On a cold Wednesday evening last winter, ICA Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner spoke about and showed pictures by Maira Kalman, the illustrator, author, and designer who is the subject of ICA’s current exhibition, Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World). Schaffner began by telling the story she often tells about putting together this exhibition, describing the blank looks she gets when she mentions Kalman’s name. The artist, probably best known for her “New Yorkistan” cover for The New Yorker magazine—an early leavening of humor in the wake of 9/11—and for her children’s books featuring Max the dog-poet, is not a household name. But what’s an ICA exhibition for if not to put an interesting and important artist on the map?
That Kalman is interesting and important becomes clearer and clearer as Schaffner talks, showing images of the work and describing the way she organized the exhibition: thinking narratively, grouping the works by theme—self-portraits, family, dogs, mapping, cities, and so on—creating a ribbon of pictures around the walls. She explicates Kalman’s relationship to other artist-illustrators (Steig, Spiegelman, Crumb) as well as to painters like Chagall and Matisse. She raises and takes on the “c” word—charm. Kalman’s work is undeniably charming, so can it be serious, profound, important? Well, can Matisse’s? Is it bad to be decorative? Is it worse if you’re a woman and collect linens as well as onion rings and mosses (the exhibition includes several of Kalman’s collections, as well as illustrations of the collections). The questions linger, accumulate, resonate, the same way the images do.
Schaffner tells us a bit about Kalman’s life: her marriage to Tibor Kalman (founder of the revolutionary design firm M&Co, the “M” standing for “Maira”) who died in 1999, her Holocaust-surviver parents, her penchant for city wandering, for stealing towels from hotel rooms, her passion for snacks. There is darkness here, right in the middle of the lightness, and once Schaffner tells you about it, it’s impossible not to see it in the work. It’s not that you see the work differently, exactly. It’s that you understand more clearly what you’ve been seeing all along, what the human weight is that keeps this bright, decorative, and often whimsical work from preciousness.
And what’s an ICA curatorial lecture for, if not to help you understand more deeply what it is you’re seeing? If not to bring heat and illumination to a dark, late winter night?
The exhibition Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) is open at ICA through June 6.