The first artwork on view in â€œVarious Illuminations (of a Crazy World),â€ Maira Kalmanâ€™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. Itâ€™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.
â€œItâ€™s completely perfect,â€ Kalman says of the curatorâ€™s choice. â€œItâ€™s all about the serendipity of meeting somebody and just going â€˜Oh my Godâ€™ and not having my camera with me so I had to draw. Itâ€™s confusion, and great excitement, and fashion, and sadness.â€ She pauses, breathless. â€œThat was like, a lot!â€
This has always been Kalmanâ€™s giftâ€”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, â€œan artist-at-large,â€ illustrating childrenâ€™s books (like her series about Max Stravinsky the Poet Dog) and a special edition of Strunk and Whiteâ€™s Elements of Style, and, shortly after 9/11, a memorable New Yorker Âcover called â€œNew Yorkistan,â€ in which she imagined the cityâ€™s neighborhoods as warring Middle Eastern states.
At the Jewish Museum, ÂKalmaniacs will find something new: a room-size installation of curios, including an eccentrically handmade ladder (â€œa combination of Constructivist design and poetryâ€) and a Hebrew book of magic tricks. â€œThis is not a show about art,â€ she says. â€œItâ€™s a show about somebodyâ€™s life, and it happens to have art in it. But it also happens to have chairs and ironed linens.â€ On a table youâ€™ll find an array of onion ringsâ€”real onesâ€”with the typed annotation TIBOR AND MAIRA COLLECTED ONION RINGS. Itâ€™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. â€œOne festive night,â€ Kalman says, â€œTibor and I put an onion ring on the wall. And over time, nothing happened to it. It didnâ€™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.â€
On certain days, Kalman plans to sell a few carefully chosen, mundane-yet-Âextraordinary consumer products at a pop-up store within the exhibit. Sheâ€™d like to offer a can of mushy peas, for example, â€œthough a good mushy-pea label is hard to find,â€ she says, taking a sip of tea in her West Village apartment (which is less fantastical and more spare than youâ€™d expect from someone who makes art from fried foods). If her art ever gets criticized, itâ€™s for treading dangerously close to twee. â€œIâ€™m sure there are times the work becomes too obliviously happy,â€ says a Âwoman who once described her late husband as a Ââ€œperverse optimist.â€ Couldnâ€™t the same be said of her? â€œYouâ€™re always balancing great hope and love of everything with great Âdespair and sadness,â€ she says. â€œI understand the wave of things keeps going. And you muddle along.â€
Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)
March 11 through July 31.