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The Kalman Family’s Language of Looking

Installation view of Mmuseumm 1 (all images courtesy Mmuseumm)
Installation view of Mmuseumm 1 (all images courtesy Mmuseumm unless otherwise noted)

“Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough,” Gustave Flaubert wrote in a letter. This is something I keep in mind when looking at visual art: there is usually a story for the eye to find, some detail to latch onto. But when in the company of Maira and Alex Kalman, I am reminded that this truly does extend to most “anything.”

Maira Kalman is a New York–based illustrator, while Alex, her son, is the co-founder of Mmuseumm, a former elevator shaft in Tribeca that he and two friends transformed into an exhibition space. This month, Mmuseumm launched its fourth season with a second space, Mmuseumm 2, a storefront window nearby where Maira has re-created the closet of her mother, Sara Berman.

Kalman, an author and illustrator for The New Yorker, New York Times, and Departures Magazine, is known for picking up on the unnoticed, overlooked particulars of daily existence — in her telling of the life of Thomas Jefferson, for instance, we learn that the author of the Declaration of Independence “slept slightly sitting up” and that his favorite vegetable was peas. There is a rambling quality to her stories; we feel we are with her while she freely discovers her subjects, which vary from fashion shows to yoga retreats to artist studios.

“For me, the digressive moment is the moment,” she once told the interviewer Paul Holdengräber. It’s why Kalman loves walking — because you can stop thinking and just look and be. Walking, for her, is an exercise in keeping an open mind, in letting her surroundings catch her by surprise.

Installation view of Sara Berman's closet
Installation view of Sara Berman’s closet at Mmuseumm 2

It’s only suitable, then, that one stumbles upon Kalman’s installation of her mother’s closet by walking down a quiet alley. Behind a pane of glass, neatly folded white linens and shirts and stacks of rosy underwear sit on white shelves — “Sara, who came from Belarus, only wore white,” says the British voice of the audio guide. “I always say she was emulating the empress Josephine,” Kalman said to me of her mother’s fashion choices. “But that is not true. We never talked about it … In some instinctual way she was clarifying the world.”

There’s a glass jar filled with identical gray buttons, a bottle of Chanel No. 19, a box of recipes (for roasts, blintzes, schnitzel, and “some unfortunate forays into Americana,” Maira confessed), and a cheese grater for making potato pancakes. The chain for the light dangles playfully from the ceiling with a fluffy red ball of yarn to pull on. While growing up, “the closet was a masterpiece of modern art in our eyes,” said Alex. The closet has been reproduced almost identically, though on a slightly smaller scale, and with a few substitutes — “it’s like the vertebrae at the Natural History Museum, only here we have a bra and a pair of socks,” he explained. Indeed, ever since Sara Berman died, Maira has envisioned her mother’s closet as a kind of museum, hoping that one day it would become “a big attraction for people worldwide.”

Detail of Sara Berman's closet (click to enlarge)
Detail of Sara Berman’s closet (click to enlarge)

Sara Berman’s luminous closet gives us pause. There is a sense of calm and purpose in those sheets and sweaters that were daily and meticulously folded. (“Some families go bowling together. We ironed and folded and sorted and stacked with joy,” said Maira.) Everything, from the pair of reading glasses to the stray piece of checkered ribbon, takes on an anthropomorphic quality; the shoes themselves become portraits: there are six pairs of them, lined up neatly, all with pointed ends and some with their laces undone. Varying in grays, browns, and creams, the shoes are sharp and delicate, playful and smart — much as I imagine Sara Berman to have been.

“Everyone grows up with a language in their home. Ours was looking,” said Alex. Just as Maira asks us to contemplate a closet, usually thought of as a repository behind closed doors, Alex draws our attention to objects that would’ve generally escaped us, like coffee cup lids, vomit bags, gas masks, and eggs (that will, in fact, hatch). He describes the objects in Mmuseumm, on display behind glass vitrines like scientific specimens, as “meaningless and potentially meaningful.” Some come from Mmuseumm’s permanent collection, like a gold $100 bill and a rubber chicken wing, but the majority traveled from collections around the world. For instance, the cornflake index — a personal collection of cornflakes organized by shape, color, and texture — arrived from England “packaged like the queen’s jewels.” The way Alex sees it, these objects should be cared for like artworks. And yet, when Mmuseumm runs its call for submissions each season, it welcomes proposals from anyone around the world on one condition: that it not include “art.”

The winning collections, Alex explains, are those whose contents are “not obvious” — you wouldn’t think to stop to look at a rusty nail (one of many in a doctor’s collection of objects he has removed from people’s bodies) in the same way you would stop before a painting. “It is never ironic,” he made clear. “It’s sincere.” Like Maira, Alex is drawn to “the vernacular” because it communicates something “incredibly intimate and human.”

In other museums, the assumption is that you won’t fully appreciate an object unless you have the historical background. Here, there is no background necessary, except perhaps a sense of humor and some compassion. It was from “my beautiful mother,” an oft-repeated phrase, that Maira learned that knowledge isn’t really what matters. “What you have to have is curiosity.” Growing up, Maira was never “tested” on her knowledge or asked to “perform.” In fact, she says with some pride, “facts were banished from our home.”

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‘Objects Removed from People’s Bodies’ at Mmuseumm (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In following their curiosity, the Kalmans have observed their surroundings indiscriminately, capturing pieces of our lives that we generally don’t think are worth our time or contemplation. The Kalman language of “looking” requires patience and dedication — as does looking at visual art. Responding to art, really engaging with it, involves actively journeying through it with no purpose. It is a rare moment when I give myself that wandering freedom and time. The Kalmans, in seemingly assuming this attitude wherever they look, remind me of what the artist Paulo Bruscky once said in an interview:

For me, art is a form of seeing and not of doing. It might seem utopian, but the day will arrive when the artist will no longer be necessary. The artist makes things only because people don’t know how to see for themselves. Someday … people will begin learning how to see art in everything …. because art is present everywhere — the artist merely captures and displays it.

I don’t totally buy Bruscky’s conclusion, but he has a point when he suggests that the artist’s sources of inspiration surround us all. Though Alex doesn’t acquire art for Mmuseumm, the works in his museum are just as artful. In some ways, what Mmuseumm is encouraging us to do — to look for the art around us — is a greater task than that of your regular one.

Mmuseumm 1 and 2 (4 Cortlandt Alley, Tribeca, Manhattan) will be specially open to the public on Friday, June 19, from 6 to 9pm. Regular hours are on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 6pm. 

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