“Look,” I said. “The suitcases are in the fireplace!”
“They look good there,” David said.
David and I were in New York seeing Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) before it closed last weekend at The Jewish Museum. The exhibition was organized at ICA by Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner, and it was on view there during the spring of 2010. If you’re lucky, you’ve seen it at one of its four venues: the ICA in Philadelphia, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, or The Jewish Museum. If you’re super lucky, you got to see it at more than one.
Like diplomats or rock bands, exhibitions travel all the time. It’s always sad to see a show packed into its crates, but it softens the blow a little when you know it’s moving on someplace else. It’s a little like sending a child off to college: you’ve done your best by them, and you have to trust they’ll thrive. Still, you may feel better if you visit on Parents Weekend and see for yourself.
Several ICA staff members have seen Maira Kalman in all its venues, but I only saw it in Philadelphia and New York. I’d heard it looked very different ensconced in the elegant New York townhouse of The Jewish Museum, and I was eager to see for myself what that meant.
How strange and delightful it was to enter a new space and encounter old friends! There was that familiar ironing board, only hanging on a wall now, with the pink dress nearby. There was the man who looked like he was skating, and the pink package tied with string, and all the dogs. There was our own wall text—which I had proofread a dozen times—and our funding credits and Ingrid’s name. There was the picture my mother liked best, the one of Emily Dickinson, and there was Ben Franklin in his fur hat wearing an expression suggesting that he at least was not at all sure he wanted to be out of Philadelphia. It was as though all these items had arranged to meet David and me in Manhattan, perhaps for dinner and a show.
At ICA, the whole Kalman exhibition fit in one room. In the middle was an installation, composed by Maira, referred to as “many tables of many things”—though there weren’t just tables of things but also ladders and buckets, a pie chest of linens, some chairs, and those suitcases. The pictures themselves were installed in one long ribbon, frame often right up against frame, giving a feeling of the long sweep of Maira’s work. It suggested a continuous narrative you could fall into, a shaggy dog story maybe, or a fanciful epic.
At The Jewish Museum the rooms are smaller, so works and objects were necessarily divided up among connected rooms. Within each room there might be space for only three pictures between a doorway and a corner, though on other walls you could see perhaps twenty together. Here the mind was more likely to absorb the work in smaller bites, to think about how a handful of pictures related to each other, and then another handful, as though the show were a book of poems.
The gallery where the exhibition was presented at ICA is a big open space with white walls and high ceilings. At The Jewish Museum, the door frames are made of dark wood, an ornate frieze runs along the top of the walls, and there are marble fireplaces like the one in which I spied the suitcases. Something about the contrast between the old fashioned New York surroundings and the signature Kalman whimsy (not that all her work is whimsical) felt alive in a very Kalmanesque way. It was nice, too, to look past the objects and see the city outside the windows. The trees waving in Central Park looked as though Maira had painted them, and I thought about how, when we look at art, we begin to see the whole world inflected by the vision of whatever artist we’re immersed in.
When it was time to go, David and I took one last look. The pictures seemed as fresh as ever, even after so much time in the public view. Most of these pictures were made in New York after all, and the installation objects were largely New Yorkers too; it was hard to escape the feeling that, after an exhilarating national tour, the objects in Various Illuminations felt they had come home.
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