A closet so organized it’s being exhibited at the Met
NEW YORK (AP) — It’s not uncommon to aspire to a perfectly organized closet.
But Sara Berman’s closet, with its starched and ironed clothes and linens, its stack of soft hats, its jar of buttons and its row of Easy Spirit shoes, all lined up and all in shades of white, ivory or the palest ecru, went far beyond that.
Her Greenwich Village closet, which served her from 1982 until her death in 2004, became a sort of shrine to her quest for order, beauty and meaning. It was so extraordinary in its simplicity and elegance that it recently earned a place among the far more luxurious period rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A recreation of the closet by artists Maira and Alex Kalman, Berman’s daughter and grandson, will remain on view at the Met through Sept. 5.
“We knew that my mother’s closet was a work of art. It was similar to the closets of my aunt and my grandmother, but taken to more of an extreme. When my mother died, it was clear that it should be preserved and put in a museum someday, but we never imagined in would be in the Met,” said Maira Kalman.
The closet was meticulously saved in bins and, about a decade after Berman’s death, it was installed in a tiny lower Manhattan museum, called Mmuseumm, founded by her grandson.
“As children, we would admire Sara’s closet. We could see clearly it has the power of a great piece of art. It was beautiful and spoke volumes,” Alex Kalman explained. “It was clear it should be exhibited.”
“It’s surprisingly emotion-evoking,” said Met curator Amelia Peck, who was moved after seeing the closet exhibited in Kalman’s museum, and persuaded the Met to exhibit it among its period rooms.
On a recent morning at the Met, there were more visitors huddled around Berman’s closet than around any of the more luxurious rooms near it.
“It speaks to many people,” Maira Kalman said. “It speaks to the immigrant experience, to issues of feminism.” As she and her son wrote in the text accompanying the Met exhibit: “The closet, with Sara’s underthings, linens, clothing, shoes, bags, all lined up with military precision and loving care, represents the unending search — from the monumental to the mundane — for order, beauty, and meaning.”
Berman was born in a shtetl in Belarus, married in Tel Aviv and eventually settled in the Bronx, where she raised her family. At age 62, after 38 years of marriage, she left her husband, her money, and most of her possessions, and moved into a tiny studio apartment in Greenwich Village. There, in a modest closet, she lovingly organized her undergarments, nightgowns, shirts, pants, shoes, sweaters, hats, linens, beauty products, luggage and other belongings.
“She really started life all over again, this time on her own terms, after many years in an unhappy marriage,” Kalman said. “That’s when her decision to only wear white became really codified. We never asked her why.”
Also included in the closet at the Met are Berman’s well-used potato grater and cookie dough press, a clear inflatable globe that made her laugh (she kept 13 of the globes in her apartment), a wooden recipe box, a tiny notebook of knitting patterns and, tucked in a far corner, a few of the hefty biographies she loved to read. A bright red pompom serves as a pull-string handle for the closet light.
The closet both contains her life and reveals it.
At the Met, Berman’s closet is exhibited in dialogue with a closet from a century earlier, the recently installed 1882 Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room. Vastly different in scale and ornament, the two rooms compare and contrast life stories of Berman and Arabella Worsham (1851-1924). Both began as women of limited means and created new lives for themselves in New York City.