Maira Kalman: Mental Magpie

Maira Kalman: if your crazy neighbor illustrated New Yorker covers. Self-Portrait (with Pete), 2004–5 / via
Maira Kalman: if your crazy neighbor
illustrated New Yorker covers.
Self-Portrait (with Pete), 2004–5 / via

You’ve almost certainly seen Maira Kalman’s work, if not on the cover of The New Yorker, then perhaps in The New York Times—or even in an illustrated version of Strunk & White’s classic The Elements of Style. If you live in New York, you’ll recognize her work as so strongly iconic a part of this city that, even if you didn’t know Kalman’s name, her images and style will seem familiar to you.

Her technique evokes folk art, her hand-lettered, sometimes blocky and (deceptively!) simplistic illustrations conveying a child-like quality. She’s a bewildering mix of desultory, naïve and sophisticated in her subjects, themes and insights. At times she feels like a nutty neighbor or that woman on the train you had the misfortune of sitting next to (before you realized she was going to regale you with tales of her porcelain cat collection). At other times, she’s an astute cultural commentator who’s putting things together in a way that you never could, skimming you over the surface of an insight far beyond your comprehension.

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Another thing that I find remarkable about Kalman’s work is that I’ve yet to encounter anyone who doesn’t like it, a unique trait in the polarizing worlds of art and cultural observation. But what is her art? I’d argue that it’s sequential art, the academic term for what we more commonly call comics.

Her work is not conventionally narrative: “The books are really journals of my life. I never—I don’t like plots. I don’t know what a plot means. I can’t stand the idea of something that starts in the beginning, middle, and end. It really scares me.” Yet she still uses narrative threads. She doesn’t employ any of the usual implements of comics storytelling, like speech bubbles, fully character-driven narratives or any sort of discreet structure, three-act or otherwise. People might be perplexed to hear her books described as “graphic novels,” because though they’re illustrated, they don’t seem much like novels, graphic or otherwise; more “collections,” perhaps. But they are stories nonetheless, cross-sections of the ideas moving through her mind, and therefore, in my opinion, a stellar example of the full capabilities of a hybrid text-illustrated medium.

Is it naive, or sophisticated?

A friend (and great admirer of Kalman’s work) once described her to me as a mental magpie. The people, objects and tableaux that Kalman puts together are enshrined by her, treated with loving care, respect and even reverence—but then she tosses them aside as soon as something else catches her eye or her mind moves on to a different theme. These objects, thrown together sometimes without apparent pattern, then make a whole different kind of sense when you step back for a moment and look beyond the individual parts at a sort of rope that she’s woven together, from which her sensibility dangles, just out of reach.

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Kalman’s TED talk drives her sensibility home within the first minute. “I’m trying to figure out two very simple things: how to live and how to die,” she announces. “Period. That’s all I’m trying to do, all day long.” Pause. “And I’m also trying to have some meals, and have some snacks, and, you know, yell at my children, and do all the normal things that keep you grounded.” Most of the remainder of her talk has little to do with her dramatic opener. There you have it: a meditator on life and death, prone to questing for snacks. (I highly recommend watching Kalman’s whole TED talk: like her books, it seems to wander aimlessly but then, in a flourish, Kalman reveals amazingly lucid insights.) She’s at once a siren of today’s distraction-prone age, and a prophet of our times that sees us all, the big mix of us, in a way that transcends the current moment.

Kalman’s work is also undeniably American—but that sort of East Coast, I’ve-only-ever-lived-in-New-York-and-what-do-you-mean-you-don’t-know-what-a-shawarma-is kind of American, the sort that sells well in France. I say this not to be cheeky; I’ve seem Kalman’s work throughout Western Europe and it seems to be one of those points of connection where Europeans seem to genuinely understand the American mind in a form that’s not outright caricature, or simply and totally misunderstood.

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Born in Israel (her family moved to New York when she was 4), Kalman’s work also mixes in elements of her Jewish heritage and outlook, capturing vignettes of her family members in New York and Israel and exploring sense memories of her various relatives. This is yet another way in which her work tends to stand alone as individual portraits or flashes of ideas (like her New Yorker covers), but then also connects up into longer arcs, to wit her newer experiments, which are being released as books or even showcased as blogs on The New York Times. My personal favorite is The Principles of Uncertainty, which Kalman published in 2007.

Kalman has published nearly two dozen other books, some of them collaborations (for example, 2000’s (un)Fashion, a collaboration with her husband Tibor Kalman). You can start virtually anywhere in her body of work, and will know within two pages if you love her, and then find yourself on a quest to obtain everything she’s ever done. That’s what happened to me. I suspect you will be similarly afflicted.