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Maira Kalman’s Daily Digressions

In the writer and illustrator Maira Kalman’s latest project, she narrates a morning workout at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that exemplifies her digressive spirit and openness to new ideas.

The Monica Bill Barnes “The Museum Workout” (photo by Paula Lobo)

In Maira Kalman’s ideal visit to a museum, “you would feel as if you’re going through this glorious walk through nature but you happened to be in a museum.” These words blasted from a computer as we began our morning workout, led by the Monica Bill Barnes dance company, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Kalman continued, “There isn’t this obligation to understand anything or to know anything, you’re just observing, which is the best part of taking a walk. And that way you’re free to feel a million different feelings and there’s no judgment.”

It was before opening hours, and the ground floor was mostly empty except for staff and our group of around 15 people.  Kalman’s voice echoed for a moment at the base of the museum’s grand interior staircase, before Bill Barnes and her dance partner, Anna Bass, in glittery gowns, started off the workout with a sprightly jog to “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees, the first track of a fabulous mix of disco and Motown. What followed, however, wasn’t quite a “glorious walk,” but demanding jumping jacks before the beautifully naked body of Canova’s Perseus and fist-pumping amidst muscular and gleaming armor. This was, we were told, an expression of Kalman’s “love affair” with the museum.

The Monica Bill Barnes “The Museum Workout” (photo by Paula Lobo)

Her thoughts on art and life continued to punctuate the experience, as we stretched our legs and necks, pondering the painted, elegant body of John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” or a stern bust of Benjamin Franklin. By the end of the workout, you’ll gain a glimpse into Kalman’s working process, which you would think had nothing to do with physical activity.

Most of the time, Kalman is an author of children’s and adult’s books, as well as a columnist and illustrator of magazine covers for the New Yorker, New York Times, and Departures, among other publications. She does not think of herself as an artist, but rather is more suited to the profile of a journalist: She ventures into the world and records what she sees. She enjoys the structure of an assignment — of being given a subject to study and having a deadline to meet. Based in New York, she has been sent to document places like the White House in Washington, DC, Le Corbusier’s home in France, and the Alhambra in Spain. Within the confines of her assignments, she allows herself the freedom to wander — like imagining that the president must have celebrated his election with a yellow cake or choosing to paint Le Corbusier’s sink, of all things, because it “speaks the truth.” “For me the digressions are much more important than the topic,” she explains in an Ink Talk.

Pages from Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Her process was not all that different when Bill Barnes invited her to collaborate on “The Museum Workout.” “She has the most incredible ability to go into a tangent,” commented Bill Barnes, explaining that it was somewhat of a challenge to edit Kalman’s three hours’ worth of audio into cohesive clips. Likewise, in choosing the artworks for the workout’s route, Kalman did not follow any particular logic. Rather, she zipped through the galleries waiting to see what pulled her in. “There is no other requirement other than I love it,” she said to me. Over the course of 45 minutes, participants exercise before 16 artworks (often more than once), which range from a tomb effigy to an ornamental staircase to a tribal dance costume.

She followed similar criteria when she was invited to curate an exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in 2014. For Maira Kalman Selects, she searched through the museum’s archives and chose 43 objects out of the collection’s 210,000, basing her choices, as she wrote in an accompanying book, “on one thing only — a gasp of delight.”

The way Kalman has gone about curating shows is also how she illustrates her stories. Many of her characters and subjects are found on her daily walks when, she says, she “can just look and choose.”

Installation view of Maira Kalman Selects at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

*   *   *

Kalman has been going on walks with her doctor and friend, Elizabeth Beautyman, every week, three times a week, for almost 20 years. They talk, while Kalman looks at the hands, feet, and faces of people and dogs passing by. She’ll say, “I love it,” when something catches her eye, and stop to take a picture with her iPhone. Because, she says, “I’m in a giddy state of falling in love dozens of times a day.” After their walk, the two friends always grab a coffee, sometimes a pastry, and then go off to work. Kalman heads to her West Village studio, where she consults her photographs, or pulls from memory, to make small, notepad-size gouache paintings of the various things she’s seen, and sometimes writes a short storyline to follow.

A page from Maira Kalman’s My Favorite Things (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In a way, “The Museum Workout” is like a walk with Kalman, only on hyperdrive. Our sweaty exercise was also followed by a coffee, in addition to artisanal butter and bread, “which come from some special Maira place,” as Limor Timor, the MetLiveArts director who commissioned Bill Barnes to do a performance, put it. On Kalman’s own museum visits, she likes to have a coffee both before and after art-seeing, to have “a little break between the world and the city and everything else that’s happening and just sit for a moment quietly.” Our opportunity to hear her thoughts while moving through the museum is also apparently a unique one: She actually doesn’t like to talk on her visits, and prefers to be alone.

For many who participated in “The Museum Workout,” listening to Kalman’s voice has given them the feeling of being with a family member they never met, as Bass put it. It’s especially the case with those who read Kalman’s children’s books to their families, from an illustrated story that brings Alexander Calder’s “Circus” to life, to her series about Max, a dog and poet. I sensed something similar last November when, at a pop-up at Julie Saul Gallery (which represents her work), a man and his kids brought one of her Max books to have it signed and asked her to dedicate it to his family’s yet-to-be-named dog. Would she pick a name? he asked. Kalman, perhaps not willing to bear such responsibility, put a large question mark in ink instead.

In part, Kalman is so personable because she has a profound admiration for humanity. She believes that most people, once you get to know them, are not only eccentric, but kind — including the grumpy and nutty people she illustrates, who range from her own family members to pedestrians who snap at her for photographing them without asking. “The truth is everybody gets on everybody’s nerves,” she writes. All you need is a little sense of humor. Though she can’t pinpoint the forces that brought her to paint and write, she has a feeling it has something to do with “a good rapport” with the people around her.

It is this special relationship she sensed she had with people that made her feel liked and “safe enough to do whatever I wanted to.” Kalman has implied that her very job description — which is “to walk around and look” — might have been deemed unlikely were it not for the confidence she’s been given that “if you have an idea, and there’s something fun and appealing about it, you can just try it.” As Caitlin Condell, the curator with whom Kalman worked at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, put it to me, “Maira is fundamentally optimistic. If you say, ‘I think that will be too hard.’ She’ll say, ‘But why?’”

Surprisingly, Kalman has perhaps done stranger, more unexpected interventions at the Metropolitan Museum. A few years ago, she asked permission to spend a day there doing various jobs: as a guard in the Impressionist galleries; working in the hot line at the staff cafeteria; and as a janitor. “What a responsibility to be standing in front of these paintings guarding them,” she said, adding, “I like the working arts.” Classifying herself a “cleaning nut,” she had previously worked as a maid at the Lismore castle owned by the Devonshire family in Ireland. “Who wouldn’t want to handle and iron linens and polish furniture that’s been around for hundreds of years?”

Installation view of Sara Berman’s closet at Mmuseumm 2 (photo courtesy Mmusemm)

In March, she will be returning to the Met with yet another curious project: “Sara Berman’s Closet,” for which she will install her mother’s wardrobe in a period room from 1882. The project was previously shown in an alleyway in Lower Manhattan as part of her son, Alex Kalman’s project space, Mmuseumm. At the Met, Berman’s underwear, linens, and shoes will be arranged alongside the sumptuous dresses of a wealthy art collector, Arabella Warshman. Maira Kalman sees the pairing of wardrobes as a total juxtaposition: placing Warshman, who, she said, was “a very rich woman who married well,” against “my mother, who is about leaving her husband and finding her life and having no money.”

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Kalman owes much of her attitude toward life to her mother, and her aunts, who, she says, “were very honest and ridiculous at the same time.” Kalman’s profound connection to the “emotional nature of things” and general disregard for conveying facts stem from Berman’s teachings. For her, knowledge was less important than following what delights you and makes you curious.

Maira Kalman’s dedication page to her mother, Sara Berman, in The Principles of Uncertainty (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

Berman makes frequent appearances in Kalman’s work as “my beautiful mother,” alongside several of her other family members. In an email, her son Alex recalled spending hours posing for his mother’s paintings, along with his sister, in various costumes. As Kalman once told Ira Glass in an interview about her books, “They are really journals of my life.” Her paintings and photographs are a canvas for her to place her stories and draw from memory. Sometimes, what she paints is spontaneous — sprung from momentary encounters with the world around her. The text, however, is a separate process. For one, not all of the writing gets done at the desks in her studio — one of which is a surgical table and another a door on IKEA legs — as the paintings do (“I’m in there all the time. Or some of the time. Or if I’m traveling obviously none of the time,” she said). Sometimes, she writes in bed, under white linen sheets, when she is most relaxed and can say, “you know I’m not really doing anything, I’m just being myself and maybe I’ll write a few words.” But more importantly, when writing, she always draws from her own life and imagination. Though the conversations she overhears on her walks amuse and compel her, she is not interested in constructing stories out of them. If she does include a story that is not her own, it’ll be “from the people I care about,” she told me.

Kalman didn’t pick up a brush until she was in her early twenties. Before then, she thought she would be a writer. Her love was for books: Nabokov, Woolf, Dickinson. But she felt the “horror of the word” whenever she sat down to write. It was in observing her sister Kika, who was an artist studying at Cooper Union, that made Kalman think, “it seemed so much more fun than writing, to do this painting stuff.”

Still, she wouldn’t abandon writing altogether. What she needed to find was the right format, which she wouldn’t fully realize until she had children.

*   *   *

Dolls arranged on a shelf in Maira Kalman’s apartment (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Pages from Maira Kalman’s My Favorite Things (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Maira Berman and Tibor Kalman met as English students at New York University in 1967. They both dropped out before graduating, with the sense that there was more to life. Soon, they would be married. In 1979, Tibor Kalman founded M&Co, a graphic design firm that made objects with a sense of humor and personality, like the 10-One-4 watch that only uses the numbers 1, 4, and 10 to tell time. The inspiration came from a sketch in one of Maira’s journals of a clock with numbers randomly juggled on its face. Maira was M&Co’s muse (“M” for “Maira”) and helped generate many of its ideas. Tibor and Maira led a collaborative life, together embarking, as Kalman describes in their book (un)Fashionable, on “daily travels” and “looking for insane, inspired and beautiful stuff” — until Tibor died, after a four-year battle with cancer, in 1999, at the age of 49.

A detail of Maira Kalman’s apartment (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Kalman still resides in the apartment where the couple spent many of their years together. “I fell in love with the block because there is something about the light on this street,” she told me, when we met for the second time. When I first met her, she took a photo of my bare back. That was when I interviewed her at a college radio station in my flamenco leotard, almost six years ago. She told me about how her heart had been broken, twice — once by a boy who looked just like Bob Dylan, and the second time by someone who looked just like Leonard Cohen. At the time, she had just published her children’s book on Abraham Lincoln. She kept fantasizing about marrying him, to the point where she thought she was Mrs. Maira Lincoln.

Years later, in her West Village apartment, she told me she kept the photograph of my back on the wall of her studio, where she pins sundry pictures, quotes, and memorabilia. As we walked into her living room, a man by the far window was taking a picture of the view of One World Trade Center at dusk. “They call it the blue moment,” he said, and turned to shake my hand. Rick, who has been Kalman’s boyfriend for the past 17 years, is tall and smiley, and on that day wore a black beret and a foulard tied around his neck.

A series of miniature chairs in Maira Kalman’s apartment (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

During the day, the apartment is bright, warm, and yellow. The walls are white, and in the living room, rather than nailing things to the wall, Kalman rests paintings, photographs, and objects on white, built-in shelves. On one shelf there are eight miniature chairs aligned in a single file (“they are stories of life, talking, reading, eating,” she writes). On another, eight fabric dolls stand side by side in checkered coats and frilly aprons. They were made by nuns who, Kalman notes, “have sensational fashion sense.”

A page from Maira Kalman’s My Favorite Things (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Each object is given a determined place and nothing in the apartment is cluttered, which might come as a surprise upon discovering the array of objects Kalman collects: ticket stubs, moss, photographs of dancers, buttons, combs, postcards of volcanoes, antique fabrics, sponges, whistles, candy wrappers, things that fall out of books, not to mention the more than 5,000 books she owns (which are, in fact, mostly on display on a shelf that runs the length of a long corridor bridging the apartment’s entryway to her bedroom). She keeps most of her objects, however, in files, drawers, and closets. What she displays in her apartment constantly rotates: she’s regularly removing objects and putting others back. “It refreshes the spirit and the space,” she explained. Her sense is that you should love everything that surrounds you, which changes with your mood. Shifting the look of her living space gives her clarity.

The style of her apartment is not unlike that of her books: random but purposeful; concise and somehow off-point. The way she speaks of her apartment brings to mind what she says of writing children’s books: “You have to edit down to what you want to say.”

A detail of Maira Kalman’s living room (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

It is here, in this apartment, where Maira and Tibor Kalman brought up their children, Lulu and Alexander. Maira, now 67, described playing with them as complete, delightful chaos. “We were very free about changing our environment for our imagination,” she remembered, her blue eyes gazing from rectangular black glasses at her living room, which is now very clean, and white, and calm. It used to be the setting for forts, that then became forests, that then transformed into mazes of string. She remembers them as “fleeting moments” — “you didn’t quite know how they happened.” Experiencing and noticing these moments with her children inspired her to add narrative to her paintings.

Various objects on display in Maira Kalman’s foyer (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

*   *   *

“When you encounter those moments that are completely normal but personal — watch out for them,” Kalman advised a group of high schoolers three years ago in Asheville, where she was invited to give a talk. “Because they’re going to come and then they’ll disappear.”

In her 2006–07 New York Times column–turned–book, The Principles of Uncertainty, Kalman opens with a painting of a “HaPLess” dodo that was once “gaLumphing iNNocently aRound” until man came into the picture “with a haNKeRiNg FoR a Dodo SANdwich and POOF! By 1681—ExTiNCT. NO MoRe Dodo.” This entry sets the tone for the rest of her column, and for her work at large: knowing that things will end (go “poof”) makes them more meaningful, and beautiful — like a bowl of tomato bisque soup or the sight of an old man chasing a “red-footed pigeon.”

But this sense that all things must come to an end, or die, also causes Kalman deep anguish. As a result, “I’m extremely happy and despondent in the exact same package,” she explained to Ira Glass.

For Kalman, the process of mourning loss and embracing life are one and the same. Every morning, with her cup of coffee, she reads the obituaries. “Well, life is short, and being reminded of that every morning grounds me,” she said in an interview. And, she often likes to add, her family was Russian, so what can you expect?

Maira Kalman collected moss from Lenin, the city where her mother is from (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The moss from Lenin (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Kalman’s mother grew up in Lenin, a small village in Russia, and escaped the Jewish persecution to live in Palestine, where she met Kalman’s father. In the end, they did not love one another, and their marriage was an unhappy one. Kalman often tells the story of how her father fell out of a two-story window without getting hurt, and “PeRhaps that is why he was a LiTTle cRaZy.”

Maira Kalman imagines her father falling from a window, before she was born, from My Favorite Things (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

He also lost his entire family to the Holocaust. This is one aspect of her family history that Kalman has chosen not to reveal in her work. She doesn’t speak much about it either, except once, when reflecting on 9/11 in a 2001 magazine interview: “I am a lucky dog because 1. I am healthy and 2. I am not in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. You heard me right, pal … . I think these thoughts every single day of my life.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, Kalman designed a cover for the New Yorker with her friend, the artist Rick Meyerowitz. It’s a cartoon map of the five boroughs, divided into tribes, like “Botoxia” in Midtown Manhattan, “Taxistan” in Queens, and “Ptooey” in the Bronx. The cover ran in December of 2001, and was, as Ariel Levy put it in the New York Times, “the first joke that was funny after 9/11.”

In the cover, like so much of her work, the disturbing and heart-wrenching against the optimistic, funny, and beautiful not so much juxtapose as reinforce one another.

It is with this in mind that I visited her in early December, amid post-election anxieties, to discuss her project with Monica Bill Barnes & Company. She was, as she has always been on each of our meetings, dressed comfortably and casually, in a wool sweater and pants. Her hair, which is many shades of gray and shoulder-length, was loose. We talked about how she’s increasingly been pursuing projects other than books and illustration. In 2013, she starred as a duck in Isaac Mizrahi and John Heginbotham‘s Peter & the Wolf, and she is currently rehearsing for Heginbotham’s dance-theater production of The Principles of Uncertainty at Jacob’s Pillow.

“I think it has something to do with being a grandmother in that there’s just so much time and energy and you have to say, okay, well, what do I really, really want to do?” she said. As she spoke, she looked askance, blinking distinctly and in quick succession like a mouse. “I’ve been sitting at my desk for 40 years and now it’s time to get up.”

Pages from Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

She told me not to despair over the election. “Out of this terrible abysmal … will come really sublime things. Because they have to. Because they do,” she said. “How do you do your work, how do you focus on what you love and who you love … that’s what I’m looking at now.”

The author wearing a John Frederics hat (photo by Maira Kalman)

Before I left, I asked to take a picture of her, but she made another occasion to take one of me. She handed to me a tall John Frederics hat with a large feather that she has painted many times and keeps on top of her piano. “You want to try it on? I think you’d look really good in it.”

*   *   *

When Kalman appeared as a duck in Peter and the Wolf, she waddled in a tutu and slippers. She was a natural: wearing cat-eye glasses and a yellow paper beak, she looked rather coquettish — but more impressively, not self-conscious. The moment epitomized her extraordinary and confident sense of self.

She once said, “Not trying to be anything other than who you are — that’s an absurdly difficult thing to do, and it takes many years.” It might also take the will to try out new ideas and experiences without shame or doubt.

While Kalman did not dance in “The Museum Workout,” she loves to dance, and together with Bill Barnes and Bass she rehearsed the workout moves in her own living room. “It’s a perfectly wonderful expression of walking,” she said. For when she walks down the street, and observes the way people twist their feet and turn their heads, they remind her of “a vast ballet.” In a way, she said, dancing has made her “books come to life. It’s no longer 2D. Now it’s 3D. Now we’re moving, now we have music, now we don’t know where we are. And all those things are an organic expression of how I see my life.”

Maira Kalman in front of her piano (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Museum Workout,” conceived and choreographed by Monica Bill Barnes & Company, with narration and route by Maira Kalman, continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through Thursday, March 9. All tickets are sold out. 

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