‘Times’ Op-Artist Maira Kalman: Bons Mots, Pretty Pictures, Dream Whip

Moderator Paul Holdengraber with Kalman. Photo: Peter Foley

When we walked into the New York Public Library last night to hear author and illustrator Maira Kalman talk about, and composer Nico Muhly play music about, Kalman's new book, The Principles of Uncertainty, we expected a good mix of the wacky and brilliant. (The last Muhly-Kalman collaboration, after all, was a mini-opera of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.) And wacky and brilliant is indeed what we got, starting with a stage set with a ping-pong table, random household tools, and a box of Dream Whip. Muhly began the evening at the piano, playing alternately dark and sparkling passages while informing the audience of the evening's length ("37 1/2 minutes of conversation, 14 1/2 minutes of music"), recalling his first meeting with Kalman ("She sang very badly"), and telling us we'd get to taste the mocha cream cake so pivotal to Kalman's book if we sat tight.

Then came a rather Dadaist evening. Moderator Paul Holdengraber offered his thoughts about serendipity, mothers ("They are very important to happiness, as I recall"), and his younger days reading Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Muhly and a small ensemble performed three songs set to passages from Principles which perfectly captured the interplay of curiosity and sadness in Kalman's evocative works — a mix Kalman exuded each time she spoke. Ludwig Bemelmans, she told us, was a bon vivant. "That is what I would like to be," Kalman dryly noted. "That's like Eeyore wanting to be a bon vivant." —Rebecca Milzoff

Earlier: Exclusive Excerpt: ‘The Principles of Uncertainty’