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Maira Kalman in Residence

Artist literally sweeps the streets at her Jewish Museum exhibit

Len Small
March 11, 2011
Detail of Self-Portrait (with Pete), 2004-5, gouache on paper.(Courtesy of the artist)
Detail of Self-Portrait (with Pete), 2004-5, gouache on paper.(Courtesy of the artist)

The first thing Maira Kalman does as we enter the west-facing room of the Jewish Museum gallery is have us sit on two chairs facing the windows.

“A view of Central Park. What’s better than that? We don’t even need to do anything.”

And with that practical meditation, we are in the world of artist, writer, designer, and Tablet Magazine contributor Maira Kalman, where narratives, small observations, poignant letters, and found objects collide around us. Her new exhibition, Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World), which opens today at the Jewish Museum, displays a smart narrative of her work as an artist and designer, with salon-stacked paintings, textiles, quotations written on walls, and presentations of the seemingly random, sublime objects that she curates within her life. After a year of touring, the exhibit finally found its way home. On this occasion, Maira is nesting in the museum itself, as she plans to attend to a “pop-up store” within the gallery every Friday to sell “egg slicers, cans of mushy peas, bouncing balls from Argentina.”

In fact, she is quite committed to making the Jewish Museum her home during the run; she also tells me about her plans to sweep the streets of New York City in front of the building. “When the broom is not on the wall, that means I’ll be sweeping across the street on Fifth Avenue.”

As I look at her, dumbfounded, she rapidly explains, “This is my thank you to the City.” Huh? “When I did the New York Times column, the year-long blog, one of the pieces was about New York City and the Sanitation Department, and I said if I’m going to contribute to the City, I want to help make it clean and shining. I didn’t know how to do that because I didn’t want to do anything big—I wanted to do something small. Then I ran across somebody and they said you can volunteer to sweep” —here she takes a roaring whoosh of air—“and it took my breath away.”

“The notion that a person can just get a broom and sweep and help keep their city clear is really satisfying and inspiring,” she adds. “People are so grateful; they come by and are very amazed and delighted… Now, I brought my own broom from Italy. I thought I needed a little bit of a fancier broom. “

While this aspect of Maira can sound quaint and charmingly eccentric, taking a tour of her work lets you see her observing both life and death. One painting depicts Max, her beloved children’s book character, and the subsequent painting is a portrait of her late husband, Tibor Kalman, completed the year before he succumbed to cancer. Once seen in sequence, you realize Tibor’s face is Max’s, and now these Technicolor gouache paintings begin to carry the full weight of tragedy yet to arrive. The portraits of a young Nabokov; a library bombed-out by the London Blitz; a quote from Freud’s famous retort on the condition of America (“a giant mistake”); they all gleam on the walls. The feeling is as if your beloved aunt asked you to sit on the porch with her and watch two trucks collide.

Suddenly, Maira looks out the window and spies a woman in a purple coat near the reservoir, slowly plodding along with her pooch, and begins to narrate her journey. “This,” she realizes, “is going to be my spot for the next five months.”

Len Small is Tablet Magazine’s art director.