Artists’ early works can be fascinating for how they hint at their later, mature styles. Years ago, for instance, I saw a landscape Piet Mondrian had painted in his teens or twenties in which the stylized, angular rendering of a tree trunk and branches felt like an arrow pointing toward the grid-like geometry of his signature abstractions. Foreshadowing! But how much more revealing—or at least fun—might it be when the early work is literal juvenilia and the artists are illustrators whose primary audience is kids? That’s the backward-and-forward premise behind “Now & Then: Contemporary Illustrators and Their Childhood Art,” a delightful and even moving show that asks 19 established illustrators to pair a piece of their own childhood art with an illustration from one of their grown-up books.
As you’d expect, there is a lot of playfulness in the kid art, but also hints here and there of the anxious, obsessive labor that can lead, for better or worse, to a career. Nothing too virtuosic, though: encouraging rather than intimidating young museum-goers is one of the show’s aims. According to co-curator Grace Lin (herself a Caldecott Honor winner), “We were hoping the artists would put in their really really bad childhood art, because we wanted to show kids that we started from all different places.”