California Closets has nothing on Sara Berman. The woman knew how to wrangle a walk-in. Her abilities were such that her daughter, acclaimed artist and author Maira Kalman, and her grandson, What Studio? founder Alex Kalman, saw fit to enshrine Sara's closet in a perfect new book and a small but mighty art installation that has charmed visitors in New York, now in Los Angeles, and soon enough the world over.
To be clear, Sara was a woman of many skills, experiences and interests beyond the organization of domestic storage. She was an avid reader, writer and visitor to cultural sites, museums, concerts and the like, as well as an expert baker and doting matriarch. But in the engineering of her legendary closet, Sara excelled not only at aesthetic and functional organizing but at preserving the heirlooms, memories and traditions of her entire family line. Her closet contained and gave meaning to an intergenerational tale, and its stockpile of white linens, white garments, black and white photographs and air-mailed letters holds riches for the inheritance of meaning. In a very real sense, the closet was Sara herself, performed in walk-in form.
Sara was born in Belarus in 1920, shortly after the end of the first world war, and her childhood centered around the company of women, whom she witnessed truly running the village, especially the baking, laundering and starching, ironing and sewing that, as the Kalmans' book states, “put everything in order. They were the heart and soul of the family.” When Sara was 12, this family took a ship to Palestine. There the laundry became even whiter, bleached in the hot sun. They had brought the family linens, and their own traditions, too, which were sort of the same thing. This all becomes important later.
Sara married and had two daughters, Kika and Maira (born in 1949). At some point when the girls were young, the family moved to New York. There they took full advantage of the city's culture — museums, opera, the library. When the sisters were grown and in college, the parents went back to Tel Aviv. Later, Sara divorced her husband and came back alone to New York, on her own and with just one suitcase, which contained, among other things, those same family linens. She moved to Greenwich Village and became herself on her own terms, perhaps for the first time in her life. For her own reasons, she wore nothing but white clothing ever again. That's also when she took her small closet and made it magnificent. “There was a place for everything,” the book tells us, “and everything was in its place. She knew what she had.”
A full accounting of the contents of its shelves exists in lists, photographs, valises and her family's memory. Now it also exists in Maira Kalman's paintings and the new storybook. There are undergarments and socks, all white, all ironed. Blouses, in design variations but all white and ivory. Pants, creased, also white. Shoes, white and sometimes light brown. Fluffy sweaters, white, folded. Hats, white. Linens, white and sometimes with embroidery; and these linens are a whole thing unto themselves. A thing with meaning far beyond Sara's personality, or her sense of style. These linens are old-fashioned homeland stuff, the precious things among few that she brought to America in that single suitcase. Things that previously were brought on the long-ago journey to Palestine from Belarus, and from who knows where before even that. Though they might reside in the Metropolitan Museum or the Skirball Center now, they are still very much in the family.
Sara had three wristwatches she'd wear at the same time, set to L.A., New York and Tel Aviv. And she wrote and received letters — so very many letters, from decades, from even before decades. She and her sister Shoshana corresponded at length, every week, all those years. Sara visited Shoshana in Israel often, and the last time, she went for the High Holidays and died in her sleep — a triple blessing in Jewish tradition, to die in Israel, on a holy day, in your sleep.
“When Sara's family returned to New York from Tel Aviv,” recounts the book, “it was clear to them that her closet was a work of art that needed to be preserved.” Alex (who was born in 1985) fondly remembers the closet from his time with his grandmother. When he visited her, they would often organize it together, as a kind of game. He liked doing it. So they documented, inventoried and made charts. They knew it would be a show someday.
And then, 10 years after Sara's death, it was. In 2015, Maira and Alex re-created the closet in an alleyway in Lower Manhattan for Mmuseumm, and in 2017, “Sara Berman's Closet” was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Currently, it's on view at the Skirball Cultural Center through March 10. And in an expansion debuting in L.A., the installation of the closet itself is now augmented by 12 new paintings by Maira Kalman (largely the striking originals of works from the book), along with photographs and ephemera illustrating important moments from Sara's life.
The combination of Maira's iconic style of pictures and texts, along with Alex's meticulous, empathetic, almost reverential on-site curatorial arrangement of the closet itself, combines to yield more than a moving tribute. “Sara Berman's Closet” is both a time capsule of 20th-century Jewish history and a mysterious and captivating work of contemporary art.
Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.; skirball.org; Tue.-Fri., noon-5 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; through March 10; $12, free Thursdays. https://www.skirball.org/exhibitions/sara-bermans-closet.
On Wednesday, Jan. 23, at 8 p.m., the Skirball hosts an evening with Maira and Alex Kalman, interviewed by Paul Holdengraber. A $15 ticket includes museum admission (galleries remain open until 8 p.m.). https://www.skirball.org/programs/words-and-ideas/evening-maira-kalman-and-alex-kalman