Throughout the pandemic, artist, author, and illustrator Maira Kalman has been asking herself: What do women hold? When she answered her own question, she wrote, “The home and the family. And the children and the food. The friendships. The work. The work of the world. And the work of being human. The memories. And the troubles. And the sorrows and the triumphs. And the love.”
She transformed that complex thought into 30 paintings, a book HarperDesign will release later this month, and an exhibition that opened last Thursday in New York’s Chelsea district.
Like the paintings themselves, the opening party was intriguing, multicultural, and cerebral, with a lively palette, various boldface names, and thoughtful composition. Guests arrived to a large bowl of perfectly yellow lemons, with cookies and cheese straws arranged on pastel-hued glass and china plates. The labels under the pictures were handwritten on the wall by the artist. The guests were dressed in everything, from leopard prints, to knits with pink tassels, to leather and jeans.
It was crowded. When I arrived, there was a line down the street, a little polite reshuffling of bodies to fit into the elevator and stairwell, and then standing three deep to get a close look at the paintings. Family and friends of the artist were there in full force. It seemed as if some hadn’t seen each other since the pandemic began, with hugs and kisses all around. Many guests were longtime fans, collectors, and Instagram followers. Others were gallery-hopping on an early October evening and happened to find themselves there. It was all good.
Katherine Finkelstein, Joey Frank, and Lucy Kaminsky are friends who arrived together. Kaminsky told me that she loved “Lulu Holding a Birthday Cake” because she’d been at that party, which she said was for Kalman’s granddaughter. Kaminsky pointed out Kalman’s daughter Lulu, Lulu’s children Olive and Esme, Bruno the Dog, and the red balloon on Lulu’s head.
Daisy Fornengo works at the gallery, and at the time of our conversation, she told me two-thirds of the paintings had sold. “The buyers are people who love New York and connect with her work. Many have been following her for years,” Fornengo said. When I asked if she had a favorite painting, she selected “Morandi’s Studio” and said, “I love all the little vignettes, especially the pictures on the wall. And I love the chair too.”
Jan and Wijnand Looise are a married couple from Amsterdam who put the opening on their itinerary during a past visit to New York. They learned about it from Florent (Morellet), owner of the shuttered Meatpacking District diner/artists’ hangout known for its un-designed signage and menus by Kalman’s late husband, Tibor Kalman. Jan is an academic researcher, Winjnand makes landscape paintings, and together they provide management consulting services. They expressed mutual admiration for this portrait of Edith Sitwell, the British poet who reportedly fell in love with homosexual men.
“I paint, and make stuff, and am writing a children’s book about dreaming,” said Corrine Rendinaro, who follows Kalman on Instagram. “Matisse is painting in bed with a long brush strapped to a pole because he was [debilitated by] cancer, and couldn’t paint any more, and that’s also why he began working with cut paper,” Rendinaro explained. (I did not know that. Did the professor in your 20th Century Art class mention that?)
Ron Mwangaguhunga writes about politics and the media for HuffPost. He’d stopped by to see the Donald Sultan “Yellow Mimosa” works in the adjacent rooms. After perusing Kalman’s work, he gravitated to “My Father Holding Me,” a portrait of the artist as a child in her father’s arms. “Look, he loves her so much, he’s in ecstasy,” Mwangaguhunga commented. “It must be beautiful to go backwards in time, and remember a father who was so in love with you. My father was never like that. And look how she painted the scene in pink and brown— almost membrane colors, like flesh and blood.”
Sculptor and textile artist Lucie Rosicka was there with painter Filip Svehla, and they gravitated towards “Matisse with Odalisque.” Kalman’s handwritten caption read “Matisse and Model Holding Each Other,” although drapery, a screen, and an easel separate the subjects. It’s a different kind of holding. “The style is a little bit naïve, but I admire the colors and the fabric quality,” Rosicka said. “This picture reminds me of a painting my parents bought years ago of a woman in striped pants. It was in the house I grew up in.”
The colors also earned comments from husband and wife duo Buzz Wei, an architect, and Vita Yang, an illustrator who likes to draw people on the subway. “Pink and green are my favorite combination,” Yang said. Wei focused on the chair in “The Plumpest Raspberry Tassels,” and noted that he was also drawn to a reflection in the mirror “which gives an indication of the whole space.”
“I was at her ‘CAKE’ event!” exclaimed Carolina Swan, referring to a 2018 launch party for Kalman’s book of cake-inspired paintings with recipes by Barbara Scott-Goodman. “I follow her on the ‘Gram and dabble in some artwork myself— gouache painting.” Swan attended the opening with her friend Claudia Lopez, a documentary filmmaker. They both loved the “Lulu Holding a Birthday Cake,” as well as “Woman Carrying Ill Dog.” “That’s because my dog was sick,” Lopez added.
All the responses were personal, evoking memories of sweet or poignant moments in their own lives. But none were as personal as that of Kalman’s son Alex: “My favorite is the painting of life,” he said, with his niece at his feet. “My mother and grandmother and my sister and her children.”
“Women Holding Things” will be at the Mary Ryan Gallery, 515 West 26th Street in New York City, through November 12.