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Monday, November 11, 2019

“Poke fun in a way that makes you feel optimistic”: A Conversation with Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman, Marie-Laure de Noailles in Her Paris Salon, 2019, courtesy of the artist and Julie Saul Projects 
By Loney Abrams

Illustrator, author, and beloved BAM artist Maira Kalman generously partnered with Julie Saul Projects and BAM to release a new edition to benefit BAM’s artistic and educational programs; it’s available online through Artspace. Signed and numbered by the artist, the print was produced in an edition size of 75. Artspace’s Loney Abrams sat down with Maira Kalman to discuss Kalman’s most fascinating multi-disciplinary projects, where she finds inspiration, and her newest BAM benefit edition. Condensed highlights from their conversation are shared below.

Loney Abrams: You installed a reproduction of your mother’s closet inside the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. You also published a book, Sara Berman’s Closest, which illustrated the life of your mother. What was this project all about?

Maira Kalman: My mother was a luminous presence in our lives, and we always admired her. One of the things she did, among many things, was keep a closet of all-white clothing, completely pristine. She probably started doing that when she got divorced from my father. (But we're from Israel and a lot of people there wear all white, so it's not that unusual.) Her closet was a thing of art and a thing of beauty. So once she died and we were standing in her closet, I thought, this should be kept as a museum. That wasn't practical, so we saved everything.

Ten years later, my son, Alex Kalman, opened a museum called Mmuseumm in an abandoned freight elevator shaft on Cortlandt Alley. (Later, he obtained a little annex.) He and I installed “Sarah Berman's Closet.” It seemed like the right time and the right place, with the counterpoint of a pristine white thing in the middle of this grungy, derelict alley. And then it went, as all things do, to the Met after that. Amelia Peck, who is the curator of the American Wing, came to see it and thought it would make an incredible installation in juxtaposition to the most elaborate closet, from 100 years earlier, that belonged to Arabella Worsham, who was very wealthy. So it was at The Met for nine months, and now it's traveling. In the meantime, Alex and I did a collaboration on the book Sara Berman's Closet. How do you tell the story of somebody's life who’s not famous, who didn't do anything exceptional, but who is an exceptional person, and influenced us greatly? This sense of beauty and order, of editing your life—what does it really mean to know what you have?

LA: How common is it that your illustration projects cross over into installation or three-dimensional space, and vice versa?

MK: All the time. I think that I probably have a nice ability to think without too many constraints. So when I was working on illustrating The Elements of Style, for instance, I started singing the text. “Would, Could, Should.” And I thought, this would make a fantastic opera. Fortunately, I knew an amazing composer, Nico Muhly, and we were able to mount the opera at the New York Public Library. So to me, that's the nature of my day. Connections are made in unexpected ways. It comes very naturally, and I don't dismiss any ideas. I certainly have thought of stupid ideas! But sometimes they're not.

LA: How did The Elements of Style project come about?

MK: I found the book in a summer yard sale and I started reading it. I thought the book was spectacularly funny and interesting and cinematic. It's also digressive in the way that I think: I like jumping from one thing to another and I don't like plot. So, this was a perfect project for me.

LA: Do you often find inspiration at yard sales? Or where do you typically look for source material?

MK: There isn't anything that isn't inspiring, basically, from taking a walk to traveling to exotic places, to reading, music, movies, watching people, fashion... There's no end to being curious about stuff. Estate sales are fun because you can rummage through what other people discard, and say, do I need this? At this point in my life, I'm much more selective and I'm not trying to acquire so much as I'm trying to deaccession.

LA: What can you tell me about the edition you produced to benefit BAM?

MK: I usually make works for an assignment, which is how I like to relate to things. I like the constraint of an assignment, though some of them transcend the assignment. The edition came from a painting I did for an illustration edition of the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. I did about 60-plus paintings for this book, which is going to come out in March. This image just felt like the right painting, which now has a second life.

LA: Can you talk a little bit about what's happening in that scene? How does it relate to the book?

MK: That scene really has everything. It's of Marie-Laure de Noailles in her salon, which is how many people met one another during that time in Paris. There's somebody playing music; she's holding a dog; and there’s this phenomenal amount of beauty around them—and that's part of their landscape, part of their Sunday afternoon. Salons allowed people to gather in your home to create tremendous amounts of beauty and interest and conversation. I'm drawn to that world: the chance encounters and the sense of domesticity. And Gertrude and Alice had that very much, of course. They had a salon and people would come to their house—Matisse, Stravinsky, Cocteau, Man Ray, everybody! This is where ideas cross pollinated, and it was a source of inspiration. Of course, there were also probably rivalries and love affairs and things like that.... So, I really like the salon. I like interiors. I like sofas. I like music. I like dogs.

LA: What's striking to me about that image is that it does pull you into this inviting space, this feeling of leisurely appreciation for music and culture, and this domestic exchange of ideas that you talk about. But then, there’s a dog and a woman looking directly at you, the viewer, and there’s something startling about that. You’re pulled into the scene, but also reminded of your relationship to it as someone on the outside looking in. And the subjects seem very self-aware, somehow.

MK: Right. She seems to have a lot of self-confidence. This image was based on a photograph. She's looking dead straight at the photographer, and she’s posing in a kind of a vogue-ish way. So there’s that feeling that you're in control, but maybe you're vulnerable also, and you're willing to experiment and embark on an aesthetic experience. So all of those things are going on in that room—which is the nature of anybody's work. You're always experimenting, and then hopefully you have a cozy bed to go to at night.

Visit Artspace to purchase Marie-Laure de Noailles in Her Paris Salon, or contact Alli Arnold at with any questions.

Loney Abrams is the Editor-in-Chief of Artspace, and is an artist, writer, and curator living in Brooklyn.

© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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