We recently went to see cartoonist Roz Chast's Cartoon Memoirs show at the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibition of almost 200 works, some never published, was originally organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. A co-presentation of the Museum of the City of New York and the Norman Rockwell Museum, the show highlights the artist and cartoonist's keen eye for the absurdities of New York City and suburban daily life.
Born in Brooklyn in 1954 (read: Woman of a Certain Age), Ms. Chast has become one of the foremost comic voices of the New Yorker magazine, producing more than 1,200 published cartoons in that magazine, children's books, collaborations with other authors and her award winning 2014 visual memoir "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant." Her approach is distinctive, sometimes bordering on a female version of an early anxiety-ridden Woody Allen persona: eccentric, stressed out, plagued by self-doubt and often apparently in dire need of psychiatric help. Her droll chronicles of the follies of everyday life, like the motley crew on the subway below, have now entertained two generations, most often in The New Yorker magazine. (To see a high speed video of the artist making this life size drawing on the wall outside the exhibition, click here.)
(Chast puts us in mind of Maira Kalman, another Jewish female artist known for her ability to imbue her work with her own signature quirkiness and humor, and currently on New Yorkers' radar screens. Kalman and Chast are both plowing some of the same ground, from somewhat similar vantage points. Unlike many cartoonists who never personally appear in their own work, both figure prominently in many of their stories. When we went to the Jewish Museum last year, we got a chuckle when we discovered Maira Kalman's Jewish Mother Gum for sale in the museum shop. Under the legend is an illustration of a New York Jewish Mother, complete with beret and glasses. On the front of the box is the statement "Fruit - Shmoot" and on the back is "8 pieces no less." One side of the box says "Go. Rot your teeth." and the other says "Again with the gum?" What more can we say? Classic Maira Kalman artwork and humor in the palm of your hand.)
Roz's cartoons have kept pace with her life over the past four decades. Her early work often traced her life as the dutiful but beleaguered daughter of a besieged mom and dad.
Roz moved on in life and in cartoons to her role as a suburban mother herself when she and her family moved out of the city, away from her parents. Still later, she returned to tackle the serious side of life head-on in her cartoons, fearlessly depicting her parents' aging and inevitable descent into disease, dementia and death.
It is a testament to her unwaivering voice that she didn't ignore or shy away from the harsh realities of life, but rather viewed them through her unique cartoonist's lens.
In the wonderfully witty What I Hate from A to Z (2001),
the caption to "The Undertow" illustrates her twisted (yet totally relatable) sensibilities: "Beware -- even in ankle-deep water, a little tug could be the ocean 'pulling you to your watery grave.'" The people in the backgrounds of her illustrations are often as interesting as the main character.
From the same series, in X-Rays, we get to see the technical side of the artist. If you look closely, where she has written Need I say more? you can see a little pentimento - where something went wrong and the artist carefully covered her tracks by overlaying a small piece of paper carefully cut to the right size. Did she get distracted, and write Need I say mre? Was it a different phrase entirely, that she changed her mind about? Did she accidentally smear the lettering? These pentimenti appear here and there throughout the show, including in some of the originals of cartoons for the New Yorker (where the transitional lines are completely invisible in the final published product).
Although Chast is known for her cartoons, the exhibition shows her many other talents as well. Below is a tender and sensitive drawing of Chast's mother near death.
We had no idea that Chast also designs and hooks rugs. Below is one from the exhibition. For more on Roz Chast and her hooked rugs, click here.
Chast has also turns her hand to decorating pysanky (Ukrainian painted eggs) in her traditional style. The Paris Review wrote this article on a gallery exhibition of Chast's eggs.
Chast's drawings often feature forlorn figures on a sofa in front of old wallpaper, so the volume of hilarity at the exhibition was raised by the presence of an actual sofa, and a blow up of one of the artist's wallpapered walls, complete with Chastian nuggets. It proved to be an extremely popular feature of the show, and we monitored it closely for our chance to memorialize ourselves. We were finally able to snag seats on the sofa, and with childlike enthusiasm became part of the living cartoon. While the innocent fellow visitor on the left is seated under the speech bubble whining "Can't we talk about something more pleasant?", and Valerie sits under the thought bubble harrumphing with a hint of sarcasm "Everything is my fault," Jean is smugly perched under the punch line thought bubble: "Everything IS your fault."
Why is it that Jean gets such an inordinate kick out of this? Is it because life is imitating art? Hmmm.
(Valerie waves this away. Mere detail, she says. For the best visual effect, of course the red outfit goes in the center, balancing the two black outfits. One must sacrifice for one's art.)
Go see the show before it closes on October 16th! Go sit on the sofa, and get your picture taken with someone you love! (Choose your spot carefully.)