Guru: Maira Kalman

David Hershkovitz

Maira Kalman is quietly becoming the next big thing, spanning the worlds of art and literature as filtered through the soul of a children's book illustrator and ephemera collector who likes to embroider. At 60, she's in the spotlight thanks to an eclectic array of projects: Twelve children's books, most famously, Oooh-La-La (Max in Love), the adventures of Max Stravinsky the Parisian dog poet; M&Co. design collaborations with her husband Tibor Kalman (who died in 1999); her now iconic post-9/11 map of "New Yorkistan" (an homage to Saul Steinberg done with cartoonist Rick Meyerowitz) on the cover of The New Yorker; an improbable but ultimately delightful illustrated rendering of the classic writers reference Stunk & White's The Elements of Style; collaborations with Isaac Mizrahi and the musician Nico Mulhy; and the completion of a two-year-long series of illustrated and written columns for the New York Times which she adapted into the books The Principles of Uncertainty and the forthcoming And the Pursuit of Happiness.

Visiting Kalman in her Greenwich Village apartment is somewhat off-putting, not because it's stacked with the kind of oddities she is famous for collecting. Precisely the opposite is the case. It's fairly nondescript, comfortable yet somehow devoid of the legendary quirkiness we have to come to know and love over the years. There's an explanation, of course. The linens, balls of string, spools of thread, buckets, funnels, keys, labels and a box of organized mosses now share space at the Penn Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia with 100 drawings, paintings, and embroideries that follow her trajectory from wife, mother, illustrator to everyone's favorite philosopher-at-large, grappling with the weighty issues of life, death, anxiety and happiness in the age of terrorism. In "Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)," curator Ingrid Schaffner brings together the art and the ephemera that leads her to conclude that Kalman is "quintessentially postmodern."

David Hershkovits: How does it feel living without all of the things you've collected over the years?

Maira Kalman: Getting rid of stuff, deaccessioning is really, really the thing that occupies me.

DH: That's not your thing, you've been known for accumulating.

MK: Yeah, but I've been accumulating very neatly -- organizing and boxing. Now I'm thinking the boxes can be emptied. I don't need the bucket collection, I don't need the suitcase collection. Even though they were things that I use in my work. Now there will be other things.

DH: Did you put them in your show at the ICA?

MK: Yeah.

DH: So they're not really gone.

MK: No [laughs]. It's like a halfway house. It's like the methadone of getting rid of stuff, you know? I'm just doing a little in between. In the meantime, I also went through my journals and sketchbooks from 1969. Of course, those I would not throw out except that when I read some of that stuff I wrote I think, 'This should be burnt. What an idiot. How did I possibly make it to here?'

DH: Early in your adult life, around 1969, you decided you didn't want to write anymore, you wanted to draw. Were you able to draw before that?

MK: I didn't know that I could draw, but I had that combo of naïve optimism and terror, and a very short attention span, not wanting to learn anything. I thought, I've been around art, I can do this; I can draw. My sister is a painter. I went to the High School of Music and Art for music, so it wasn't some alien occupation to me.

DH: What were you drawing then? What was the content like?

MK: It was New Wavey, cartoony. The sensibility was definitely the same. The same person was there from day one, kind of looking at this askew absurdity.

DH: Did you decide to do children's books when you had kids of your own? I've noticed that everyone thinks they can do a children's book when they have kids. Like Madonna, for example.

MK: And sometimes they can -- it depends. I was an illustrator first for 15 years before doing the children's books. It was really [my husband] Tibor who said enough of the little bits, why not just do a whole book.

DH: Did you get over your lack of confidence about your writing?

MK: I guess so; I guess I thought if I only write a few words how bad could it be?

DH: That's the message of The Elements of Style, isn't it?

MK: Exactly.

DH: Get it all in the fewest words possible.

MK: That's the whole point of a children's book, if you do it well. There are 32 pages to do it in and so if you do it well it should really be down to the most essential words. That's how I think anyway. I can't stand too much of my writing.

DH: When I look at your current work in the New York Times...

MK: ...I talk too much?

DH: Not at all. To me it's kind of like a children's book for grown ups in the sense that you explain things in a very basic way. Like how you look at the workings of our government after Obama in And The Pursuit of Happiness.

MK: It is so abysmally complicated that the only way I can handle politics is by just making these simple nuggets of either really obvious things or personal things. And also it is all a revelation to me. I am like a twelve-year-old going to Congress or the Supreme Court. I really don't know anything at all. Anything they tell me I am like, 'Wow, that is amazing!'

DH: I remember you saying you were categorically not interested in politics.

MK: I hated politics. I still do. I loathe politics.

DH: Which is odd that you spent so much time in the Halls of Congress.

MK: Yeah, a year, but that's exactly why I did it. Because when the editors at the Times asked me if I wanted to come back [after completing the more personal The Principles of Uncertainty], I said there is no way I want to come back and talk about myself anymore, that would be horrifying. But what should I do that is not about me? And we figured out that the thing furthest from me was history and democracy, and also because of Obama I started talking about how for the first time in my life, I actually care, feel proud, you know, all the things people were saying at the time he was elected. And so then it seemed like a lot of fun, which it was, amazingly fun to go find out about Lincoln, to go to Springfield and interview people and see his house. For me to be connected with the architecture and the artifacts of somebody's life is very important. It is how people make contact with people that have been gone for a hundred years. And they are always very poignant. And then the funny things would happen along the way. I mean, when in my life would I ever go to the Pentagon and get a tour?

DH: And you were impressed!

MK: After a year of doing this, I thought these people are really amazing. The founders are incredible, they were geniuses and how they were able to do what they did is incomprehensible. The people that I met at the army base who were about to be deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq were incredibly more sophisticated and complex than the caricatures and stereotypes that I had envisioned. The people at the Pentagon were very, very, very smart ...

DH: So how come everything is so messed up!

MK: Everything is so messed up because they are people, but I didn't think they were bad people. It was that these people are trying to do something they believe in and there is a lot of honor there.

DH: People are very cynical about the government these days.

MK: I am too, and with reason because of the nature of this is phenomenal compromise. To do anything you have to be a watered down compromiser. You'd jump out the window if you had to work as hard as they do and do what they do all day long. I guess they like it. I'd go crazy.

DH: Your pieces generate hundreds of adoring comments. Do you read them?

MK: I was aware of them, but then I stopped reading them because it was just too bizarre.

DH: Were they just too complementary?

MK: Yes. It is good to know things are appreciated but it isn't good to read the individual things.

DH: Do you read a lot in preparation for these pieces that eventually turn into books?

MK: Yeah, I would get a lot of books. There is a tremendous amount of skimming and quick reading. There is a lot of book buying, photo archives, museum shows, interviewing people.

DH: Is And The Pursuit of Happiness the most ambitious project that you have undertaken?

MK: Definitely.

DH: Did you know that when you started?

MK: No. It completely took me over. And also the monthly deadline... it was like writing a book every month. Now we are talking about traveling around the world and covering what happens to me in different countries.

DH: In some respects you are very old-fashioned, yet the Internet has become the mass media by which people are becoming acquainted with your work. Are you old-fashioned?

MK: Yeah, very old-fashioned. I bring my paintings into the Times with gouache on paper, tracing overlay scotch taped with the words written over it. I come there with my quill and bottle of ink. I tell them I'm really sorry, because they have to spend hours scanning the paintings and scanning the text.

DH: At the same time you are grappling with these large issues that philosophers have been thinking about for hundreds of years.

MK: I am a superficial philosopher, a haphazard philosopher.

DH: And have you found the answer to any of the great questions? Like what is happiness?

MK: Yes. Knowing the right thing to do doesn't mean you can do it in a way that brings you peace of mind and contentment. Sometimes you can be jumping for joy but that's usually connected with a small moment, like I just finished a job and I can jump for joy or I just had the most delicious ice cream. In terms of bigger peace of mind I think that working on something that you are really concentrating on that gives you tremendous satisfaction is probably the most serious relationship to happiness that anyone can actually have as the counterpoint to having people around you that you love or love you, one or the other, and or, hopefully both.

DH: Is that the conclusion of And The Pursuit of Happiness?

MK: Yeah, I basically said that I walk, I work, I clean, I hang out with some people -- that's it. But it is age, the layers of what you shed as you get older, what affectations you get rid of, when insecurities morph into something less insecure. All of that happens.

DH: You said you wanted to leave your personal life behind after the first piece for the Times, but it is really always there -- you make the personal somehow more universal.

MK: I am incapable of eliminating myself completely and you know, I said I'll try...

DH: Which is a good thing, it is what humanizes it. The content is available in many forms, but the combination is unique.

MK: Right. I always think what is the balance of intelligence and stupidity, what's the balance of caring and not caring, and of trying too hard and not trying hard enough, those extremes play in everything. How boring can you be and how not boring can you be. How do you even know? And sometimes you can't know and then in the end you just do it and hope that there is some kind of attention. I write it many times before it goes to them, and then it is written again.

DH: The cinematic editing and juxtaposition of words and visuals gives your work a whirlwind, mind-boggling feeling that gets my head spinning.

MK: Yes, it's a nice spin. What I do then is that I go through my images, the photographs that I've taken and collected and I lay them all out. I have a few hundred, which I then have to edit down to something like 20 or 30 and then keep reworking them until I know what the order of the story is. The painting is really the centerpiece of it and the photos are the blanks -- they are the fill-in. The last 10 days of the month or so, I'm painting and assembling the images.

DH: Do you feel like you're a journalist when you're doing this?

MK: Totally. That's always what I wanted to be, a kind of Lois Lane, an artist at large who gets sent here and there with her sketchbook and her camera and tells us what she sees. So it happened. I always think that if you have a true essential vision in the center of your being of what you want to do, it will happen. I always thought 'I want travel and write and paint about what I see.'

DH: That's the dream job. It's everyone's college fantasy.

MK: Yeah. So I don't know how the hell I got so lucky to be able to have that as my work.


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