"A good thing to know is what a punch in the nose feels like in case somebody asks," the great children's-book author Ruth Krauss wrote in 1960, to which her illustrator, Maurice Sendak, 32, responded with 12 little hooligans punching themselves, each a separate drawing, cut out and arranged across two pages.
It is one of the first works you see on entering the gallery — and you know you're still in the finest of subversive company.
What does it mean, now, to look at these small, finite expressions of the infinite and boundlessness once the lights have been turned on and you are free to ponder the first posthumous exhibition of original works — 70 drawings and watercolors culled from nearly 10,000 Sendak artifacts owned by the Rosenbach, which has carried on a pretty-much-requited love affair with him for decades?
First off, you get a thanks but no thanks from the dyspeptic man himself.
"Sorry — can't come! Work!"
The Rosenbach puts his little "regrets-only" caricature of himself — which curator Patrick Rodgers says Sendak sent on a reply card to beg off some requested appearance — right at the beginning.
And so, the joke is finally on us. We must go on without him.
Rodgers, 33, the Rosenbach's Sendak expert, put the show together. The contents will change twice, in October and February, to cycle in as many works as the small gallery permits. It also contains the Chertoff mural, brought to the museum last year from the Manhattan apartment where Sendak painted it in 1961 for the children of friends.
Rodgers was ill in April, when Sendak came to visit it, and thus missed a final chance to see the man in whose work he has so immersed himself. He said that, as he prepared the exhibition, he was particularly drawn to these early works.
"There's always a tendency to focus on really his more complex books," Rodgers said last week, a day after attending a New York memorial service for Sendak. "Even Sendak cited Outside Over There [from 1981] as probably one of his favorite books. But there's so much good work he did in the '50s — he was so prolific then. I fear a lot of those books are being forgotten. I fear that nobody knows who Ruth Krauss is. ... I love seeing his messy early stuff."
The raucous, naughty exuberance is all there. As Rodgers noted, there were rumpuses going on long before 1963's Where the Wild Things Are formally announced them.
He said the collaborative works were truly that; the book's "dummy" pages in the exhibition show the process. "He would have the cutouts of the drawings, all those little kids punching themselves in the face, and then he and Ruth would argue about where the text was going to go, where the kids would go."
You see the seeds of future works, as in an illustration for Krauss' 1957 The Birthday Party, in which Sendak breaks down a party into its disharmonious parts: two adults look bored and impatient, the big sister somewhat menacingly brandishes a fork, as the little brother gets a kiss from the mom. Fast forward to Little Bear and his birthday soup party, when Bear, sure his mother forgot, stages a party for himself with his skeptical but game companions Hen, Duck, and Cat.
That uneasiness of childhood — someone forgot about me, what's going to happen next, what have I done now — is ably captured in these early drawings. In Kenny's Window (1956), the first book Sendak both wrote and illustrated, a boy sits on his bed and stares out the window, wondering, "Do you always want what you think you want?"
A 1961 ink wash from What Do You Do Dear?, an etiquette (of sorts) book written by Seslye Joslin, shows a pirate boy ordering a girl to walk the plank, then pondering what to do when she turns on the plank and waves her handkerchief. (You wave back, naturally). And when she drops it? (You pick it up for her.) Everyone smiles cheerfully as the execution is executed according to proper etiquette.
And the book does not shy away from the end result, Rodgers notes. "You see her walk the plank, and you've done the right thing by giving her the handkerchief back, but she's still shark bait."
This career-spanning show reveals how many characters pop up repeatedly. The mischievous boy-girl duo; the kids punching themselves or tumbling through the air; the babies — always in some sort of danger, but wrapped up mummy-style and home in time for supper; the kids parading with instruments and animals.
"He had an appetite for rambunctious kids," Rodgers said. "I didn't realize how insistent he was about sneaking those kids into every book he was doing."
There are unexpected things: a portrait of Einstein from 1947's Atomics for the Millions, a 1967 illustration for William Blake's Songs of Innocence, four photo-realistic 1960s illustrations in the style of German Renaissance printmaker Albrecht Dürer.
In works spanning half a century, many have a beyond-the-frame element: the window, the moon, the inner depths of a child's psyche, the limitlessness of mischief. The pages are full, but lead somewhere beyond.
You see works that began with a simple line of a smile and crinkled eyes, kids sailing off to sea, sliding into a river with arms raised exultantly, marching behind the others, being the one in front. The tops of trees are rarely shown, roads serpentine off the page, windows open on a vast horizon. Somewhere, outside over there, he may still be found.
Contact Amy Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or email@example.com.
Exhibition Maurice Sendak: A Legacy Through May 2013 at Rosenbach Museum and Library, 2008-2010 Delancey Place. Admission: $10 adults, $5 children. 215-732-1600, www.rosenbach.org