THE ARTS 7.09.10
THE ARTS 7.09.10

Putting whimsy into the ordinary: CJM exhibit showcases Maira Kalmans unique take on life

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People looking at the 100 or so paintings and drawings in the new exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum are going to see many ordinary objects: a rubber band, a sink, a wooden box, an old suitcase.

photo/courtesy of rick mayerowitz

That’s because featured artist Maira Kalman happens to like ordinary, everyday things — and she happens to really love chairs.

“Chairs are endlessly wonderful,” says Kalman, whose whimsical paintings and illustrations are featured in the exhibit “Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)” through Oct. 26.

“I like chairs as a design object and also as a place to contemplate,” she adds while standing near one of the pieces in her exhibit, a chair, of course. “I’ve sat in chairs in cafés all over the world. That would be my full-time job if I weren’t doing all of this.”

“All of this” is the first museum retrospective of Kalman’s work. On display at the CJM since last week, following a six-month run in Philadelphia, the exhibit includes sketches, drawings, paintings, illustrations, photographs and needlepoint from the past 30 years. Kalman was in town to attend the opening reception July 1.

Many of the works will appear familiar, as her images have been published by the New Yorker (including 11 covers) and the New York Times since the mid-1980s.

Born in Israel and now a resident of New York, Kalman, 60, has worked as a painter, children’s book author, photographer, contemporary designer and visual journalist.

“Various Illuminations” also contains dozens of objects from Kalman’s home and studio, things she collects that inspire her: language books, antique buckets, shoes, buttons, chairs, ladders, tea cups, jackets … even rags stained with paint because “I find my paint rags wonderful to keep,” she says.

Maira Kalman, “Self-Portrait (with Pete)”

“Maira can look at the most mundane thing — like a rubber band — and honor it,” says Ingrid Schaffner, curator of the exhibit.

Two years ago, Schaffner, a curator at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, approached Kalman about creating a retrospective of her work.

“I was a longtime admirer of Maira’s work,” Schaffner says. “I wanted to make an identity for this work, and to show the breadth of the work.”

The exhibit ran from January to June  in Philadelphia and, after it departs the CJM, it will move to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

“I find Maira’s work so whimsical and smart, and also frightful and moving,” says Connie Wolf, director of the CJM. “I jumped at the chance to bring this show to San Francisco.”

Wolf admits to getting a lot of blank stares when telling people the CJM is doing a Maira Kalman show, but says she doesn’t mind.

Kalman’s first New Yorker cover

“I like that a lot of people don’t know her name but will be drawn to the work,” she says. “In the end, it’s not about bringing name recognition to Maira Kalman, it’s about bringing the life and the world she sees into our own lives, to see the world in a different way … I think she makes us all more keen observers of our everyday life.”

Kalman’s artwork is not explicitly Jewish. Nonetheless, Wolf says the exhibit belongs in the CJM because of Kalman’s strong Jewish and Israeli identities, which affect the way she sees the world and  how she makes art.

Kalman was born in Tel Aviv in 1949 after her parents fled Eastern Europe in the 1930s for pre-state Israel. Her father served in the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary group that operated in pre-state Israel, but wanting to expand his diamond business, he moved his family to Riverdale, N.Y., in 1954, when Kalman was 4.

Kalman went on to study literature at New York University, and even though her parents moved back to Israel during her college years, she stayed in New York and married fellow NYU student Tibor Kalman.

The husband-and-wife artists had two children and in 1979 founded M&Co, a design studio for which Kalman has designed everyday objects: umbrellas, paperweights and clocks. Today these items are sold in the store of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Tibor died in 1999 of cancer. Since that time, Kalman has continued to publish books and to design for M&Co. She maintains an apartment in Tel Aviv and returns twice a year, which is “not enough,” she says.

“I adore New York and I adore Tel Aviv. Having family in Israel influenced my sense of well-being and my outlook on the world,” Kalman says. “I grew up in New York feeling like I was an Israeli, not an American.”

She says her perspective on the world, and her artwork,  are colored by “the nature of feeling like an outsider.”

Kalman’s favorite pastime while in Israel is walking. She “walks all over, walks everywhere,” and is particularly intrigued by Tel Aviv’s eclectic architecture and old, weathered windows.

“I like things that are broken down,” Kalman says.

Kalman finds inspiration everywhere — a discarded sofa on a sidewalk prompted the artist to paint a series of sofa still lifes, while a summertime road trip with girlfriends to a psychic enclave in Lily Dale, N.Y., inspired Kalman to take up needlepoint.

“A psychic concluded my reading by saying, ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk,’ and I said, ‘That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?’ ” Kalman recalls. “So I started embroidering clichés. It was a fun respite from painting.” The resulting embroidered panels are on display at the CJM.

Kalman started her career by publishing a children’s book, “Stay Up Late,” in which she illustrated song lyrics by David Byrne of the Talking Heads. She has since published 11 more children’s books and just finished the illustrations for a book by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket).

Also on display at the CJM are Kalman’s books for adult audiences, such as an illustrated edition of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” and “The Principles of Uncertainty,” a picture book of essays based on a yearlong online column Kalman created for the New York Times.

That popular column led to a blog called “And the Pursuit of Happiness” (, for which Kalman spent a year traveling around the United States looking for sparks of inspiration. These she turned into monthly posts of photographs, paintings and stories about democracy, politics and history.

Those images are on display as well, along with the 11 Kalman paintings that served as covers for the New Yorker.

“Painting a sink in a rest stop of the New Jersey turnpike is just as important to me as painting the Bible or Abraham Lincoln,” Kalman says. “If I love it, then I’ll paint it.”

“Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)”
runs through Oct. 26 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. $5-$10. Information: or (415) 655-7800.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.