NEW YORK – Artist Maira Kalman hangs up her cell phone. It’s the New Yorker
calling, and they wanted her to do a cover for them.
It’s hard to fault
them: Her “New Yorkistan” cover for the magazine in 2001 – breaking New York
down into ersatz territories like “Kvetchnya,” “Trumpistan” and “Botoxia” – was
an iconic moment for making New Yorkers laugh, possibly for the first time after
But on this call, Kalman turned the venerable publication
“They want me to have it done by today,” she says, sitting on a
tuffet in the Jewish Museum, covered with a textile that she designed. “And if I
were younger, I’d have worked and worked and had it done. But now I’m older, and
I get to say no.”
Casting refusal as a present to one’s self, and gentle
self-mockery, are winks of the whimsy on greater view in Maira Kalman: Various
Illuminations (of a Crazy World) at New York’s Jewish Museum.
of Kalman’s narrative art – encompassing original drawings, paintings,
photography, embroidery, textiles and installations – is a delightful mirror of
an artist who once said, quite rightly, “My work is my journal of my
And indeed, her work is a form of delightful journalism: forming
an ongoing, ever-smiling account of the world.
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The exhibit at the Jewish
Museum, opening March 13, marks the final leg of the exhibition on its trip
through Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
In rooms in the
former mansion (once utilized by Kalman-influencing artist Charlotte Salomon),
Kalman feels the exhibit has come to her creative and actual home.
has incredible resonance for me – plus, New York is the humor center of the
country,” Kalman says.
Kalman’s work, regardless of the medium, is
luminous with humor – conveying the sense that she derives a degree of joy from
every element of the world around her.
Her work – in particular, her
paintings and drawings – fairly resonates with the influence of Henri Matisse,
both in terms of her daring use of color and her outlook. As he did, she sees
the world with the wonder and delight of a child.
Born in Tel Aviv in
1949, Kalman moved to New York with her family when she was four years old.
Being Jewish, she says, is to a certain degree at the root of her
“It’s just that sense of humor,” she said. “I don’t know why
running away from people trying to kill you, you’d try to make a joke, but we
always do it,” Kalman said. “It’s the Jewish curse of humor. It’s at least
partially an outsider thing, that gives you a great slant on the
Kalman relishes the bizarre in everything, including her own
approach to her Jewish heritage.
“I mean, we have a seder, and I don’t
want to mention God,” she says, laughing at herself. “I love it and I love being
a part of it, but it’s hard not to mention God at a seder.”
her own seder for up to thirty people each year, but decided to have it at a
Chinese restaurant in Queens.
“We’ll bring our own matza,” she recalls
telling a friend, “and we’ll have dumpling soup.” She laughed as she remembered
her friend’s horrified reaction – a seder serving dumpling soup? “Egg drop soup,
then,” she said.
Absurdity blossoms at the exhibit like
The installations include ladders and old onion rings
collected by Kalman and her now-deceased husband in 1969, as well as paint rags
“on linens taken quietly from hotels,” she said.
A table proffers some of
Kalman’s engaging, hilarious and arguably-toosmart- for-children children’s
books like “Max Makes a Million” and “What Pete Ate From A to Z.”
walls sport three quotations, by Freud, Flaubert and Proust – selected by Kalman
and etched on the walls in her highly-distinctive handwriting.
Freud on America: “Ein Gigantischer Fehler,” or “A Gigantic Mistake.”
Proust is equally odd, but the Flaubert quotation, from Madame Bovary, captures
no small part of Kalman’s longing for beauty and meaning, concluding with,
“human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make
bears dance when we long to move the stars.”
“I love the ladders, but
it’s really all of it together,” Kalman said. “It’s a conversation between
objects and paintings.”
Being Israeli-born, Kalman said, has had a “huge
huge huge” impact on her work and her ability – if not predilection – for taking
delight in juxtapositions and interactions.
“I have an apartment in Tel
Aviv, and I’m not there often enough,” she says, adding that she has family in
“It’s the seat of my soul – the center of my soul is there,
Of her Israeli relatives, Kalman said, “their persona,
and the life they lead every day, is momentous.”
Before our time talking
together ends, she tells me that she too once worked for the Jerusalem Post
when gadding about in Israel after college.
“I had to answer the phone:
Jerusalem Post! Jerusalem Post!” she says, miming holding a phone to her ear. “I
always wanted to write for them, and asked them if I could. They told me, you’re
good at what you’re doing – just keep it up with the phone. Jerusalem
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