Self-portrait (with Pete), 2004-5. Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York.

If you happened to: a) read the New York Times online in early 2009; b) raise an especially cool kid in the 1990s or 2000s; or c) embark on a hopeful quest for the ideal edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style sometime after 2007, chances are that you’ve come upon Maira Kalman’s work. Author of a dozen children’s stories, illustrator of multiple New Yorker covers—including the 2001 classic “Newyorkistan” (with Rick Meyerowitz), Kalman has designed fabrics, watches (with late husband Tibor Kalman), and sets for choreographer Mark Morris, in addition to turning out a small archipelago of books.

This spring, the northeastern United States is having a Maira Kalman moment, with a museum retrospective in Philadelphia and a gemlike gallery show in New York City. It’s a pleasure to see Kalman’s works in person—as opposed to reproduced on a page or computer screen—and to get acquainted with a roomful of them, one by one.

Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World), at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia,  looks at 30 years of Kalman’s creative output. The show includes not only well-known illustrations and design works, but less familiar forays into photography, performance, and—delightfully—embroidery. Kalman’s hand is everywhere, not the least in the generous impulse to share her quirky collecting manias: tables’ worth of fezzes, bobby pins, moss, and other carefully amassed oddities. The show’s leisurely run ends June 6.

Red Room in the White House.Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York.

At Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea, Further Illuminations: Recent Paintings showcases 50 gouache paintings done since 2005, including pieces from last year’s New York Times blog, “And the Pursuit of Happiness.”  On view through May 1, it’s a snug galleryful of historical figures, garden statuary, hotel rooms and other vistas, seen through Kalman’s fanciful but unerring eye. In these intimately sized pictures, Thomas Edison dozes unconcernedly on the grass, Jane Austen spreads her skirts in a red-walled parlor, and cupcakes, oysters, and exotic soda bottles claim equal time in a succession of still lifes.

Amid the hubbub, Kalman cheerfully agreed to a late-night email speed-interview about what’s interesting about life right now.

How old are you? What’s good about being this age? What isn’t?

I have just turned sixty. The good part is the ability (usually) to have perspective and balance.

The hard part is the knowledge that time is racing and life is fleeting.

How would you define the next stage of life, in your own terms? What are you looking forward to about it?

I hope that I can do a lot of walking around countries. England. Wales. Italy. France.

I think walking keeps you sane. And it is tremendous fun.

Of the many projects you’ve done over the past few years, which one is the most important to you? Which has given you the most pleasure?

The two years of work for the New York Times online: “The Principles of Uncertainty” [2006-07]  and “And the Pursuit of Happiness” [2009]. These illustrated columns gave me an opportunity to explore my life and to also be a journalist.

[Note: “The Principles of Uncertainty” was published in book form in 2007 and in paperback in 2009; the hardcover of “And the Pursuit of Happiness” is slated to appear this October.]

What do you do for fun these days? Has that changed over the years?

I travel a lot. And visit gardens. Music is still important. And seeing art. Still the same things that have always interested me. Looking.

Do you think there’s any truth in the saying ‘older is wiser?’ Why (or why not)? Is there some other saying you think is closer to the mark?

I hope that I am wiser, but every time I think I am, I realize that I have no idea what is going on and I don’t know anything.

And that is unsettling. But then I think that everyone is in the same position and that makes me either more calm or more nervous.

When we spoke a few years ago, I asked about curating a hypothetical museum show, and what subject you’d choose to do it on. You said you’d like to do a show about failure, which you thought was an underrated phenomenon in our culture. If you were to curate a show today, what would it be about?

Sleep. I am interested in the accessories of sleep. The bed. The pajamas. The books read. The journals written in.

The dreams dreamt. The need to hide. The need to rest.

Thanks so much. Happy walking. And sleeping.

Susan Delson is a writer and editor in New York City.

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  • ALICE EVERITT April 16, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    We have been seeing Maira Kalman’s waonderful artwork pages in The New York Times for YEARS!!! Where have YOU been?