I've long loved her New Yorker covers, and am still over the moon about the illustrated version of Strunk and White's classic The Elements of Style from 2005, so I leapt at the chance to meet illustrator and painter Maira Kalman this morning. Today, Maira Kalman: Various Illustrations (of a Crazy World), the first large retrospective of her work, opens at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and runs through October 26th. The show began at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, and it was my great good fortune to chat with the show's curator Ingrid Schaffner as well. I meandered through the gallery with Maira and Ingrid both chatting about Maira's work, her collections of ephemera on display alongside her paintings (buckets, ladders, and suitcases abound), and what, if anything, makes her work particularly Jewish.
In your work you seem so enthralled with pedestrian objects.
I love the utility of everyday design, its endless variety of inventiveness. It's very enchanting to look at these things. That's all we have, actually. Everyday things are all we have every day. It's better to be delighted with it than not to see it at all. People just live their lives and that amazes me. They get up, put on their shoes, eat a bowl of cereal, endure wars. They go out and make sense of it everyday, and that's what I like to show. I love this painting I did of people in London during World War II and you see them looking at books in a bombed out building. The roof has collapsed but they carry on. They're browsing the books.
The work next to it shows a woman reading. Tell me about that one.
It's a woman sitting at the Hotel Celeste in Tunisia. I collect them and I love her sitting there reading in this moment of quiet happiness. Having those moments of happiness, being occupied with your work, and having people around you all the time. That's what life is about.
Even when you're painting grand things, like this lovely hotel, you seem to love undercutting that grandeur. You like to show the cracks.
I like to show the humanity, I think. The mistakes.
Do you work from photographs often?
Mostly. I'm always snapping pictures.
Tell me a bit about the installed pieces from your own collection. Lots of ephemera like ladders and suitcases.
I love ladders. I collect them. This one here is a ladder that my daughter Lulu made for me in school. Another piece in the installation is a pie chest which is full of linens. It's an old tradition amongst the women in my family to starch and iron the linens, so here we've got two chairs where you can sit for a small respite and look at the linens in the pie chest.
In your 2009 series And the Pursuit of Happiness for the New York Times' website you were sent out to document what you saw for a calendar year. We see a glimpse of that work here at the show, but tell me what it was like to be, essentially, a journalist. Was it different from what you usually do?
I thought it would be but it turns out that you don't have to shift, you don't have to change. I didn't have to stop seeing things in the same lyrical manner. Sure you're sent out, but only to report on what you see. I thought of myself as a kind of artist-at-large. We're actually doing a book of what I did online for the Times and the book is going to be some 500 pages. When you're used to getting a page or two in a magazine and then they tell you that you really don't have any space requirements for working online you can go a little crazy. I maybe should have edited it down some.
How long does it tend to take to do one of these illustrations?
Sometimes days, sometimes hours. I use gouache, which dries fast!
Are there certain things that you don't want to paint?
There are many things that I don't want to paint, but I never know what they are until a magazine calls up and says, do you want to do this? And I think about it and then say, no, I don't want to paint that. I actually don't really like painting maps. I'm not all that interested in maps.
That's surprising because your New Yorker cover of New Yorkistan was such a hit.
I know it, but even still. What I really like to paint is architecture and interiors. Architecture is incredibly important to me and I think it plays such a huge part in what makes you feel what you feel at any given moment.
What do you make of the Daniel Libeskind building here at the Contemporary Jewish Museum?
The more I'm in it the more I like it. It feels non-aggressive in the design and there's a light here that's good. It feels natural.
Plus you're surrounded by all your stuff.
And I'm surrounded by all my stuff!
This show originated at the ICA in Philadelphia and has been picked up to travel to three other museums: the Contemporary Jewish Musuem, the Skirball Center in Los Angeles, and the Jewish Museum in New York. But the show originated outside the circuit of Jewish museums. Do you see a certain Jewishness to the work? Is this a Jewish show?
Well, maybe this seems really easy, but I'm from Israel. I was born in Tel Aviv so that seems like a kind of connector to a Jewish identity. But no, I don't think there's a real clear Jewish identity in the work. Maybe there's a kind of sadness, and a sense of humor that maybe seems particularly New York, or particularly Jewish.
Also there's this idea of the observer, of not belonging, of being removed enough to document what you see. But to get back to your question, because the show originated at the ICA there's isn't the same curatorial mandate that you might get at a show designed for a Jewish museum.
What are you working on now?
I did a book for Lemony Snicket called "13 Words."
Thirteen words you can't say in a children's book?
Ha, that's funny! And the words are funny too. Like the first word is "bird" and then the next one is "despondent." The book is coming out in September and it's got all the things I love to paint in it like ladders and chairs and hats and cakes!