It debuted in Philadelphia last year, then hit the West Coast with stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Now—finally—Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) opens today in New York City.
For Kalman, a New Yorker, the show’s arrival at The Jewish Museum is a homecoming—literally. “It doesn’t feel like it’s a show,” she remarked to visitors at a preview. “It feels like you’ve just wandered into my home.” And it’s true, Kalman’s touch is everywhere, from the arrangement of buckets and funnels that greets viewers stepping off the elevator to the oversized ottomans covered in heavy gold fabric, designed by Kalman for the textile manufacturer Maharam. Nearby, a length of the cloth hangs over an old wooden ironing board bearing a handwritten label: “Kindly do not touch the fabric.” The admonishment is well-placed: one wants to touch everything.
Near the buckets hangs an old-fashioned broom with a handmade air, companioned by a simple ladder. Painted on the wall, a note: “When the broom is not on the wall, the artist is sweeping across the street on Fifth Avenue.” The message is clear: not only is Kalman at home here, from time to time she plans to take up residence—if not attending to the pavement in front of Central Park, then behind the counter at the show’s improvised pop-up store.
Unlike most exhibition shops, this one’s not for postcards or souvenir t-shirts. Instead, Kalman will be offering random pieces from her vast collection of…stuff. “I want to de-accession and it’s very hard because I love all these things very much,” she says wistfully. “So what does one do? It’s a conundrum.”
Objects on offer include a pair (and one pair only) of men’s brown lace-ups that Kalman calls “the ur-shoe,” a small flotilla of silver egg-slicers, and the most seductive bouncing balls imaginable, striped, from Argentina. A nearby vitrine holds a still-life of other pieces she’s accumulated over the years, including Kismet thread (“Who would ever imagine naming something like that?”) and a box of bracelets wrapped in pink tissue and string, destined to remain forever sealed. (“When the guy wrapped the box, I said: It’s never going to get opened, it’s so beautiful.”) A painting of it (Pink Package, 2004-05, above) hangs in the first gallery.
Speaking of the items in the vitrine, Kalman says, “These are just objects that make you go ‘oh.’ And then I get to paint them. It’s an extra bonus, that I can make a living out of looking at these things.”
And look she does, with an omnivorous and transformative eye, collecting, photographing, and painting. “Almost everything is on assignment,” she says. “I manage to fit in the things that make me completely happy—or crazy, or miserable—into the assignments.” There are portraits of Emily Dickinson and Abraham Lincoln, fantastical street scenes (like Annual Misery Day Parade, 2001), and freehanded, unexpectedly poignant embroidery works like Goethe: An Embroidery in Four Parts, made in 2005 after her mother’s death.
“She was the centerpiece of my life,” Kalman says softly. “I mean, and my kids, but… She was an extraordinary influence on me. She was very, very beautiful, but not vain, which is a wonderful combination. And a great sense of humor. She basically had some kind of profound and inexplicable faith that what I was doing was okay and she didn’t have to tell me what to do.” She pauses to reflect. “That’s unbelievable. That’s just unbelievable, because I can’t do that with my kids. I’m always telling them what to do.” One of the first pieces in the show, My Mother in Palestine (1998) elegantly echoes this sentiment. “My mother was born near a wild river in Russia,” Kalman wrote in the drawing. “She was (is) a wild beauty with wild hair. She drank burning hot tea. Never lied. And never told me what to do.”
Queried about some of the topics she touched on in last year’s WVFC interview, Kalman immediately zeroes in on walking trips. “Actually, one of the things I’m talking to the New York Times about is going back to do a piece about walking in different countries around the world,” she says. “We’ll see if that works out. It may be an animation. It’s an ambitious project which may be all talk and no action, but we’ll see.”
Still, she does plenty of walking right here. “I’m taking a sabbatical from teaching this year, but at the School of Visual Arts graduate school, I taught a short seminar, based on walking and not thinking. The premise was like Immanuel Kant, who went out for a walk every day at 3:30—that you go out for a walk and you don’t have any agenda. We had some parameters, and then you’d do a project based on what happened to you—or what didn’t happen to you—when you were walking. Anyway,” she concludes, “walking is still really important.”
New York aside, there’s another aspect of the show’s arrival at The Jewish Museum that Kalman finds deeply satisfying: the connection with Charlotte Salomon, a German Jewish artist who perished in Auschwitz, leaving behind hundreds of small gouache paintings chronicling her circle of family and friends. “The Charlotte Salomon paintings are very important to me, and her work is really a profound influence,” says Kalman. “The Charlotte Salomon paintings were in these rooms. So there’s something very heartfelt about being in these rooms…in New York across from Central Park.”
Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) runs through July 31 at The Jewish Museum in New York City.