Dogs, Linens, and the Rest of This Crazy World: A Q&A With Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman, I must admit right off the bat, is a hero of mine. While this may be news to you, it is a fact that no doubt dawned on the artist, author, and designer as I sat quaking and spilling water all over myself in her lovely New York apartment. After ogling her child-sized wire Bertoia chair, her Diane Arbus print, and a decorative bowl filled with walnuts (which inspired me to babblingly recite the beginning of Kenneth Koch's "To You"), I calmed down enough to ask some questions.

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Kalman spoke to me about her upcoming show at the Jewish Museum, "Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)," which opens on March 11 (arriving from the ICA Philadelphia) and her most recent book, "And the Pursuit of Happiness," which like her earlier "The Principles of Uncertainty," is a bound collection of her blog posts for the New York Times. It tracks down, in the hope-filled wake of Obama's election, American democracy in all the various nooks and dusty corners of the country from Alice Waters' farm, to the Supreme Court, to roadside diners, to the Pentagon.

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But my voracious interest in all her creations — from her New Yorker covers to her enigmatic "Rubber Band Society," to her children's book protagonist Max Stravinsky, the hat-wearing poet (and dog), to her illustrated version of that literary style Bible "The Elements of Style," to the designs she fashioned with late husband Tibor Kalman — led to rather a more meandering talk. Read on for tales of moss collections and men in plaid shirts with limps.

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Can you tell me a little bit about your show that's coming to the Jewish Museum?

It's a hundred paintings and embroideries, and then an installation of random ephemera: vitrines of paint rags and dictionaries and shoes and things from the "Elements of Style," things that have meaning to me, things that inspire my work, ladders, buckets, a cabinet full of linens that I've ironed that you can sit in front of and just relax.

Much more relaxing than unironed linens.

Yes, that would be nerve-wracking. Many of the things used to be in my house. The ladders used to be in this living room. It's not supposed to be an art show, it's supposed to be as if you wandered into my home or my studio and happened to be hanging out for a while. And I'd like to have a bunch of chaises, so you could take naps in the room, although I don't know how they'd feel about that, if there's an issue with hygiene.

With the bed-bug epidemic, and all.

Yeah, but it would be nice. I will have a pop-up store at the Jewish Museum for the show, and I will sell ephemera: things that were in the "Principles of Uncertainty," the lists, my mother's map of the United States, which is glorious and demented, and cans of peas, and such.

Will you be showing any of your photographs?

Hung next to a few of the paintings on the wall are a sprinkling of photographs just to show you where the paintings are coming from.

Have you been taking photographs for as long as you've been drawing?

Pretty much. Now, of course it's digital so I have thousands and thousands of photographs on file, but I used to have — I still do in my studio — filing cabinets with tear sheets from magazines and photographs all in sections like "Men with Plaid Jackets" — a very important section — and "Men With Plaid Jackets Who Limp."

That must be a small section as it must be really difficult to capture that. You know, to convey a limp in a still image.

And also heartbreaking.

Collections seem important throughout your work. Are you a collector?

Look around. I'm a sporadic and consistent collector. I can latch onto something like orange wrappers or lemon wrappers from all over the world, which are just so beautiful, graphically, or combs from various places because they have funny names, or their shapes are interesting. Also moss, which is in the show, because moss is so wonderful and I bought somebody's collection in a thrift shop. Also sponges. But then I pass through it and... whatever, it's nothing valuable. The only thing I collect that means anything to me are my books.

You seem to be interested in food and food packaging. In every country and era you describe or draw, there always seem to be cakes and sweets. Is this an aesthetic or gastronomic interest?

I came to America in 1954, when I was a little kid, and I remember my first Coca Cola so vividly that it resonates till this very day, and my first plate of French fries. I think ever since we came here and were introduced to the world of junk food, it's been the vernacular that I find really appealing: the sense of humor, the words, and the packaging. A candy bar called "Whatchamacallit" is divine. And for cakes and pies and all of those things, I'm attached to celebratory moments — they're so universal and iconic — so I'm always interested in stopping and taking stock with a cup of coffee and a pastry.

In "And the Pursuit of Happiness," when you introduce historical figures, you often pair them with artists or artworks — which are sometimes fancifully anachronistic — as a way to flesh out their characters. For instance, you imagine Abraham Lincoln being fascinated by Frida Kahlo, and rushing to see a sculpture by Fred Sandback. Why?

It's amazing to think of characters like Thomas Jefferson or Lincoln and to imagine what they would be doing now. There's no doubt that they would be incredibly open-minded and incredibly open to all these things that are modernist and esoteric. So art comes up. Especially since I'm always going to galleries and museums.

What's your museum-going style?

I go with a sketchbook, and if they don't let you sketch, it's the end of my existence. Usually I'm just wandering around and sketching and peering at how the artists did the whites. The whites always kill me.

Have you seen any shows recently that struck your fancy?

The most recent exhibition that I saw is the Balenciaga show at the Spanish Institute. It's so extraordinary; he was such an extraordinary artist and designer. And I just took a tour of the Frick and spent some divine time looking at every single thing and going down to the basement where they have a bowling alley. I usually go to the Met on Friday nights — that's date night at the Met — and when we were at MoMA some weeks ago, there was Yoko Ono's "Scream." I was showing my card, getting tickets, and all of a sudden this blood-curdling scream, and everybody stops, and then you go back to what you're doing. I thought, "What a great thing to punctuate this museum."

Any all-time favorite artists?

Eva Hesse, and Matisse, and Duchamp. And of the lesser-known, Charlotte Salomon is a big influence. And then lesser-known, Ludwig Bemelmans for children's art — he wrote the Madeleine books, and painted the Madeleine books. And he also wrote and painted for adults. William Steig, also. People who write for adults and for children, and also write and paint.

You write for both adults and children, but your tone and style for both seem very similar. How do you transition from writing for one group to the other?

I think in the ideal world, there wouldn't be any difference, although maybe there's a little more despair for the adults. Writing for kids teaches you how to edit and to be as concise as you possibly can. You usually have 32 pages, so you'd better say it in a snappy manner. That's informed my writing for adults. The less I write, the happier I am. And I usually start out with something that's three or four times as long as I want it to be, and then I edit it down.

What about the distinction between art and illustration? Is that a worthwhile one to draw in relation to your work?

When I think of myself as an illustrator, I like to think of it in the best sense of the word. I'm actually illustrating text; I'm illustrating the story that I want to tell, or somebody else's story. In that sense, there's an assignment, and it's very grounded, and from that groundedness, I feel that I can go off on flights of fancy or digress. But then, in terms of style, that's a hard question, because maybe I'm an illustrator that touches on being an artist, a painter, rather than vice versa. I think I always needed that sense of being anchored to the specific task. I wouldn’t want to be given a studio and be told, "go be an artist." But again, stylistically, maybe I need more time to develop and then I’ll know something more. Check with me in 20 years — if I'm not senile.

Your "Newyorkistan" New Yorker cover you did right after 9/11 has become one of you best-known works. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

That's in collaboration with Rick Meyerowitz. He and I both write and paint and are humorists if you want to say that word. It came spontaneously, we were driving through the Bronx and were talking about the tribalism of New York and I said, "we're in Bronxistan." And that became something. It just popped out, but that's the best way that anything happens, it just comes from nowhere.

But do you like maps?

No I don't like maps, I'm not interested in maps at all, actually.

Why? Do you actively dislike maps?

I am actively antagonistic to maps! No, not really. But do you know what's funny? I like to use a map, and there are maps that are very dear to my heart, like Newyorkistan and my mother's map of the United States, but those are more symbols of something else than they are maps. So when people bring up the idea of maps, like, "You like maps, you want to do a project with maps?" I get really depressed. I don't want to know where I am. Rick and I just did the subway map so that all of it is food, every single stop is food. But I don't think of it as a map, I think of it as a collection of words that happens to be on a map.

Do you want to talk about dogs? I was checking out "Max Makes a Million" last night and the book flap says you're allergic. But they play such an important role in all your books, from your drawing of George Washington's dog named Sweet Lips, to the Basset Hound on the cover of "The Elements of Style," to the ever-hungry Pete, who's based on your own dog.

Yeah, I got a dog. This dog happened to be a non-allergic dog or whatever they call it. A hypoallergenic dog?

I don't know if that's just for sheets.

Yeah, he's one hundred percent cotton. There's no polyester in him. No, oddly enough we found a dog that no one was allergic to and he came home without shedding at all, and everyone fell in love with him. I like to observe dogs, and to paint dogs. They can't speak, that's already a limitation. It's very heart-rending, and maybe delightful. You can have a complete relationship, the kind of relationship you have with a baby — a baby doesn't speak and yet so much is conveyed. I'm interested in the relationships where you're not speaking, you're just loving.

Many literary greats have fallen in love with dogs — E.B. White and James Thurber.

It's true and in their books dogs have personae of great wisdom or great charm, which comes from spending time with a real dog. I wrote about Max before having a dog, but he really wasn't a dog, he was me.

Talking about E.B. White, his collection of essays "One Man's Meat," like "And the Pursuit of Happiness," is a kind of obliquely political book, a series of personal essays about mundane activities that discuss larger politics. But "One Man's Meat" was actually banned on the front during World War II; it was supposedly too subversive for soldiers to read. Is that kind of subtle subversion something you are interested in too?

No, I'm not interested in making any comments about politics at all because I have not a clue about any of it, how it all functions, what the reasons are for anything, what's good and what's bad. It's beyond my desire to understand. It's too big. What I talk about are people and life and humanity and then you can make a leap from there whatever you might imagine what somebody's politics might be. You know, everybody's muddling along, trying to figure out what's going on with more or less success. But doing this book was amazing because I met people who have incredible self-confidence and make these gigantic decisions that reach far and that lives depend on. I don't even know how they function. And they seem like they're real human beings, but it's hard to understand how somebody could make the leap into that arena.

Did you learn how the government works?

I learned a lot of facts, but I don't remember any. It's like, I remember that the rubber band was invented in 1845.

What's this Rubber Band Society I've read about?

The short-lived, ever-expanding, Rubber Band Society. I love rubber bands, obviously, they appear now and then in my work. And I met this artist Alex Melamid, of Komar & Melamid — Vitaly now works by himself — and we were, I don't know where we were, and Alex pulled rubber bands out of his pocket and threw them on the table, and I said, "What’s that?" and he said "Rubber bands." And I said, "Oh my God, I love rubber bands." And he said,
"Well, I love rubber bands, too." And we decided we would start a rubber band society for the love of rubber bands. We started having meetings, which I think were just a pretext for people to drink.

Like many societies.

Rubber bands! Yeah, yeah, yeah, where's the vodka? And then we had a newspaper, and then it grew, and it grew, and it grew too big, it became too popular and....

Snapped.

It snapped, yes, and we had to disband. But it was fun. We had events in bars and people made things out of rubber bands.

What kind of things? Other than balls.

They made jewelry, that's all I can remember. Though I wrote a story on a big piece of rubber so that you could stretch the story out.

Let's go back to "And the Pursuit of Happiness" for a minute. You have the drawing with all of the American flags at the beginning of the book. Were you at the inauguration?

Are you implying that that looks idiotic? I actually was hoping that online, the flags would flutter, when you were looking at the New York Times site. But yes, there were a lot of flags. I was sitting up front with the journalists, and when I turned around, it was a sea, an ocean of flags going back to the Smithsonian. I couldn't even begin to approximate how that actually looked.

And where were you on the night of the election?

I was at a few different parties watching the returns and then, probably around midnight, or whenever we knew that Obama had won, we were with some friends, and there was general weeping and euphoria. And everyone was screaming and running around the streets.

Everyone I knew spontaneously formed a circle outside and began to sing patriotic songs.

That burst of patriotism, that's the flip side of not being cynical after all these years, starting from Vietnam, and saying, "Oh, what a fabulous country, this is a cosmic correction, this is the glorious future." It's amazing. And then we come back to earth.

But your book is about being hopeful and setting aside, at least for a moment, the problems that follow euphoria. Do you think that continues to be valuable? To have those moments of raw hopefulness?

That's all you have. Especially those random moments of hopeful euphoria that attack you with no warning. In general, if you don't have that, I think you're in deep trouble. And of course everyone spends some amount of time walking around depressed, but if you don't have those moments of shooting exhilaration about things, you'll be like Stefan Zweig and take poison, which he did in 1942 because he just didn't believe in the future of Europe, he thought it all was lost. And so, it's good to have hope.

We should start a patriotic song-singing society.