When Barack Obama won the presidency, Maira Kalman was thrilled. It was not only a fresh start for America, she thought, but one for her own work as well: The New York Times was looking for another assignment for Kalman after her wildly successful illustrated blog, “The Principles of Uncertainty,” which documented her own life, debuted in 2006.
“I was tired of talking about myself,” said Kalman, who was born in Israel and raised in New York. “I never cared much about U.S. history,” she admitted, but she thought Obama’s historic campaign might change that. Plus, she added, “you can send me to any situation and I’ll extract something out of it. There’s nothing I don’t find interesting.”
The Times took her up on it, paying for her trips across America to places like a military base in Kentucky, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Ill., and the White House. The result was “And the Pursuit of Happiness,” a monthly blog of her irreverent, whimsical paintings that gave the artist’s impression of democracy, with commentary.
“Almost everything she does is surprising,” said Mary Duenwald, the deputy editor of the New York Times Op-Ed pages, who worked with Kalman on the blog. “It became not so much about democracy as about her own” musings about America, she added.
Many of those illustrations are now on display at the Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea, in a new show subtitled “Further Illuminations: Recent Paintings.” Kalman met at the gallery last week to discuss her work, life and the fine line she now finds herself treading amidst the president’s first public row with Israel.
“My father was in the underground, in the Irgun. He was a huge Zionist,” Kalman said, adding that her parents both immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s. The family moved to Riverdale in 1954, when Kalman was just 4, so her father could expand his diamond business in New York, she said. But by the time she went to college, to study literature at New York University, her parents had moved back to Tel Aviv. “My life was here, very much so,” she says.
Still, Israel is part of her makeup too. She keeps an apartment in Tel Aviv, which she is visiting later this month, and even wrote a short illustrated blog about the city for the online magazine Tablet, in 2008 (some of those drawings are at the exhibit, too). Titled “My Tel Aviv,” the series begins with a painting of a chalk-colored statue in a formal British-style garden, with the words “It is not England” written above.
“But” — begins the next illustration — “it has a bookstore and a café every two feet. And modern people reading books and writing books. And eating pistachio cake.”
Behind the text, an intellectual-looking woman in glasses does just that, with a green dessert and thick brown book at her table.
The recent spat with the White House over settlements has not much changed Kalman’s feelings towards Obama — or towards Israel. “I’m happy he’s engaged in the [peace] process,” she said, “and I find Obama in the White House hopeful.” When it comes to Israeli politics, she says, “I don’t look at the big picture, I look at the daily life.” That is how she’s managed to tackle contentious issues — American politics, Israel — and stay clear of controversy. And it may also be a key insight into her craft.
“I think you can make the mistake of over-explaining her,” said the Times’ Duenwald. “She keeps things at a level where the reader can take away things in her own mind.” Which is to say that, despite the weighty subjects Kalman often illustrates, she is rarely didactic.
Nor is she superficial. To the contrary: fans often note how lightly she wears her erudition. In an entry for the “And the Pursuit of Happiness” blog, which will be published in book form this fall, she gives a short tour of American history that begins in England with Thomas More. “In 1535, Sir Thomas More, the author of ‘Utopia,’ a novel about a perfect society, had a disagreement with King Henry VIII. Henry had him beheaded,” one illustration reads, above a portrait of More. (“So much for a perfect society,” it says beneath.)
That is followed by a portrait of the Countess of Salisbury — also beheaded by Henry VIII — whose family fled to the New World. Next comes a portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville (whose parents were almost beheaded), with a few words on “Democracy in America” and town hall meetings, and, soon enough, we’re in present-day Vermont, at a town hall meeting in Newfane.
Commenting on her own art-making process, Kalman said that she is a voracious reader who does extensive research before she starts painting. But once she begins, she lets her mind wander. “It makes me seem like an octopus,” she said, describing how her mind pulls from various sources and multiple directions, often at once.
Then she got serious: “There’s a vulnerability, an awareness that things are terribly fragile but also so beautiful,” she said. That sensibility probably has something to do with the Holocaust, which her father talked about often while she was growing up, she said. Both her parents lost many relatives in the war, and that legacy has lent her work its unmistakable tenderness.
“What distinguishes her work is that it is beautiful, but that it also has something to say,” said Francoise Mouly, the art editor at The New Yorker, which has published Kalman’s work for more than 15 years. Undoubtedly best known is the “New Yorkistan” cover, published three months after 9/11. Kalman collaborated on the cover with Rick Meyerowitz, a fellow illustrator who is now her boyfriend.
That illustration came about, Kalman recalled, while she and Meyerowitz were driving to a party in the Bronx shortly after the United States invaded Afghanistan. “Everyone was talking about how tribal [Afghanistan] was, and we were overwhelmed by the tribal names in the Bronx no one’s ever heard about,” Kalman said. It would make a great New Yorker cartoon, they thought.
The result was a map of the city’s five boroughs, with dozens of neighborhoods given exotic-sounding names: the Upper West Side was dubbed “Botoxia,” the West Village was “Artsifarsis,” Crown Heights became “Lubavistan,” and Canarsie was now “Kvetchnya.”
“I showed it to David Remnick,” Mouly recalled, referring to the magazine’s editor in chief, “and he said it was so great that we should put it on the cover.” As Mouly and many others have noted, the “New Yorkistan” illustration marked the moment New Yorkers could finally step out of their grief. “Oh, finally we can laugh again,” Mouly said.
Since then, Kalman has also become something of an art-world star. While magazine and children’s book editors (she’s published 12 children’s books) had known about her for years, the “New Yorkistan” cover led to a string of new opportunities. Isaac Mizrahi asked her to design fabrics for a new collection, for instance, and the 29-year-old composer and art-rock celebrity, Nico Muhly, recently wrote a Lemony Snicket children’s book with her.
Currently, Muhly is recording a song originally written by Lemony Snicket — “I’m going to hear him record on Monday,” Kalman said, thrilled about the prospect. (Muhly is just a few years older than Kalman’s children — Lulu Bodoni, 27, and Alex Onomatopoeia, 24. Both are from her marriage to Tibor Kalman, a legendary design artist who died of lymphoma in 1999.)
“She had such a huge following that I was amazed she never really had a dealer before,” said Julie Saul, who began representing Kalman in 2003. The current show at her gallery is Kalman’s fourth, and coincides with an even larger career retrospective at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Titled “Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World),” it will travel to The Jewish Museum in Manhattan next year.
All the attention, though, does not seem to faze Kalman. At 60, she is neither arrogant nor tired. Leaving the gallery she talked about plans to travel the world soon, visiting all its great gardens — from Giverny to Kyoto. Perhaps, she said, she’d write a blog about it too.
The world tour also brought to mind the final entry in her last blog, “And the Pursuit of Happiness.” It ends with a meditation on the nature of happiness: “Where is happiness? What is happiness? What did Thomas Jefferson mean?” she writes. “No one really knows,” she goes on, but makes note of what seems to work for her. “Me? I work. I walk. I go to museums. … I clean my house. I take napkin-folding classes. I make plans for trips to gardens where I will sit and draw and eat meringue and savor the moment.”
Then, beneath her drawing of a small red dessert, coffee and her drawing book, she adds: “By George! That’s it. Savor the moment.” n
Maira Kalman’s exhibit “Further Illuminations: Recent Paintings” runs at the Julie Saul Gallery, located at 535 W. 22nd St., sixth floor, through May 1. Kalman will be at the gallery to sign books — you’re encouraged to bring your own — on April 24, from 4 to 6 p.m. For more information call (212) 627-2410.
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