Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs

The New Yorker cartoonist gets her own show.

Written by:
Renata Polt
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Don’t feel embarrassed if you suddenly burst out laughing while viewing the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhaustive–but not exhausting–show of Roz Chast’s work. There will be plenty of other viewers doing the same thing.

Chast, for the unitiated, is one of the New Yorker’s star cartoonist, with some 800 cartoons published in the magazine since her 1978 debut, not to mention work in other publications such as The Village Voice and Scientific American. And about 20 books, one of the latest and best known is the 2014 graphic memoir Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, which chronicles the ageing and deaths of her parents with both poignancy and wit. The entire series of cartoons from the book is shown at the exhibit.

Chast, a slight woman of 62 with a blond bob and sensible shoes, was born and raised in Brooklyn, the only child of school teachers. As a child, she says, she assumed that everybody lived in a small apartment and that people who lived in houses were “pretty weird”–they didn’t have superintendents or lobbies. Her parents were older than most of her friends’ parents–so much so that they were often taken for her grandparents. One summer her parents went to a teachers’ seminar in Ithaca, New York, and Roz was parked in the Cornell University browsing library. That’s where she discovered cartoons, specifically the work of Charles Addams, whom she much later met at the New Yorker.

At 16, Chast left for Kirkland College (now a part of Hamilton College) and later earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her teachers, however, took no interest in her work–it was, after all, the 70s, when minimalist art was all the rage.

The first cartoon that Chast sold was to Christopher Street magazine–for $10. The next one, to the Village Voice, brought in $50. After that: the New Yorker, where she is now a staff cartoonist.

But back to the exhibit, which originated at the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In addition to all of the pages of Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant, the show includes many more cartoons, spanning Chast’s working life, pages from some of her books (some for children and many in collaboration with writers such as Steve Martin), plus family photographs and personal items, like a few rescued from her parents’ apartment–carved wood bookends, a beaded purse that her mother never used, etc.

The cartoons, created with a sometimes slightly wobbly Rapidograph and other pens, mechanical pencils, and water colors, are not only laugh-out-loud funny but also represent social satire. Her characters are often shlubby losers, out-of-touch types as far removed from Chast’s sophisticated New Yorker fans as one can imagine. If they’re not actually saying (or thinking) “Oy vey,” there’s a very Jewish sense of anxiety about them. Chast loves interior settings, complete with old-fashioned wallpaper, huge couches, and lamps. With lamp-shades.

Chast puts overheard snatches of conversation into her drawings: words and drawings are, for her, on a par. Ordinary events are transformed into the ridiculous–a cartoon titled “Thanksgiving in a Can” includes a “Nev-R-Fail Canned Extra Table Leaf.” Many cartoons are multi-paneled: “The Three Ages of Man” consists of “Younger Than Your Doctor,” “The Same Age as Your Doctor,” and “Older Than Your Doctor.” “The Planet of Lost Luggage” includes the panels “Come Take a Journey To,” “The Planet of Lost Luggage,” “In Scottsboro,” and “Alabama” (where lost airline suitcases go to die, or be bought by second-hand dealers).

A series of small black-and-white illustrations from Chast’s own collection illustrates the alphabet, entitled “What I Hate from A to Z.” There is, for instance, “Y is for Yellow–yellow teeth, yellow journalism (such as “The Eight Fatal Illnesses You Probably Have”), “P is for Premature Burial” (a little “uh oh” issues from a grave). The existential dread may owe its origins, says Chast, to the presence in her parents’ home of the Merk Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, a formative book for her. The family copy is included in the display of objects from her parents’ home.

“Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs” begins with a speeded-up video of Chast painting the opening cartoon, and it includes a video interview of the artist, in which she discusses discovering anxiety at the age of 4, and bringing six to eight cartoons to the New Yorker per week. Chast is married with two children and a number of pet birds. One of her children’s books features a bird who wears a greet baseball cap.

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