Roz Chast’s parents wanted her to become a teacher. Thank goodness for all her fans that she took another path. For nearly 40 years, Chast has been making people laugh with her clever, off-beat cartoons for the New Yorker. Many of her cartoons are wry observations of the challenges that come with living in the city that never sleeps. But she’s also adept at zeroing in on family relationships, finding a universality that not only is amusing but also reassuring. Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs, featuring more than 200 works from this prolific artist, opened on April 14 at the Museum of the City of New York.
Longtime admirers will no doubt find their favorites on display, but there are also many cartoons and works that have never been published. And sure to delight is a large mural that was painted on site by Chast specifically for this exhibition. “Subway Sofa,” which is placed at the entrance to the exhibit, shows a cross-section of transit riders on “The Unknown” line sitting on a sofa in what looks like someone’s living room. “Roz Chast enables us to laugh at ourselves and deepen our love of the city,” said Whitney Donhauser, the museum’s director.
Chast led a press tour through the exhibition the day before its opening, displaying in person her funny, quirky sense of humor that inspires her work. Her March 5, 2012, New Yorker cover poked fun at the long drawn out effort to complete the city’s Second Avenue subway. “It was begun in the 1970s,” she said, pointing out that her illustration had the tracks snaking through Las Vegas, Papua New Guinea, Saturn, the Center of the Earth, Nebraska, and the Yukon Territories before ending up in the city’s financial district. (FYI, the subway is now expected to open in December.)
Chast grew up in Brooklyn and after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1978, submitted her portfolio to the New Yorker. “I thought my work had much more in common with the feeling of the Village Voice rather than the New Yorker,” she said. At that time, the Village Voice was publishing work by Stan Mack and Jules Feiffer, two cartoonists Chast admired. “My parents subscribed to the New Yorker and I was well aware of what it was and the importance of it and that they used cartoons. But I didn’t see myself in there at all. I really submitted there because there were not many places even in 1978 to submit cartoons.”
When she returned to the New Yorker the following week, there was a note from the cartoon editor saying he was going to buy a cartoon and to start coming back every week. “It was very surprising to say the least,” she said. In 1986, she secured her first cover for the New Yorker showing a scientist with a pointer before an evolutionary chart of ice cream. “My father’s reaction when he saw it was that a doctor was telling you not to eat what was bad for you,” she said. Since then, she has created more than 18 covers for the magazine. “It’s still thrilling for me when they buy a cartoon and it’s still depressing when they don’t,” she said. “When that feeling goes away, when I don’t care one way or the other, then it’s time to quit.”
For a few years, Chast’s cartoons appeared on the last page of Redbook, usually dealing with the challenges working mothers faced. “They had a fun editor and they decided that they wanted to put one of my cartoons on the back page,” she said. “Then a couple of years later they came to their senses and realized that they really could use the space to sell mascara.”
Included are the 26 illustrations from Chast’s book, What I Hate from A to Z. “It really started because I sometimes have insomnia and one thing I do when I have insomnia is that I alphabetize,” she explained. One night she began to think about things that affected her and not always in a positive way. Making the list was “K for kite” (her uncle used to tell her about a little boy who wouldn’t let go of his kite string and flew away), and “W for waterbugs” (“The first time I saw a water bug you can’t even believe it! It’s very New York.”)
Although Chast lived on the Upper West Side after college, she moved to Connecticut after getting married and having children. When her daughter decided to attend the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, Chast put together a small book to help her navigate around the city. “I told her she had to walk three blocks to get from 44th Street to 47th Street and she asked, `what’s a block?’” Chast said. “I thought she was kidding.” She’s now doing a book loosely based on what she did for her daughter.
Perhaps no family-oriented work is more important to Chast than her memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, which covers in ways both funny and touching growing up with her parents, first generation New Yorkers born to Russian-Jewish immigrants. Besides panels from the book, on display are family “artifacts” – her father’s encyclopedia and her mother’s purse. As often happens, Chast’s book resonated with a large audience. “I’ve gotten letters from all over,” she said, even though the writers came from all over the U.S. and were of many different backgrounds and religions. “It’s the same story of growing up poor and not being able to throw things away. This was about my parents, but people have their own stories.”
Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs
Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street
Images courtesy of the Museum of New York