Hallelujah for Maira Kalman
By Ellen Gilbert
Illustrations by Maira Kalman
That is so not me,” emphatically says writer/illustrator Maira Kalman after being asked if she would please consider being nominated to serve as the next Librarian of Congress. With the recent retirement of James Billington, who dutifully filled the post for nearly 30 years, one could only hope that someone with some joie de vivre—someone capable of exclaiming, as Kalman once did, “hallelujah for the knowledge and for the honor of Language and Ideas and books”—would come on board. In retrospect it probably was an unfair question. Kalman, whose work will be familiar to many from her regularly featured New Yorker covers, thrives on disorder, randomness, serendipity and lightning flashes of intense pleasure during the course of everyday life; promoting digitization and literacy in a nine-to-five job would probably do her in.
But maybe it wouldn’t. Kalman, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1949; moved to New York City (“bucolic Riverdale”), when she was four, and now lives in Manhattan (“I love to walk everywhere—Central Park, down Fifth Avenue”), has weathered her share of adversity. Besides dislocation from her country of birth, her parents divorced when she was still a child. Worse was still to come: in 1999 her 49-year-old husband, the widely acclaimed graphic designer Tibor Kalman, died, leaving her with two young children.
“The world is full of horror,” she observes, referring to both the personal and global. “If something happens that’s horrible, I’m horrified but I’m not surprised.” She describes the profound sadness of a recent visit to Belarus, once home to some of her family, as a “trip of what wasn’t there.”
Kalman has written and illustrated 18 children’s books, including Ooh-la-la-Max in Love; What Pete Ate; Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey; 13 WORDS, a collaboration with Lemony Snicket; Why We Broke Up, with Daniel Handler; Looking at Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything.
She is also well-known known for her New Yorker cover collaborations with artist/author Rick Meyerowitz of National Lampoon fame. Many cite their “New Yorkistan” cover as a turning point that gently said it was okay to smile again after 9/11. Their “New York City Sub Culinary Map” in 2003 was the product of months some serious research, writes Meyerowitz on his website. “We made lists of funny foods we found. We ate in every type of restaurant we could find; taking copious notes on the strange dishes we ordered and sometimes ate. We consulted cookbooks and food encyclopedias. I compiled our research into a list of over a thousand names.” From those thousand names Kalman and Meyerowitz “spent months doing nothing but choosing the funniest names and moving them around a pencil sketch of the map.” They renamed all 468 New York City subway stations and “added sixteen for the Second Avenue line, which may never even be built,” writes Meyerowitz. “We renamed all the neighborhoods, parks, cemeteries and waterways—650 names in all.” One hopes that a comment Kalman made about working with Tibor—“to collaborate with somebody is really a joy”—still holds true.
A certain amount of legwork is required to locate all of Kalman’s books. The children’s section in any bookstore or library is, of course, de rigeur, but forays into various other genres are also required. She has illustrated Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style and collaborated with Michael Pollan on an illustrated edition of his widely acclaimed Food Rules. Various Illuminations (of A Crazy World), documents one of several of her museum exhibitions, and The Principles of Uncertainty has been descried as “a narrative journal of her life.” The 2010 edition of Swiss writer Robert Walser’s Microscripts with Kalman’s “Some Thoughts on Robert Walser” at the end is further evidence of her wide-ranging curiosity and ability to make connections.
She has blogged online for the New York Times; given two TED talks, and appeared as the Duck (“a delusional diva duck,” she reports) in Isaac Mizrahi’s production of Peter and the Wolf at the Guggenheim Museum. Kalman is currently co-creating a ballet commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow, the Berkshires-based dance festival and yes, she will appear in that, too. It’s not in her “comfort zone,” Kalman says, and she admits to wondering how “an older woman—a non-dancer,” will interact “in way that’s not embarrassing.” She “can see doing this,” though, because, like “walking around a room,” dancing is an “extension of being alive.”
Kalman is similarly unabashed about using her mother’s oversized bra in her work, describing it as “an expression of love,” and feeling certain that “if you’re not vicious, you can say anything because you’re telling somebody how you really feel.” She believes it’s okay to be misunderstood and it’s interesting to note that the premise of M & Co., the design firm founded by Tibor in 1979 and named in her honor was, “we don’t know anything but that’s all right.”
It’s actually better than all right. Kalman’s reviews are uniformly ecstatic. In 2011, writer Cathleen Schine wrote an appreciation of Kalman, noting that “The Pursuit of Happiness examined opera, Wittgenstein’s sister’s radiator, Helen Levitt’s bathtub, fabulous hats, and George Washington’s teeth. Kalman writes about the cemetery where her husband is buried and paints a picture of a dog lying between his grave and the grave of George Gershwin. She goes to President Obama’s inauguration and marvels at a museum guard’s perfect red eyebrows. She is an ironist who does not protect herself with irony.” Writer Maria Popova described Beloved Pete as “a tender, quirky, scrumptiously sincere love letter to our canine companions, part memoir of and part manifesto for the adoration of Dog.”
Serendipity is key and uncertainty is good. “If anybody said this specific thing is the source of all the problems, that’s madness,” she says of people who make absolutist pronouncements. This give-and-take enables to her regret recent Israeli politics, while not being embarrassed to be a Jew.
Housework keeps her grounded, Kalman says, and it’s not surprising to learn that she once hired herself out (temporarily) as a servant in a large working castle in Britain. Life and work are all of a piece, and “life is too random” for her books to have plots. Life and work happily collided for her recently when Kalman was asked about the progress of an illustrated edition of Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas she is slated to do. While the book isn’t finished, an offhand comment about how delicious Toklas’s recipe for “veal stew Marengo” is sent Kalman into near-ecstasy. She happened to have been looking for a good veal stew recipe to try, and now she not only had one, it was one with a direct connection to her next book.
While Kalman sometimes regrets that “we have to navigate this world both externally and privately,” she says that she tries “to put world events into some kind of perspective.” She makes a point of not reading the news and has her radio tuned to music. “It’s going to happen with me or without me,” she says of the highs and lows of world affairs, and she is relentless about not wanting to talk about politics (“it goes nowhere”). Although Kalman occasionally expresses anxiety about being or going crazy, she’s pretty philosophical about life in general.
“When we look at our lives most of us are living extraordinary, charmed lives and are extraordinarily lucky,” she says.
Unlike Tibor, who believed in “good design and social responsibility” (he created, for example, the “United colors of Benetton” campaign and has been quoted as saying that “power and sex are the dominant forces in the world”), Kalman says that she is not interested in social activism, though she does enjoy “engagement with groups of people who need help.” She claims to have been “born with a reasonably good nature” that allowed her “to see the world from a benign point of view.” Despite her parents’ divorce, she counts the security of family and knowing that she was unconditionally loved as a child as key to her ability to experience joyousness.
“The security of family” still figures prominently in her life. Kalman and her son, Alex, are currently curating an exhibit called “Sara Berman’s Closet,” a detailed recreation of Kalman’s mother’s all-white closet, at Mmuseum [sic] on Cortlandt Alley in TriBeCa. And, despite writing so lovingly about her first dog, Pete, who died at 15 (Beloved Pete), Kalman claims that because she travels so much, she won’t replace Pete until Alex and his girlfriend agree to share responsibility for a new dog.
Considering Kalman’s fabulous sense of whimsy and capacity for wonder, it seems surprising, perhaps, that she is also a great admirer of photographer Diane Arbus (“I adore her work”) and the choreographer Pina Bausch— both known for not shying away from the harsher surfaces of life. “People who are difficult still feel true to me,” she observes. “Diane and Pina were not women in the normal sense of ‘nice, sweet people’ by any means,” she says, but she honors them for being “so true to their work that they give you a sense of what’s important.” Given the choice between pursuing an artistic career or being with their families, Kalman is almost certain that Arbus and Bausch would choose art. Kalman’s choice is obvious, but given the terrific success she’s enjoyed as an illustrator and writer, it doesn’t seem to have been a big problem for her.
“How you really feel” may be the key to Kalman’s oeuvre; her earnestness and capacity to feel wonder at seemingly commonplace things consistently captivates critics. Her main criterion for selecting items to appear in a recent Cooper-Hewitt exhibition was that each piece elicit “a gasp of delight.”
In addition to her myriad artistic commitments, Kalman is currently taking bridge lessons. “The sense of not knowing is hilarious,” she says of learning something new. “It’s like being six years old.”
Maira Kalman will participate in Every Fiber of My Being, a group textile exhibition at the Arts Council of Princeton on view through April 17. Maira Kalman’s website is www.mairakalman.com.