The first artwork on view in “Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World),” Maira Kalman’s career retrospective at the Jewish Museum, is oddly quiet, entirely devoid of the color-saturated and off-kilter cheer for which the artist is known. It’s a 1996 pencil sketch, showing a rather dour-looking girl in a fox-collared blue coat and black boots. In the lower right corner, Kalman has written I SAW HER, in tiny letters, like a whisper.
“It’s completely perfect,” Kalman says of the curator’s choice. “It’s all about the serendipity of meeting somebody and just going ‘Oh my God’ and not having my camera with me so I had to draw. It’s confusion, and great excitement, and fashion, and sadness.” She pauses, breathless. “That was like, a lot!”
This has always been Kalman’s gift—to find the peculiar in the ordinary and to imagine the dramatic inner lives of people she passes on the street, in the park, in a museum. She lives the life of a tourist in her own city, creating narrative illustrations ranging from happily amateurish to exquisitely painterly. Kalman is, she says, “an artist-at-large,” illustrating children’s books (like her series about Max Stravinsky the Poet Dog) and a special edition of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and, shortly after 9/11, a memorable New Yorker cover called “New Yorkistan,” in which she imagined the city’s neighborhoods as warring Middle Eastern states.
At the Jewish Museum, Kalmaniacs will find something new: a room-size installation of curios, including an eccentrically handmade ladder (“a combination of Constructivist design and poetry”) and a Hebrew book of magic tricks. “This is not a show about art,” she says. “It’s a show about somebody’s life, and it happens to have art in it. But it also happens to have chairs and ironed linens.” On a table you’ll find an array of onion rings—real ones—with the typed annotation TIBOR AND MAIRA COLLECTED ONION RINGS. It’s a memento of her long and collaborative marriage to Tibor Kalman, the graphic-design maverick and founder of M&Co who died in 1999. “One festive night,” Kalman says, “Tibor and I put an onion ring on the wall. And over time, nothing happened to it. It didn’t decay; no bugs attacked it. It really was the perpetual, the lyrical, the immaculate onion ring. We collected more, and started framing them and giving them as gifts.”
On certain days, Kalman plans to sell a few carefully chosen, mundane-yet-extraordinary consumer products at a pop-up store within the exhibit. She’d like to offer a can of mushy peas, for example, “though a good mushy-pea label is hard to find,” she says, taking a sip of tea in her West Village apartment (which is less fantastical and more spare than you’d expect from someone who makes art from fried foods). If her art ever gets criticized, it’s for treading dangerously close to twee. “I’m sure there are times the work becomes too obliviously happy,” says a woman who once described her late husband as a “perverse optimist.” Couldn’t the same be said of her? “You’re always balancing great hope and love of everything with great despair and sadness,” she says. “I understand the wave of things keeps going. And you muddle along.”