A quote from Darwin, scrawled on a column, greets visitors as they enter the music room at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum: "But I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything. One lives to only make blunders." Perhaps a strange find in a museum dedicated to optimistic visions of the future and precision in design, but the quote itself stumbles into a kind of ars poetica for the exhibition it introduces—Maira Kalman's Maira Kalman Selects—which celebrates the incidental, the happenstance, and perhaps even the occasional error or malfunction.
Even if you don't know Maira Kalman's name, you've probably seen her work. The artist has been behind numerous New Yorker covers since 1995. She's also written and illustrated over a dozen books for children and regularly contributes illustrated columns to the New Yorker and the New York Times, painting subjects ranging from the quotidian to the monumental, from teapots and shoes to parks and monasteries, to Presidents Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington. Kalman has a clear affinity for historical figures and places, making her Cooper Hewitt show, in which almost no illustration appears, seem a natural extension of her practice. In fact, the show feels a bit like stepping into a real-life version of one of Kalman's whimsical and highly erudite milieus.
A love of history—and a love of the quirk in history—made Kalman a perfect candidate for the latest in a series of exhibitions by artists and designers who serve as guest curators at the Cooper Hewitt by handpicking their favorite objects from the impossibly large Smithsonian collection. The museum itself occupies the Andrew Carnegie Mansion in New York's Upper East Side. In what was once the mansion's music room, 18th-century French breeches share a display case with a 13th-century Egyptian cap, a few feet away from Lincoln's pall and pocket watch on one side, and 1940s screen printed linen next to a bowl from Greece, circa 800 BC, on the other. Time feels compressed, no longer linear. But it's a fitting space for Kalman's show, now.
As Kalman walked in for our interview, a ticking sound began playing over speakers, and a female opera singer's voice (that of Anne-Carolyn Bird) floated in over that: "What is the most precious thing? / Time. / And the time is too little."
The ticking is a recording of Lincoln's pocket watch, turned into a percussive beat by contemporary composer Nico Muhly, a friend of Kalman's. Kalman had selected the pocket watch from hundreds of thousands of pieces from the Smithsonian archives.
"I didn't go through all 210,000 objects, but I did go through a lot of them," Kalman told me as Muhly's song ended. "Then I had to create some kind of order. The idea was that we eat and we dress and we sleep and we live and we read and we die. In the meantime, we listen to music and dance and do other things."
As we walked through the show, the grouping of historic pieces seemed odd at times. A velvet-bound book containing documents signed by Holy Roman Emperor Josef II in 1785, granting a title to composer Johann Ferdinand Richter, is displayed next to a bulb lamp from 1966.
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"I'm not a curator or historian, so I didn't have any constraints," said Kalman. "I was just able to put things together by instinct and a sense of space."
This approach reminded me of how Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall, described her own understanding of history on Fresh Air following her second Man Booker Prize win: "Instead of thinking there was a wall between the living and the dead, I thought there was a very thin veil. It was almost as if they'd just gone into the next room."
Kalman's show is that next room. The dead are very real and very present—in addition to Lincoln's pall, there is an embroidered portrait of Queen Victoria commemorating her death and an embroidery sampler listing the birth and death years of four members of a single family—but with objects spanning so many centuries, the dead seem to be in conversation. It isn't such a leap that the calligraphy on a piece of paper by 17th-century Dutch painter Jan van de Velde should seem similar to the graphic-printed pattern on a piece of linen by designer Angelo Testa from the late 1940s and then echoed in a cuff bracelet made in 1993.
"Some things are clearly related," said Kalman. "The squiggle of the calligraphy, the squiggle of the bracelet, the line drawing." And then, pointing to the van de Velde piece, "It's almost like [famed New Yorker cartoonist Saul] Steinberg created that. Everything that we look at informs something else. And there's a sense of playfulness, that you can be inspired by something that's 2,000 years old. You don't have to know when something is made. You don't have to know anything."
Playfulness is at the heart of Kalman's oeuvre, generally, so it's no surprise that the most obviously humorous vignette in the room comprise three objects from Kalman's own personal collection. On the back of a ladder, circa 1949, hangs a pair of baggy pants once worn by Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini; beneath the pants is a pair of reddish-brown Oxfords Kalman has titled The Shoes That Slow Down Time.
It's through the presentation of small things Kalman gets at a big thing, the big thing: death.
"There are some things I completely adore and went very well with the room," she said. "Like that ladder, which is so beautiful. Toscanini's pants had to be in there, because of the importance that I own Toscanini's paints, and they're antifascist pants, and then the shoes."
What makes Toscanini's pants antifascist? "As far as I know," Kalman said, "these pants were the pants he wore, or could have worn, in 1936 to conduct the then Palestine Orchestra in their inaugural concert. He was invited by Bronisław Huberman, the man who created the Palestine Orchestra/Israel Philharmonic. Toscanini was really antifascist; he was anti-Mussolini, he wouldn't perform in Germany, he was anti-Hitler. His coming to Palestine at the time, to Tel Aviv, was really making a statement: I'm with these people, not with you."
"So I call them my antifascist pants," explained Kalman. "Because I'm from Tel Aviv, and mother's family came to Tel Aviv in the early 30s, I imagine [Toscanini] meeting her and falling madly in love. But I don't call them my 'Falling in Love with My Mother Pants.'"
I wondered how Kalman lives with all of these things, these artifacts accompanied by narratives both real and fictional, at home. "My living room is where I keep my ladders," she explained. "It's not as if the living room is filled with ladders, but sometimes it is. The pants are hanging on a hanger on a shelf in the living room. Really, the room is about time and memory, and those things represent a very poignant way of living with time."
On the platform displaying the ladder, pants, and shoes, Kalman has transcribed a long passage from Robert Walser's classic novella The Walk: "The man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf, or no more than a poor discarded scrap of paper on which, perhaps, a dear good child at school has written his first clumsy letters."
If Darwin's quote about blunders serves as the greeting to Kalman's exhibit, perhaps Walser's could serve as the thesis, with all these various and seemingly irrelevant items—spoons, figurines of dancers, 200-year-old school primers, a 16th-century woodcut of a rhinoceros—each demanding to be studied and observed as if of tremendous consequence. It's through the presentation of small things Kalman gets at a big thing, the big thing: death. Nowhere else is this better illustrated than by Lincoln's pall and watch. As we stood in front of these objects at the tour's end, the mood became decidedly somber and reverential.
"Originally, I had wanted to borrow Lincoln's hat from the Smithsonian, because I thought that was one of the most iconic and important design objects in our country. But it was too fragile to travel," said Kalman. "So Harry Rubinstein [the Smithsonian's curator of political history] opened his Lincoln archive and said, 'What else would you like?' When I went through it, something I kept stopping at was this pall, which juxtaposes a utility—it's a pall, it hangs over a coffin—with a lot of tassels and fringe."
"The watch was clearly something so poignant," Kalman continued. "[Lincoln] held it in his hand, he heard the ticking. We were able to take it to a watch restorer, George Thomas, who spent a day performing microsurgery, cleaning the whale oil off of it, and making it tick for a few minutes so that we could hear what Lincoln heard." As she said this, the ticking of Lincoln's watch began over the speakers again, followed by the trumpet and strings, and then Anne-Carolyn Bird's voice.
"The emotional connection to Lincoln is just something that's so primal for most people," Kalman explained. "To layer the ticking with music—he loved music—and the tenderness of hearing this ticking with this song, it really completes the story for me."
Maria Kalman Selects is on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum through June 7, 2015.
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