50s are ‘Wild’ at Museum’s Maurice Sendak exhibit

“There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen,” wrote author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. From now through Dec. 31, that magical place can be found inside the Vero Beach Museum of Art. “50 Works, 50 Years, 50 Reasons – Maurice Sendak: The Memorial Exhibition” bounded into the museum’s Holmes Gallery with a public rumpus – er, reception – last Friday, and won’t be dislodged until after the New Year.

Sendak died five years ago at 83, but his wit and wisdom live on in the books that made him a household name, at least in homes where children are found. His most famous creation, “Where the Wild Things Are,” has sold over 20 million copies in a Babel of languages since its publication, and although the current exhibition presents a selection of artworks from throughout Sendak’s career, “Wild Things” is its drawing card.

The “50 Works” of the title signifies the number of objects in the exhibition, most of which have to do with Sendak’s masterpiece. On display are original drawings for “Where the Wild Things Are,” as well as set and costume designs for an opera, celluloids from a 1975 animated short, and concept drawings for the 2009 movie, all based on the book. Spin-offs from the book’s success include limited-edition lithographs and a cast bronze sculpture. These, too, are based on the book’s rambunctious protagonist, Max, and his adventures with the monstrous Wild Things who at first try to frighten him, then befriend him and finally crown him their king.

Also on display are artworks from Sendak’s own “In the Night Kitchen” and illustrations for the “Little Bear” book series written by Else Holmelund Minarik. Of particular interest to budding artists will be a series of illustrations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that the shy 16-year-old Sendak did in lieu of a book report to pass his high school English class.

“50 Years” refers to the anniversary of “Where the Wild Things Are,” which was published by Harper & Row in 1963. For those of you who just did the math, the 50th anniversary of publication was in 2013 – which is when this traveling exhibition made its debut at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif. Since that time the exhibition has been displayed at 22 public institutions, including 15 public libraries. After the show in Vero Beach, it will travel to at least five more venues, ending up in Mobile, Ala., in the spring of 2019.

“50 Reasons” represents the quotes by Sendak’s friends, colleagues and admirers that accompany the exhibition, one for each object. In addition to the pervasive Oprah Winfrey, celebrities quoted include Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, actors Tom Hanks and Whoopee Goldberg, authors Daniel Handler (aka “Lemony Snicket”) and Gregory Maguire (“Wicked”), and fellow award-winning artist/authors Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar) and Art Spiegelman (“Maus”).

The exhibition was organized by Opar, Inc., a New York-based traveling exhibition and stage show company founded by former San Diego Art Museum director Steven Brezzo. Nick Leone and Heidi Leigh, owners of a New York City art gallery that specializes in illustration art, curated the exhibition. But the gallerists’ association with Sendak goes back a ways. In 2009 their AFA Gallery (then known as Animazing Gallery) mounted an exhibition in cooperation with Sendak to sell his original illustrations. The poster for that show, “Sendak in SoHo,” is part of the current exhibition.

Maurice Sendak: The Memorial Exhibition was inspired by a retrospective show of the artist’s work at AFA Gallery that opened little more than a month after Sendak’s death on the eve of what would have been his 84th birthday: June 9, 2012.

Reached at her gallery on a busy day last week, Heidi Leigh said that some works from the 2012 show are on display in the present offering. These include a drawing executed in the late sixties or early seventies that shows Max dancing to the beat of a Wild Thing’s drum; and an ink and watercolor self-portrait with Mickey Mouse. Sendak was not only influenced by Disney’s creation; he and the mouse both entered the world in 1928.

According to the Vero Beach museum’s new curator, Danielle Johnson, none of the original “Wild Thing” compositions included in the show are in the book; they were done prior to or after it was published. In addition, Johnson estimates that the show is comprised of 60 percent original works and 40 percent published matter – posters, limited-edition prints and a bronze sculpture from an edition of 63.

Titled “Max and the Sea Monster,” the bronze was sculpted by an artisan after one of the illustrations in “Wild Things.” The sculpture commemorates the 2009 release of the Warner Brothers movie based on the book.

Says AFA Gallery owner Heidi Leigh, “It was the only sculpture based on his artwork that was approved by Sendak” for casting in a limited edition.

The current show, she notes, includes Sendak artworks from her and other collectors’ personal holdings, along with “much” material from Sendak’s estate.

While the original concept behind the memorial exhibition might have been sentiment, the idea behind the current one is entertainment. Families with children are the show’s intended audience.

A “Wild Rumpus Room” built inside the gallery recreates Max’s bed (which visitors are encouraged to lie on) and Max’s bookshelves, which are full of Sendak’s books for visitors to peruse. Not coincidentally, those titles are available in the museum shop. There is even a free-standing cut-out of Max in his famous wolf suit in the room.

The museum’s Family Programs Manager, Pam Sommers, says that she based the Rumpus Room on the reading nooks that were created in conjunction with the exhibition at some of its previous venues. To her knowledge, however, none of them placed a playroom inside the exhibition gallery, as the Vero Beach museum has done.

“We want people to be playful and interact with the space,” Sommers says.

And what of the art? The relatively small, framed artworks are hung against mural-sized reproductions of Sendak’s Wild Thing illustrations. They tend to be overwhelmed by the billboard images behind them.

Situated among the looming figures of 10-foot high Wild Things, a Rumpus Room and interactive cut outs, it will be the rare child – indeed, the rare adult – that gives more than a glance to the art objects the show is supposed to be about. Thank goodness for the exceptional children – of every age – who will stop and wonder at the inconspicuous gems that line the walls.

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