Tucked away at the back of the American Wing in The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a fascinating exhibit called Sara Berman’s Closet. The exhibit is exactly what it’s name implies, simply the contents of one woman’s closet. It is presented with so little fanfare that it would be easy to take a glance, shrug your shoulders and move on. But allowing yourself to rest and contemplate this spare presentation and all that it implies is a meditation on choice, family, change and intimacy.
Sara Berman’s Closet: Her History
Sara Berman was a Jewish immigrant, born in the village of Lenin in Belarus in 1920. She grew up with in a family that was happy despite its poverty. In 1932 they moved to Tel Aviv in Palestine, where they lived a similarly modest existence that was lean in material wealth but rich in family and rituals. “The women were always baking, washing, starching and ironing. The Middle Eastern sun bleached the laundry a blinding white,” the exhibit states.
In 1942 Sara married a man named Pesach. She had doubts, but started a family with him and together they moved to New York City in 1954, where they lived what seems to be a relatively bountiful middle class life.
After 38 years of marriage, Sara divorced Pesach and moved to a studio apartment at 2 Horatio Street, where she had a view of the Empire State and Chrysler Buldings.
Sara Berman’s Closet: The Contents
This brings us to Sara’s closet. Alone and in charge of her own existence, her choices became spare and devoid of clutter. In this exhibit we are privy to the most intimate details of Sara’s existence. Her all white wardrobe, adopted after her divorce, is folded in orderly stacks that express a sense of love, order and dignity. This is an incredible study of wardrobe as an expression of a life lived.
Her choice to wear all white, with the inclusion of shades of white that veer into beige, is the height of style as a sort of commitment. By excluding so many options, white becomes an entryway to freedom and lightness. The closet alone is displays elegance and loving care to detail.
The selections are modest. The row of Easy Spirit shoes in varying whites, grays and beiges is humble, but one can imagine Sara sliding into her comfortable shoes, reaching for her white garments for the day and living her later years in life with a freedom that eludes most of us as we spend our days building and climbing.
The exhibit suggests that in the process of letting go of the trappings of her past, she found a depth in her aloneness. The sense of ritual implies a sort of intimacy that Sara had with herself, rather than loneliness. It’s a salute to her independence, as well as a contemplation on the interplay between family life and the life of the individual.
Sara Berman’s Closet: The Artists
The exhibit came straight from the source: Sara’s family. The closet has been reassembled here by Sara’s daughter and grandson, Maira Kalman and Alex Kalman.
The exhibit originated at Mmuseumm, an installation space in an alleyway at 4 Cortland Alley in Lower Manhattan. The space is an elevator shaft that was transformed into a museum of sorts. Sara Berman’s Closet was originally installed there and discovered by Amelia Peck, a curator of American decorative arts at the Met. “it’s a wonderful way to enliven the collection,” said Peck. “A new way of looking at rooms and possessions and women’s history.”
It is, indeed, a way of looking at anything. The act of paying attention, of noticing, brings all sorts of interesingt details into awareness.
Sara Berman’s Closet closes November 26. If you’re looking for a place to recharge in the midst of holiday planning and family get togethers, this exhibit is a little haven.