Whimsy on view in Maira Kalman’s ‘Illuminations'

Israeli-born artist's self-mockery and other winks of whimsy are on view at New York's Jewish Museum.

maira kalman 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
maira kalman 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 September 11th.
But on this call, Kalman turned the venerable publication down.
“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.
The exhibit 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 life.”
And indeed, her work is a form of delightful journalism: forming an ongoing, ever-smiling account of the world.
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.
“It 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 insouciance.
“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 absurd.”
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.”
Kalman makes 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 wildflowers.
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.”
The walls sport three quotations, by Freud, Flaubert and Proust – selected by Kalman and etched on the walls in her highly-distinctive handwriting.
One is Freud on America: “Ein Gigantischer Fehler,” or “A Gigantic Mistake.”
The 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 the city.
“It’s the seat of my soul – the center of my soul is there, without question.”
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 Post!”