I’ve just finished reading Maira Kalman‘s newest book, And the Pursuit of Happiness. I love her brevity. I aspire to it with a kind of cheerful hopelessness, knowing that no matter how hard I try, there’s always something more I want to add.
Still, in hopes that her wisdom will wear off on me, I have been following Kalman’s columns in the New York Times since 2006. Her paintings and commentary are the results of a daily search for beauty and wonder in both the quotidian and the marvelous.
A new exhibit of her work at the Jewish Museum on 5th Ave in New York opened March 13 and runs through July 31. It’s called “Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World).” In an interview at the Jewish Daily Forward, she talks about some wonderful new projects—including an upcoming children’s book on Abraham Lincoln and an illustrated version of Michael Pollan‘s Food Rules—and says that she likes her text to be “tart and spritely.”
Her husband, Tibor, came to the U.S. about the same time: He was born in Budapest but fled Hungary at the time of the Soviet invasion in 1956. A graphic designer, he died in 1999 of non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the age of 49; he and Maira had been married for 32 years. In the face of great loss, that place where you can barely make it through a day without collapsing from grief, Kalman must have decided that survival was in the details—the small gesture that encapsulates compassion and tenderness.
In The Principles of Uncertainty, published in book form in 2009, she expressed a passion for her New York City neighborhood, colorful people both famous and unknown, beautiful rooms and dresses and shoes and hats, the elderly and the dispossessed, children, precious things, and history, her own and the world’s. She is a staunchly democratic artist: The smallest to the grandest gets the same treatment, and a candy wrapper is as worthy of note as a room at Versailles.
As I scan the daily headlines, something Kalman once said about her family seems to apply to America, or maybe the whole human race: “Hapless, heroic us.”
And the Pursuit of Happiness begins with a bang, with the word “Hallelujah,” with Barack Obama’s inauguration, a period of high hopes and great relief. Kalman’s trip to the White House, Congress, Mt Vernon and the Supreme Court, all of which she posted in the pages of the Times, felt like confirmation that America was back on course again. Kalman met with Ruth Bader Ginsberg, toured the Pentagon, met U.S. soldiers and visited Monticello. She developed a serious crush on Abe Lincoln, and she weighed just a few of Benjamin Franklin’s accomplishments:
He saw a house on fire and created a fire department.
He saw sick people and founded a hospital.
He started the first lending library.
Democracy in its most basic form still works, of course; Kalman observed it in person, and her good-humored encounter with the citizens of New Fane, Vermont, suggests that coming face to face with democracy might be an improvement over relying on headlines or the nightly news for a perspective on the world.
At every turn, I still believe that we’ve progressed to an even better version of America than the original of 1776, but it’s shocking to see that so many civil rights—hard won during my lifetime—are endangered. The separation of church and state that I once thought immovable is wobbly, to put it mildly. We’re fighting two wars and now are engaged in another one. There are lawmakers all over the country making serious efforts to dismantle social programs, in the guise of budget cutting, that have helped the poor, the elderly, the orphaned and the disadvantaged—as well as immigrants—for decades.
These are times when I really am at a loss for words.
This is when I need Maira Kalman. She is a spirit lifter par excellence. She always knows what to give thanks for. I turn to the section called “I Lift My Lamp Beside the Golden Door,” and read that if, for instance, Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline in Russia in 1888, the son of a Jewish cantor) had not been allowed to immigrate to the United States, we would never have had Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek-to-cheek. Unimaginable.