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.’
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.
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART