Maira Kalman, ‘Mosses of Long Island’, 2006, gouache on paper. Collection of Edwina von Gal.
According to Maria Kalman, “it’s wonderful to wash dishes when you’re trying to write a story.” Trying to live in an unordered house would make her nervous, she says.
But Kalman, an artist whose humor and candid sensitivity have made her a fixture in American illustration, lives, like the rest of us, in a very unordered and chaotic world. In fact, she’s built an artistic career out of making sense of, and editing, and even celebrating, the chaos. An exhibit of her work, “Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World),” is currently on show at the Jewish Museum in New York.
Like many cartoonists, Kalman straddles high and low art, her unique writing voice and drawing style adept at addressing a wide audience across a range of forms. Her illustrations appear steadily in prominent newspapers and magazines. She has published many children’s books and an illustrated edition of Strunk & White’s classic composition guide, “The Elements of Style.” She created two ongoing visual blogs for the New York Times’ website, later published as books. And her work has graced many a cover of the New Yorker, including a famous image that mapped the various tribal areas of the city (Pashmina on the Upper East Side, Taxistan in Queens, Khandibar in Brooklyn) a few months after September 11th, while the city was still shaken up, but intact in its diversity.
Kalman’s first blog for the New York Times, “The Principles of Uncertainty,” was a meditation on questions of happiness, purpose, loss and her own personal history. Photographs, paintings, and loopy, handwritten text interrogate legacies of the past. Kalman moves from an illustration of an older woman with three bobby pins directly to a painting of a library flattened during the London blitz, with the following caption:
Then the all-clear sounded. And people returned, hope undiminished. They returned, so elegant and purposeful to the books. What does this have to do with bobby pins and radiators and Kokoshniks? One thing leads to another.
Kalman’s second series for the Times also explored history and philosophy, but she focused intentionally on a topic she knew less about: American democracy.
“I was sent on this assignment because I didn’t know anything about politics, so I would bring a naivete, but also a sense of optimism and a sense of curiosity to the subject,” she says.
Kalman handles large questions about leadership and patriotism by focusing on the daily routines of the Founding Fathers and the objects that gave texture to their lives. She becomes fascinated by Abraham Lincoln and asks Ruth Bader Ginsburg about where she gets her robes and lace collars (some are from Paris). The result is a deeply empathetic treatment of justice, citizenship and American politicians past and present.
This past year saw the first major museum survey of her work, which showcases the range of her illustrations. In addition to 100 works on paper, the exhibit features embroideries and photographs, as well as an installation of belongings that have been immortalized in her work. The show opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia last January before continuing on to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. It opened last week at its final stop, the Jewish Museum, where it will be on display through July.
Watch a slide show of works by Maira Kalman, narrated by the artist:
Ingrid Schaffner, who curated “Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World),” drew the show together over the course of a year and a half, enjoying full access to Kalman’s studio and its drawers and her sketchbooks. After agonizing about how to both streamline the collection in the show and how to incorporate the concept of storyline, Schaffner opted to arrange the pictures flush with one another, like connected pages.
“It seemed only natural to install them in that ribboning band, with no space in between to disrupt the flow, the force, of that narrative,” she said. “As a viewer, it’s like being inside of a book when you’re in the exhibition, going seamlessly from picture to picture—as if from page to page.”
Born in Israel and raised in New York, Kalman entered college intent on becoming a writer, but soon began to focus on drawings instead.
“At the time it seemed like a relief not to have the pressure of all those words, so many words to organize,” she says. “Better to organize colors and shapes.”
Her early illustrations had a whimsical punk aesthetic. Figures sprout green hair and snakelike arms, and levitate in a world that is indifferent to proportion, scale, or gravity. In 1985, she published Stay Up Late, a children’s book based on a song by the Talking Heads, in which a boy and girl keep their baby sibling from sleeping while adults daydream and are otherwise preoccupied. (Publisher’s Weekly cautioned, “This book has definite appeal for hip adults, but it’s not for the literal-minded child.”) Kalman began to write and illustrate other books for kids that held an equally strong appeal for adults in their humor and cultural references. The most famous of these feature Max Stravinsky, a recurring character who is both a poet and a dog.
“Writing children’s books is a wonderful exercise for understanding being concise and getting to the point,” says Kalman.
“I’m trying to say things in as few words as possible with the least number of images as possible. I want to tell you a story that’s very clean and episodic and then I want to jump to the next thing. And being able to use both word and image is really fantastic. I’m very lucky to be able to jump between those two worlds and combine them.”
These days, Kalman’s audience is primarily adult. But while her work has become less cartoonish, and though her texts more explicitly reference modernist ideas and thinkers (people like Walter Benjamin), much of her work remains surreal, funny and even childlike in its frequent sense of delight and wonder.
In one painting, a dancer soars through the air while a man chats on the phone, oblivious to the aerial performance behind him. In others, parks and train stations abound with swirling masses of people, looking in different directions, sporting wild hats.
Inanimate objects like sinks, chairs, napkins and typewriters are isolated, elevated, rendered with affection. The pleasure she gets in acquiring and relinquishing unique objects is a part of her work. Various possessions appear repeatedly, like a pink box that she purchased in India that must not be opened. To Kalman, the box represents “a moment in time, a moment of beauty, of adventure and of satisfaction,” she says.
For the show, she created an installation of collected objects, an array that includes eight balls of string, seven linen paint rags, five suitcases, three ladders, a pair of brown shoes (“to slow down time”), a bell, a slinky, and a can of Mushy Peas.
Schaffner says there are moments in the exhibition when you could be looking at one of Kalman’s pictures and turn to see the actual object. “You’re looking at a picture of, say, ‘The Mosses of Long Island,’ then catch out of the corner of your eye the very thing itself: some amateur botanist’s collection in a shoebox, which Kalman says she found in a bookstore.”
As in dreams, the bizarre and the quotidian inhabit the same space in endearing ways. In the brochure for an earlier exhibition of Kalman’s work in Tokyo, Japanese curator Hiroko Tanaka put it well: “Maira Kalman, your pictures are so crazy that everyone wants to hug them.”
Dreams and distraction are part of Kalman’s process. “Napping is part of her studio practice,” says Schaffner. “There’s a divan nearby her drawing table just for the purpose.”
Schaffner distinguishes the function of surrealism in Kalman’s work from those of her art historical predecessors, who hoped to alter modern perceptions by shocking their audiences with dream-inspired art. Kalman, she contends, is less radical, more reflective, and also more inviting.
“The surrealism in Kalman’s art seems to inspire a far more sustainable sense of surprise and curiosity,” she says. “It encourages us to stop, and look again, to embrace our own capacity for imaginative observation.”
Editor’s Note: Coming up later this week, we’ll also have a slides how of Kalman’s textile works.