The appealing eccentricity of Maira Kalman

The cartoonist and columnist probably best known for her funny map of “New Yorkistan” on the cover of the best-selling issue in the history of the New Yorker magazine is the subject of a delightful show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

On view through Oct. 26, “Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)” includes not only 100 of the artist’s gauche paintings on paper and textile creations, but objects from her idiosyncratic personal collections of boxes, ladders, suitcases, pails and hats, particularly fezzes, among other items. (Her equally wacky late husband, Tibor Kalman, collected onion rings.)

Kalman, born in 1949 and a New Yorker since age 4, has an amusing take on the world, celebrating everyday objects in whimsical, cartoonlike paintings of rubber bands, glasses of water or the backs of people walking down the street.

Often she would base her paintings on photographs she took herself, or on famous photographs — for example, the show has pictures she based on works by Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Raised by an essentially single mother who had a free spirit and clearly encouraged the same creativity in her daughter, Kalman’s eclectic, eccentric style is reflected in many pieces in the show, including stitchery made from linen scraps. One piece, clearly open to interpretation, is called “To the Stars Through Difficulties” and was inspired by her mom’s disbelief in details such as facts.

While the show is filled with lightness and humor, all of its topics are not.

Among Kalman’s interests are people’s reactions to crisis; some of the pieces address the holocaust and war. Her bold, red-and-white rendering of a poster in London during the blitz, simply with the words “Keep Calm and Carry On,” reflects her fascination with courage.

She has famous friends and collaborators, such as David Byrne, whose Talking Heads song “Stay Up Late” was the basis for the first book Kalman illustrated. And she has a dozen children’s books to her credit, many featuring dogs. Her own dog, Pete, is featured in some of the show’s pictures.

One particularly sweet portrait in the show is of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, along with an accompanying picture of the justice’s collar and robes, which she gets from Paris. The two apparently became friends, sharing much in common, including a love for Matisse, whose artwork is the subject of another Kalman cartoon.

A lover of words, Kalman created fun and thought-provoking images for the recent illustrated edition of the classic writing manual “The Elements of Style,” several of which are in the exhibit.

lkatz@sfexaminer.com

 

IF YOU GO

Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)

Where: Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., San Francisco

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except closed Wednesdays and 1 to 8 p.m. Thursdays; exhibit closes Oct. 26

Tickets: $10 general, $8 seniors and students, free for those 18 and under; $5 Thursday after 5 p.m.

Contact: (415) 655-7800, www.thecjm.org

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