Like many cartoonists, Kalman straddles high and low art, her unique writing voice and drawing style adept at addressing a wide audience across a range of forms. Her illustrations appear steadily in prominent newspapers and magazines. She has published many children’s books and an illustrated edition of Strunk & White’s classic composition guide, The Elements of Style. She created two ongoing visual blogs for the New York Times’ website, later published as books. And her New Yorker covers include “Newyorkistan,” which mapped the various tribal areas of the city (Pashmina on the Upper East Side, Taxistan in Queens, Khandibar in Brooklyn) a few months after September 11.
Kalman’s first blog for the Times, “The Principles of Uncertainty,” was a meditation on questions of happiness, purpose, loss and her own personal history. Photographs, paintings and loopy handwritten text interrogate legacies of the past. Kalman’s second series for the Times also explored history and philosophy, but she focused intentionally on a topic she knew less about: American democracy. “I was sent on this assignment because I didn’t know anything about politics, so I would bring a naïveté, but also a sense of optimism and a sense of curiosity to the subject,” she said.
Kalman handles large questions about leadership and patriotism by focusing on the daily routines of the prominent and the objects that gave texture to their lives. She becomes fascinated by Abraham Lincoln and asks Ruth Bader Ginsburg about where she gets her robes and lace collars (some are from Paris). The result is a deeply empathetic treatment of justice, citizenship and American politicians past and present.
The first major survey of her work, “Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World),” which visited Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, London and San Francisco, included 100 works on paper, embroideries, photographs and an installation of belongings that have been immortalized in her work (eight balls of string, seven linen paint rags, five suitcases, three ladders, a pair of brown shoes, a bell, a slinky, and a can of Mushy Peas).
Born in Israel and raised in New York, Kalman entered college intent on becoming a writer, but soon began to focus on drawings instead. “At the time, it seemed like a relief not to have the pressure of all those words, so many words to organize,” she says. “Better to organize colors and shapes.”
Her early illustrations had a whimsical punk aesthetic. Figures sprout green hair and snakelike arms, and levitate in a world that is indifferent to proportion, scale or gravity. In 1985, she published Stay Up Late, a children’s book based on a song by the Talking Heads, in which a boy and girl keep their baby sibling from sleeping while adults daydream and are otherwise preoccupied. (Publisher’s Weekly cautioned, “This book has definite appeal for hip adults, but it’s not for the literal-minded child.”) Kalman began to write and illustrate other books for kids that held an equally strong appeal for adults in their humor and cultural references. The most famous of these feature Max Stravinsky, a recurring character who is both a poet and a dog.
“Writing children’s books is a wonderful exercise for understanding being concise and getting to the point,” says Kalman. “I’m trying to say things in as few words as possible with the least number of images as possible. I want to tell you a story that’s very clean and episodic and then I want to jump to the next thing. And being able to use both word and image is really fantastic. I’m very lucky to be able to jump between those two worlds and combine them.”
These days, Kalman’s audience is primarily adult. But while her work has become less cartoonish, and though her texts more explicitly reference modernist ideas and thinkers (people like Walter Benjamin), much of her work remains surreal, funny and even childlike in its frequent sense of delight and wonder.
In one painting, a dancer soars through the air while a man chats on the phone, oblivious to the aerial performance behind him. In others, parks and train stations abound with swirling masses of people, looking in different directions, sporting wild hats.
Inanimate objects like sinks, chairs, napkins and typewriters are isolated, elevated, rendered with affection. The pleasure she gets in acquiring and relinquishing unique objects is a part of her work. Various possessions appear repeatedly, like a pink box that she purchased in India that must not be opened. To Kalman, the box represents “a moment in time, a moment of beauty, of adventure and of satisfaction,” she says.
As in dreams, the bizarre and the quotidian inhabit the same space in endearing ways. In the brochure for an earlier exhibition of Kalman’s work in Tokyo, Japanese curator Hiroko Tanaka put it well: “Maira Kalman, your pictures are so crazy that everyone wants to hug them.”
Annie Strother is a Washington D.C.-based writer and production assistant at PBS’s Newshour. Originally published in PBS’s Art Beat blog. Reprinted with permission.
Maira Kalman exhibit
137 W. Colorado Ave
Fri.-Mon., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
All proceeds benefit the Telluride Film Festival