likely she's a cc cookie fan.

Laurie, it was so much fun to see you at the preview.

Thanks Joan, I'm sure you'll love the exhibit.

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Elis said...

Thank you Megan for sharing those quotes and your review! I only recently got the chance to see her exhibit, but I was hungry for I snooped around and found your blog! I hope you don't mind that I linked this post on my blog (just a collection of things that inspire me). :)


p.s. You have lovely illustrations as well! I too studied journalism, but am currently freelancing as a graphic designer/illustrator. And I'm currently working on a children's book illustration for a cool to run into your blog!