Love, Loss & What She Wore at the Met

‘This is the world through her eyes. She is no longer alive. And it is im­pos­si­ble to bear.’

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Laura Hodes

Now on view at New York City’s Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art is an ex­hibit that re-cre­ates the closet of Sara Ber­man. The ex­hibit, aptly ti­tled “Sara Ber­man’s Closet,” is the work of Ber­man’s daugh­ter Maira Kal­man and grand­son, Alex Kal­man, and it rep­re­sents Ber­man’s life from 1982 to 2004, when she lived alone in a small apart­ment in Green­wich Vil­lage. It is pre­sented near an in­stal­la­tion of the Wor­sham-Rock­e­feller Dress­ing Room from 1882. Ara­bella Wor­sham’s closet is a large, elab­o­rate dress­ing room with lux­u­ri­ous Parisian fab­rics and rich wood. It con­trasts starkly with Ber­man’s spare closet.

Wor­sham was a wealthy art pa­troness, yet both she and Ber­man came from mod­est means. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of the two clos­ets re­in­forces how so much of a wo­man’s wardrobe is the re­flec­tion not only of time and class but also of in­di­vid­ual choice — what kind of a wo­man she chooses to be.

Ber­man’s closet is de­cep­tively sim­ple, a small space with clothes in shades of cream, white and ecru; this gives the im­pres­sion of be­ing all white, which is how she dressed dur­ing these years. The clothes are neatly pressed and folded in low piles on white shelves. Ber­man had lived in Be­larus in a vil­lage of shacks, then moved with her fam­ily to Tel Aviv in Pales­tine in 1932, where the Mid­dle East­ern sun bleached the

laun­dry a blind­ing white. In 1954 Ber­man left Tel Aviv and moved with her hus­band and two daugh­ters to New York City. Then in 1982 she moved alone, af­ter a di­vorce, to the stu­dio apart­ment in Green­wich Vil­lage with the closet that is re-cre­ated in the ex­hibit. The pu­rity of the white­ness of the stiffly folded clothes sug­gests a way that Ber­man con­nected with her past.

Aside from the clothes, there are seven books, in­clud­ing Dos­toyevsky’s “The Id­iot”; a glass jar of white but­tons; a sil­ver potato grater; a lit­tle wooden box of recipes, in­clud­ing “Ann Lan­ders’ Fa­mous Meat­loaf”; three iden­ti­cal black watches that Ber­man wore each day, seven pairs of shoes in vary­ing shades of brown, gray and beige; an iron; a Louis Vuit­ton box, and a sil­ver pot.

“This closet,” the artists write in an ex­hibit note, “rep­re­sents the un­end­ing search for or­der, beauty, and mean­ing.”

This theme res­onates with the larger oeu­vre of Maira Kal­man, an artist and il­lus­tra­tor for The New York Times and The New Yorker who has writ­ten 12 chil­dren’s books and two books of pic­ture es­says for adults. Kal­man is a col­lec­tor. Her books are full of por­traits of her col­lec­tions of mun­dane things: wa­ter­fall post­cards, tick­ets, food pack­ets, things that fall out of books, rub­ber bands. Her col­lec­tions are at­tempts to find or­der, beauty and mean­ing, while also at­tempt­ing to stop or tran­scend time.

Clearly, Kal­man had a close, lov­ing re­la­tion­ship with her mother, who served as a muse. Per­haps Kal­man’s most fa­mous work is a De­cem­ber 2001 car­toon map of “New York­istan” di­vid­ing the bor­oughs into tribes, on which she col­lab­o­rated with il­lus­tra­tor Rick Meyerowitz. “My mother drew this map for me. This is the world through her eyes. She is no longer alive. And it is im­pos­si­ble to bear,” Kal­man has writ­ten.

In her books, Kal­man is en­chanted by ob­jects that are no longer used by their own­ers. In her book “Prin­ci­ples of Un­cer­tainty,” she ex­presses her love for old aban­doned chairs and couches in the city. “To be strid­ing along and come upon a bro­ken chair on the street is like get­ting a ter­rific present,” Kal­man writes in her new­est book for adults, “My Fa­vorite Things.” These aban­doned ob­jects be­come sym­bols or synec­doches them­selves of our mor­tal­ity, of the rav­ages of time.

“Sara Ber­man’s Closet,” then, is a synec­doche of Kal­man’s printed work. Here be­fore us is this lit­tle room of ob­jects that once held such mean­ing in her mother’s ev­ery­day life. Both love and loss are em­bod­ied in this re-cre­ation. The in­stal­la­tion is an act of love from a daugh­ter and grand­son, but it’s also a tes­ta­ment to the brave re­siliency of a hu­man ef­fort to cre­ate art, beauty and or­der out of the ev­ery­day.

A STARK CON­TRAST: Ber­man’s closet is pre­sented in di­a­logue with the Wor­sham-Rock­e­feller Dress­ing Room from 1882.



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