You may think you've never heard of Maira Kalman, but you have. In 1981 her doodles appeared on the cover of a solo record by Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne and she is the author of a dozen children's books, some featuring the poet-dog Max.
For people who number their weeks by the arrival of a new New Yorker, Kalman is most famous for the New Yorkistan map that appeared on its cover in December 2001 and, for the first time in months, made people smile.
The cartoon map, produced with Rick Meyerowitz, bestows vaguely Central Asian names on the tribes and regions of New York: Taxistan in Queens, Pashmina on the genteel Upper East Side.
Now this map and dozens of other charming paintings and drawings are on view at New York's Jewish Museum. It's the last stop of "Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)," which originated last year at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.
Kalman's work, with its childlike style and bright colors, is often described as whimsical, and it is. But it has an intellectual heft that reflects a deep and wide-ranging curiosity, as well as a subliminal anxiety that in one interview she ascribes to being the child of Holocaust survivors.
Born in Israel, Kalman moved to New York at age 4 and grew up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. In college, she met Tibor Kalman, who would become an acclaimed graphic designer as well as her husband and artistic partner until his untimely death from cancer in 1999.
Kalman's love for her family - her two children and sister, and the memory of her late husband and beloved mother - is front and center in her work. Curator Ingrid Schaffner draws a connection between the dreamy stream-of-consciousness that is a hallmark of Kalman's style and her upbringing by a mother with a "serious love of distractions."
Kalman's mother took young Maira and her sister to museums and concerts, regaled them with stories about village life in Russia, and filled them with little blintzes and other snacks. Later, these "distractions," and countless others, would show up in Maira's work. Numerous paintings pay homage to her favorite artists, especially Matisse. A glass case lovingly encloses an onion ring collection that once belonged to her husband; it's one of several eccentric but affecting personal collections on display.
Kalman's absurdist way of thinking has clearly struck a chord with the public. Besides her books and illustrations, she's designed clothing and fabric with Isaac Mizrahi and Kate Spade, and written online journals for The New York Times. This exhibition is a must for anyone who has admired her wacky sensibility, even if he/she didn't know at the time that it was Kalman's.
The show opens Friday and closes July 31.
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