Maira Kalman Selects, one of eight inaugural shows at the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, features precisely what its title promises: a group of objects from the Smithsonian collections handpicked by artist, author, and designer Maira Kalman. The conceit is an experiment (fairly common these days) in museum curating, a question of outcome when an exhibition is formed around the logic of personal taste. Hypothetically, Kalman could have created a show that represented a particular time period, group of artists, or design concept, thereby leaving her artistic sensibility more implicit than overt. In contrast, at the very center of Maira Kalman Selects is her own philosophical and emotional relationship to objects. An introductory wall text by Kalman reads: “What is this room about? … It’s about falling in love with a group of objects … It’s about the preciousness of time. Elusive. Fragile … The comfort derived within the unpredictability.”
The small exhibition groups objects according to loose themes: music, dress, walking, design, ornament, childhood, and death. In a display that appears conceptually dedicated to walking, a pair of plain brown shoes (“The Shoes That Slow Down Time,” England, courtesy Maira Kalman) is placed beside a ladder (“Ladder,” c. 1949, USA, courtesy Maira Kalman) and framed by an accompanying, handwritten quote from Robert Walser’s The Walk: “The man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing … ” The shoes suggest the mundaneness of routine, while the ladder implies an upward ascension, perhaps a more spiritual take on observation and mobility.
In the most interesting visual juxtaposition in the show, Kalman mounts a Gerrit Rietveld Zig-Zag Chair (c. 1934, Dutch) high on a wall next to a small, black Ancient Greek vase (Kantharos, late 7th–early 6th century BCE). The sharp geometry of modernism makes for a surprisingly pleasing companion to the similarly streamlined, classical proportions of the vase. These harmonizing objects hover above a case of circular design items, including Ingo Maurer’s “Bulb” lamp (1966, Germany) and Oswald Haerdtl’s “Ambassador” bonbonniere and cover (1926, Austria), complete with a few small candies positioned nearby.
The placement of candies next to the bonbonierre exemplifies a preciousness within Kalman’s aesthetic that can be both nauseatingly enjoyable and excessively simplistic. For example, Agathon Léonard’s “Figure of a Dancer” (c. 1900, France), “The Ballerina Galina Ulanova in the Role of Maria” (1950, Soviet), and Dmitry Iosifovich Ivanov’s “The Firebird” (1930, USSR) are all beautiful examples of porcelain figurines, the kinds a young girl might collect and cherish for their charming portrayals of femininity. They’re lovely to behold, but their presence throughout the exhibition feels childishly earnest.
Before judging Kalman’s object choices, however, it’s helpful to know a bit of biographical context not provided in the exhibition. Take “Toscanini’s Pants” (Italy, c. 1935, courtesy Maira Kalman), which appear here folded neatly over a piano bench. Kalman’s family left Belarus in 1932 to emigrate to Palestine. In 1936, before she was born, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini inaugurated the first performance of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, which was largely staffed by Jewish refugee musicians. In 1954, Kalman and her family left Israel for Riverdale. Toscanini lived nearby. When his estate was auctioned in 2011, Kalman purchased the pants he wore at the opening performance in Palestine. Once one knows the story behind the trousers, their presence here transforms from potentially kitschy to evocative of a complex, multicontinental 20th-century Jewish diaspora.
The most moving section of the exhibition places objects from childhood directly adjacent to ephemera of death. Samuel Goodrich’s Peter Parley’s Primer (1835) instructs its pupils to “Remember that God made all creatures to be happy; and do not you prevent their being so, without good reason for it.” Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass (1899) is open to a well-worn first page. A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) is placed above Carroll’s masterpiece, both of them eliciting emotional memories of childhood in many viewers. In the case directly adjacent, Abraham Lincoln’s Watch (c. 1858), and Abraham Lincoln’s Funeral Pall (1865) remind us that all children grow up, and that death ever lurks.
Kalman’s introductory text advises viewers to “not think too much. Unless it pleases you.” If one desires a deeper experience than simply unique and pleasurable aesthetics, I advise the opposite.
Maira Kalman Selects continues at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (2 E 91st Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan), through June 14.