Maira Kalman is telling me how to stop time. “Go there,” she says of her local post office, which we’re lucky enough to share. “Suspend all expectation of anything. It may take me a lifetime, and that’s fine. I need to get that stamp.”
I’m sitting with Kalman in her Greenwich Village apartment. Light floods in from all angles, the rare Manhattan home with windows facing in nearly every direction. It is immaculate in here, everything in its place. On a scrubbed wooden table, there’s a shiny stack of a recent issue of The New Yorker, for which she drew the cover—a girl in pink wearing bunny ears, holding aloft a bunny in a grand Easter hat. Kalman is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, as well as a writer and illustrator of children’s and adult books.
Gallery: Maira Kalman at the Jewish Museum
The Jewish Museum in New York is currently showing a retrospective of Kalman’s work titled Various Illuminations (Of a Crazy World). The show, which runs through July 31, is a joyous and unavoidably communal experience, the kind where a stranger is likely to tap you on the shoulder and say: “Did you see that one? Don’t miss that one.”
While taking in the decades of Kalman’s work on display, including her well-known “New Yorkistan” cover, there are countless things to think about: the ways in which we experience New York City, September 11, Jewishness, our heroes, our husbands, our subway routes.
But the first question I’m compelled to ask Kalman is about her mother, who inhabits Kalman’s work like a recurring character, beloved, magical, and painfully missed.
“Oh my God, my beautiful mother,” she says. “My mother was really the centerpiece of the whole story, she and her sister.”
We stand up to look at a photo of Kalman’s mother getting married in Palestine.
“She was really a complete knock-out,” she says. “She was this phenomenal beauty till the day she died.”
“She had complete faith in me, which is a very strange thing for a parent to have in a child,” Kalman says. “To think that I would do everything I should do and nobody would tell me what to do and that it would all come out OK is really quite extraordinary. So there were never any directive conversations, like what are you doing, like this is what you need to be doing. No explanation of anything in the world, just kind of a free-floating, dream-like thing. One minute we’d be at the opera, the next minute we’d be at a museum, but there wasn’t any discussion of it, there wasn’t any connecting to the real world. It was kind of, there we are and you do what you do with it. “
Kalman was 4 when the family moved from Tel Aviv to New York; they eventually settled in Riverdale. Kalman went to New York’s High School for Music and Art, already wrapped up in her own creativity.
“I was into music, I was into literature, I thought I was going to be a writer, but then I decided my writing was really awful.”
Her childhood was laced with thrilling objects of all kinds: the fabulous Vogue of the '60s, the Madeleine books, RAW magazine, the dawn of New Wave and punk music, Matisse, and legendery New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg, whose inspiration looms largest of all.
“Seeing Saul Steinberg I was like, I got it,” she says.
Kalman, who never had formal training in fine arts, takes care to emphasize, “I’m not an artist, I’m an illustrator. There’s too much baggage calling yourself an artist. I like the idea of being grounded in the real world of having an assignment, handing it in, getting paid, next assignment, done.”
If any single thing marks Kalman’s work, it’s the incredible freeness she allows herself on the page, the sense of permission she feels to render any experience in exactly the terms in which she understood it.
“I didn’t feel bound by any conventions of ‘This is how you should tell a story,’” she says. “I thought, I can take the assignment and I can turn it into something else. It’s a good thing,” she says. “But I also was married to someone who had the exact same attitude. That not to know is excellent. That’s the way you should attack everything: by not knowing.”
Kalman was married to the graphic designer Tibor Kalman, who co-founded M&Co, the design firm known for everything from its iconic wristwatch, to the interior of the now-closed Café Florent, to the famous Red Square apartment building on East Houston Street, which features a huge, broken clock on the roof, and a statue of Lenin, gesturing out to the city down below.
Theirs was an uncommon union, so completely were they merged in their private and professional lives. One of the many curios on display at the Jewish Museum is the Kalmans’ collection of onion rings, carefully mounted and preserved behind glass, and miraculously pristine, all these years later.
“We were so connected with each other that it was mind-boggling and I really didn’t think that I would continue existing after he died,” Kalman says of her husband, who died in 1999 after a long illness. “He had tremendous faith in me, and respect in me. And I took that seriously. I said, I’m going to believe this is true.”
“I think that what happened, “ Kalman says, pausing, “was that I had to find my own voice. And I did.”
In the decade since her husband’s death, there is a visible change in Kalman’s work, both in terms of how prolific she’s become, and also, the pulse of it, the irrepressible spectrum of feeling running through.
The big jump, she says, came in her decision to illustrate Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style, a project that Kalman says “just sprang up from my soul. . . . Something coalesced in that one. Something revealed itself. Some light happened.”
The beautifully illustrated Elements of Style came out in 2005; since then, she’s published two more books, The Principles of Uncertainty and And the Pursuit of Happiness. Both were commissioned by the op-ed editors of The New York Times and appeared in serial form on the Times’ website, before they were published as full collections by Penguin Press.
The books are infused with distinctly different moods: The Principles of Uncertainty is more personal and melancholic; And the Pursuit of Happiness is a celebratory romp through Americana, past and present, documenting in illustrations and written text her trips to Washington to see Obama’s swearing in and to meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and her growing fascination with and attention to the life and fate of Abraham Lincoln.
Actually, the thing with Lincoln wasn’t casual for Kalman. No, it wasn’t casual at all. “I fell in love with him,” she says. “I had the hots for Lincoln.”
Kalman has a way of alighting on a moment in history, and animating it with personal details, both true and imagined. For instance, after encountering a Lincoln impersonator at the bed and breakfast she stayed at while visiting Springfield, Illinois—“Lincolnland”—she considers what she would serve if she were to have all 150 living Lincoln impersonators over to her apartment. (The answer: Glazed ham and biscuits). And what, she wonders, would Lincoln have made of Frida Kahlo, “a female artist with a unibrow and mustache flaunting her sexuality and visions?” Who knows what prompted Kalman to imagine this particular scenario, two icons of different eras and different worlds, taking stock of each other? When travelling through Kalman’s world, such questions fall away.
Continuing in the tradition of the onion rings, Kalman’s work flows unbothered from grandeur to grub, from her thoughts as she observes young soldiers preparing to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq to the cherry pie she is served that same day in the Fort Campbell cafeteria. For Kalman, all this stuff, big and small, is what goes into a life.
“In any work you do, you can be profound one minute, and then you be superficial the next, and you can be smart and insightful and then insipid. There can be room for all that.”
That’s not to say Kalman isn’t subject to the usual anguish that plagues artists, writers, and illustrators alike. “The tears are invisible. I’m in a complete state of panic before I begin something because I’m sure that it’s going to be a complete disaster. I’m going to do a worse job than anybody could ever imagine anybody doing on the planet earth,” she says.
After all these years, the anxiety doesn’t lessen, she says. But there is good news. “The solution to panic is to work,” she says. “You do it. You have to just do it. And if you do it, then you’ll find your way.”
Casey Schwartz is a graduate of Brown University and has a Masters Degree in psychodynamic neuroscience from University College London. She has previously written for The New York Sun and ABC News. Currently, she's working on a book about the brain world.