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Inside Sara Berman’s Closet at the Met Museum

New York Times:
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Alex Kalman and his mother, Maira Kalman, in front of “Sara Berman’s Closet,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Credit Andrew White for The New York Times

There are 21 period rooms in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ranging from a 17th-century colonial interior to an enormous Prairie-style living room by Frank Lloyd Wright, each designed to transport the viewer back in time.

The newest addition, however, is an unexpected meditation on modern city life: a modest closet from a studio apartment in the West Village, filled with the curious, lovely and very particular personal effects of Sara Berman, a Belarussian and Israeli émigré who was the mother of Maira Kalman, the irreverent artist, book author and illustrator. (Her credits include the memorable “New Yorkistan” cover of The New Yorker, created with her boyfriend, Rick Meyerowitz.)

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Sara Berman in Rome in 1994.

Sara Berman wore only white. She was a cracker-jack ironer and closet cleaner. She spent a lot of time in Loehmann’s — Ms. Kalman likes to say that she was very chic, but not at all vain. She precisely folded and stacked her white T-shirts and socks, her white ribbed sweaters and white, mannish pants. She was a fine cook, but her repertoire was limited mostly to schnitzel, blintzes, latkes and sesame cookies. (You’ll see an Israeli-made potato grater in her closet.) She was also a knitter and made sweaters for the family’s beloved dog, Pete, even though she was terrified of him. When she died and Ms. Kalman and her sister, Kika Schoenfeld, an artist, hat maker and interior designer, were cleaning out her apartment, Ms. Kalman joked that their mother’s closet should be a museum and Ms. Schoenfeld its docent. “My sister said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” Ms. Kalman recalled.

Nonetheless, they saved all of Sara’s belongings.

And one morning last month, Ms. Kalman, her son, Alex Kalman, a designer and director, and Amelia Peck, a curator of American decorative arts at the Met, led me through the elaborate collections in the American Wing to a new gallery that would soon be sheathed in white Sheetrock and, for the next six months, hold all these relics of Sara Berman’s life, right down to the fluffy red pompom on the end of the closet’s light bulb pull cord.

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A view of the closet at Mmuseumm. Credit Mmuseumm

“It’s a wonderful way to enliven the collection,” Ms. Peck said. “A new way of looking at rooms and possessions and women’s history.” The exhibition, which opens Monday, will be on view through Sept. 5.

Ms. Kalman and Mr. Kalman had first incarnated Sara’s closet in a once-gritty storefront on Cortlandt Alley in TriBeCa. The installation was part of Mr. Kalman’s Mmuseumm, a tiny exhibition space housed in a former freight elevator and that storefront, which he founded with the filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie. Like his mother, Mr. Kalman, 31, tells stories through everyday objects, and Mmuseumm’s deeply personal collections have included the tattered wool blanket of a Mexican immigrant, left behind in the Arizona desert, along with goods made by prison workers incarcerated in New York State and a taxonomy of cornflakes.

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Sara Berman in Tel Aviv in 1938.

The contents of Sara Berman’s closet became a hit, curatorially speaking. They also reflected the habits of her humble upbringing in Palestine, where the women of her family, Ms. Kalman said, “worked like beasts from morning to night. It was that sense of dedicating yourself to a life of taking care of the people you love, by baking and sewing and cleaning.”

Sara was 12 in 1932, when her family left a rough shack in Belarus for a rougher shack in Tel Aviv, part of an exodus of Jewish families away from the pogroms and the poverty of the region. Many of those who stayed behind would be murdered during the Holocaust. Sara, a beauty, was one of four children; their father, a house builder, was a deeply religious man who loved potatoes and praying. Sand filled their new home, a three-room shack flanked by the sea and the desert. Sara; her mother; and her sister, Shoshana would spend hours sweeping it clean and tending to the laundry with military precision: washing, starching and ironing. Sara had tremendous style and dressed in outfits copied from the pages of European fashion magazines and sewn by her mother. For 38 years, she was unhappily married, to a diamond dealer named Pesach Berman.

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Some of the items included in the exhibition. Credit Andrew White for The New York Times

“Everyone talks about how many suitors she had,” Ms. Kalman said, “all jumping out of windows and doors. For her own reasons, she chose my father.”

In 1981, Ms. Kalman and her husband, Tibor Kalman, the activist designer who died in 1999, visited Sara in Tel Aviv while they were on their honeymoon; when they returned to New York City, Sara came, too. She loved her new life in a studio apartment a few blocks away from the Kalmans. She watched “Jeopardy” every night, and she could see the Empire State Building from her windows. Her apartment was as singular as her wardrobe. There were children’s school chairs, and the floor was strewn with inflatable beach ball globes. “They were sprinkled all around the apartment, so you really had to watch your step,” Ms. Kalman said.

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Maira Kalman, who is an artist, book author and illustrator. Credit Andrew White for The New York Times

Growing up, Alex and his sister, Lulu, would organize their closets with their grandmother when she came to babysit on the weekends. “You mean it’s not what everyone does on the weekend?” he said. “It seemed not just normal but joyful. Installing Sara’s closet has been a surreal process,” he continued, “because while it felt like we were working on an art installation, at the same time it felt like being a kid again.”

At the Met, Sara’s closet will be “in dialogue,” as Ms. Peck put it, with the florid, Gilded Age boudoir once belonging to Arabella Worsham (the mistress — and later wife — of the railroad magnate Collis Huntington), which features an explosion of marquetry in the style of the Aesthetic Movement. Worsham lived alone with her son in a townhouse on West 54th Street, paid for by her lover, under cover of a pretend widowhood.

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Watches that are part of “Sara Berman’s Closet.” Credit Andrew White for The New York Times

Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the curator for Arabella’s dressing room, noted the contrasts between the two women, the asceticism of Sara and the maximalism of Belle, as she was known, as well as the parallels. “Both were strong, self-motivated individuals,” Ms. Frelinghuysen said. “It’s interesting the control they each had over their own surroundings, which extended to how they adorned themselves.”

For her part, Ms. Kalman said: “Of course, what I think of is the anti-Semitism of the Gilded Age. I wonder if Belle would be appalled by Sara or welcome her into her home. I can’t imagine the two women having a dialogue, but there they are.”

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Alex Kalman and his mother, the artist Maira Kalman, right. Credit Andrew White for The New York Times

Ms. Kalman is not the first artist to present her mother’s worldly goods in a museum setting. Thematically, “Sara Berman’s Closet” most closely recalls a work by the Chinese artist Song Dong, who arrayed the contents of his mother’s Beijing house, along with the house itself, at the Museum of Modern Art in 2009. “Waste Not,” Mr. Song’s title for the show, was an overwhelming collection of hundreds of objects — plastic bottles, rice bowls, stuffed animals, fabric scraps, ballpoint pens — hoarded by a woman traumatized by the Cultural Revolution and by the death of her husband. Her belongings told a story of privation and sorrow; their sheer mass was a bulwark against future hardship.

(Another, creepier reference is an installation that appeared at the New Museum’s “The Keeper” exhibition last summer, at which the artist Howard Fried offered the contents of his dead mother’s closet, though his piece was an act of mourning. “The Decomposition of My Mother’s Wardrobe,” as he titled the project, was just that: her clothes, and his intention to let them fall apart naturally.)

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Alex Kalman with an inflatable globe. The floor of Sara Berman’s apartment was strewn with inflatable beach ball globes. Credit Andrew White for The New York Times

Turning Sara’s belongings into a museum work meant that each object had to be tagged, photographed and entered into the Met’s database. In addition, the items had to be valued for insurance, a mysterious calculus that weighed monetary worth along with other, ineffable measures.

“What is the intrinsic value of a notebook your mother owned?” Ms. Peck asked the artist.

“Where does value come from?” Mr. Kalman said. “Is it from meaning, or because it’s an art object at the Met?”

“We spent hours figuring this out,” Ms. Peck added. Because of the Met’s insurance rules, the value of one of Sara’s clean white socks, for example, could not be shared with me.

Sara’s closet, said Julie Saul, Ms. Kalman’s longtime gallerist, “is about the intimacy of family and representing the essence of someone through their belongings. There are very few boundaries among the ways that Maira works. That can present difficulties to an artist. She’s most well-known as an illustrator and a writer, and that may have excluded her from conventional museum collections. It’s very hard to navigate the curatorial pathways.”

This is not to say that Ms. Kalman doesn’t have relationships (often whimsical, always unpredictable) with cultural institutions. She has been a guest curator at the Cooper Hewitt, organizing a show about the comfort of objects that featured the conductor Arturo Toscanini’s trousers, lent from her personal collection. She has performed with Ms. Saul, Isaac Mizrahi and the composer Nico Muhly at the New York Public Library, in a percussion-based opera based on Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style,” the rule book of English grammar, which Ms. Kalman illustrated in 2005. She has collaborated with Daniel Handler (otherwise known as Lemony Snicket) on a series of books based on the photography collections at the Museum of Modern Art. She once played a duck — in a tutu and flippers — in Mr. Mizrahi’s production of “Peter and the Wolf” at the Guggenheim. But the Met has long been her playground. She has provided the route and the narration to the Museum Workout, a sold-out adventure in which dancers lead groups through the Met’s collections. Date night for Ms. Kalman and Mr. Meyerowitz means Fridays sketching in the galleries. Ms. Kalman even persuaded the Met’s administrators to let her join the cleaning crew for a few hours, part of a daylong apprenticeship in which she worked in the cafeteria and also as a museum guard. “I was in uniform for all three jobs,” she said, happily.

What would Sara make of her closet’s metamorphosis into, as her grandson put it, “a monument to courage and independence and freedom?” Or the fact that her socks were on display at one of the world’s largest cultural institutions?

“She would have thought we were crazy,” Ms. Kalman said, “but in the best possible way.”