In a collaborative comic strip created with Art Spiegelman for The New Yorker, Connecticut's own Maurice Sendak once remarked, "Childhood is deep and rich. It's vital, mysterious, and profound. I remember my own childhood vividly…I knew terrible things…but I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew…it would scare them." No artist or writer since perhaps the Brothers Grimm has captured that special combination of beauty, imagination and fear that is the childhood experience. So many mysteries, so few explanations.
The New Britain Museum of American Art enters the world of Sendak, who died in May 2012, with an exhibition called simply "Maurice Sendak," opening November 9. Sixty-five of his works will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak's best-known book. Where the Wild Things Are has, in its half century, sold nearly 20 million copies worldwide and launched a thousand ships of inspiration by a thousand other artists, as well as an opera, two animated short cartoons, a full-length movie and countless local theater productions. Included in the New Britain exhibition will be the original illustrations for the book, as well as lithographs and sculptures Sendak created of the characters, his drawings for the opera set design, and his sketches for the full-length 2009 film directed by Spike Jonz. Illustrations for other kids' books, like In the Night Kitchen and Little Bear, will also be on view as well as those for his "adult' interpretation of Pierre, which he calls Herman Melville's "most Meshuggah book." Filling out the retrospective are early works, personal artifacts and commissioned posters and magazine covers. As for who he thought was his audience, Sendak told Spiegelman, "Kids books…grownup books…That's just marketing. Books are books."
Meanwhile, Manhattan's resident wild man of art, Red Grooms, has been loosed upon the Yale University Art Gallery with "Larger Than Life," an installation of paintings, sketches and cartoons. These include his large homages "Picasso Goes to Heaven" (1973), "Studio at the Rue des Grands-Augustins" (1990-96) and "Cedar Bar" (1986). All of the work is from Yale's own collections, many from the bequest of Charles B. Benenson (Yale '33). While Grooms would seem reason enough to visit, Yale's gallery is simultaneously opening two other smallish exhibitions, "Still Life: 1970s Photorealism" and "Many Things Placed Here and There: The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection."
In the 1970s, photorealist painters like John Baeder may have elicited "ooohs" and aaahs from gallery visitors but they underwhelmed the critics, who were weary of what they saw as pop art gimmickry. Now, four decades on, these works can be appreciated for their sheer artistic brilliance, painstaking attention to detail and often overlooked sense of form and composition. And within this new contemporary context — in an age of Photoshop and digital image manipulation — the photorealists now seem like artists of indisputable integrity. The show includes work by Chuck Close (whose work is also featured in a show at the Bruce in Greenwich), Ralph Goings, Idelle Weber and Robert Cottingham, as well as life-like sculptures by Duane Hanson (of a beer drunk and a drug addict) and John DeAndrea (of a pregnant woman).
Much of the work on view is from the gift of Richard Brown Baker, who collected photorealism of the more gritty side of life, rather than slick shots of storefronts and neon signs. For example, Weber's "Gutter" (1974) is just that, street detritus collected near a sewer grate that is somehow beautiful in its inelegance; Goings' "Walt's Restaurant" (1978-79) is an interior shot of a forlorn looking man, possibly a traveling salesman, nursing a cup of coffee in an otherwise empty, Hopper-like setting; and Baeder's "Stardust Motel" (1977) is Las Vegas before the corporate facelift.
On limited means but with superb taste and perceptions about lasting value, Dorothy and Herbert Vogel were able to build a massive personal collection of contemporary art. (The Vogels were the subject of a documentary film about their DIY art collecting.) In 2008, the couple began distributing their collection to art institutions in each of the 50 states. Yale University Art Gallery is the site chosen to house Connecticut's gift of 50 works. Among the objects on view are works by Robert Barry, Lois Dodd and Richard Tuttle. The installation is curated by Yale students and augmented by works from the university collection by some of the same artists collected by the Vogels. Herbert Vogel died last year at 89, but Dorothy soldiers on, and will be at the gallery on Nov. 7 to talk about the collection.
For those who long for the "real" real thing, the Kehler Liddell Gallery has separate eye-catching and even breathtaking photography shows. Sven Martson's "My Seventies Show Photographs: 1972-1979" recalls the 1950s work of Robert Frank or post-1930s' Walker Evans -- chance encounters with people seemingly overwhelmed by their immediate urban surroundings. What, for example, is that clown doing to that man with the Greek sailor's cap? Is that really smoke rising from that woman's hairdo? The colors in Hank Paper's "New Italian Color: From Gestural to Graphic Design" seem to leap out at the viewer, at least juxtaposed with Martson's black and white work. Paper seems to have an unerring eye for composition, taking in a large cityscape but focusing on one or two central figures, a man walking a dog, a lovely woman in high heels.
Perhaps photography is important again, given all the recent exhibitions of the often neglected medium. The Wadsworth Atheneum clearly thinks so, with its first exhibition of photographs in nearly a decade, "An Artificial Wilderness: The Landscape in Contemporary Photography." Though all but one of the photographs by the 16 featured photographers are taken from the Wadsworth's collections, the show echoes another vibrant show last year at the Westport Art Center, where some of the same photographers' work was on view. Together, these exhibitions are reminders of the profound impact (mostly for the bad) that Homo sapiens has had on this planet. The Wadsworth spells out this theme with the exhibition's title, taken from a W.H. Auden poem that, according to curators, refers to "modern society's passive stance toward the decline of human values, and its disregard for the physical world." Among the most striking images are Edward Burtynsky's shot of a mountain of discarded tires and Rosemary Laing's shot of a "domesticated" eucalyptus forest in Australia.
"Maurice Sendak" is on view from Nov. 9, 2013 to Feb. 9, 2014. New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., New Britain, (860) 229-0257, nbmaa.org
"Larger Than Life" and "Still Life: 1970s Photorealism" are on view until March 9, 2014. "Many Things Here and There" is on view until Jan. 26, 2014. Yale University Art Gallery, 111 Chapel St., New Haven, (203) 432-0600, artgallery.yale.edu
"An Artificial Wilderness: The Landscape in Contemporary Photography" is on view until Jan. 5, 2014. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St., Hartford, (860) 278-2670, wadsworthatheneum.org
"My Seventies Show Photographs: 1972-1979" and "New Italian Color: From Gestural to Graphic Design" are both on view through Oct. 6, 2013. Kehler Liddell Gallery, 873 Whalley Ave., New Haven, (203) 389-9555, kehlerliddell.com, open Thurs.-Sun. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.