Thursday, May 12, 2016

Jill Krementz covers Roz Chast at MCNY

Roz Chast photographed by Jill Krementz on November 18, 2008 in at her drawing board
in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

"My cartoons tell the story of things that have happened in my life."
— Roz Chast
Roz Chast Cartoon Memoirs
The Museum of The City of New York
April 14-October 9, 2016

Roz Chast at Museum of the City of New York on May 6, 2016. Chast fans know she loves drawing lamps.
Roz Chast has loved to draw since she was a child growing up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. The only child of an assistant principal and a high school teacher, she attended the Rhode Island School of Design.

Chast's work first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker in 1978 and since then the magazine has published over 1200 of her cartoons — many of them featured on the cover.

Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, Ms. Chast has also published nine books including her recent best-selling memoir Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? that narrates her experience of losing her elderly parents in middle age.

Not enough? Add jigsaw puzzles, note cards, a tote bag, an illustrated line of dinnerware — mugs, glasses, cereal bowls, salt & pepper shakers, and even a celery dish — available at Fishs Eddy in Manhattan. Still think she's loafing around? You're right! That's when she meticulously decorates blown-out eggs and makes hand-hooked rugs.

An exhibition of 200 pieces of the artist's work is currently on display at The Museum of the City of New York. Curated by Frances Rosenfeld, the five-gallery exhibit includes cartoons, hooked rugs, decorated eggs and various ephemera retrieved from her parents' house following their death.

This past week Chast had a sold-out audience in stitches when she gave an illustrated talk about her work at the museum.
The Museum of the City of New York on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street.
"Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs" features nearly 200 works, some never published, which showcase the artist's keen eye for the absurdities of daily life in New York City and beyond.
In the anteroom of the Chast exhibit, Behred Biklikli and his 2 1/2-year-old son Alborz explore an interactive display focusing on childrens books Chast has written.
My opinion is that this is a great outing for kids — not only the kid in you — but other small
children as well.
Roz Chast's world is peopled mostly by middle-class, white Americans from every stage of life, who are defined by their anxieties, obsessions, and quirks.
Frances Rosenfeld curated the exhibition. She is also the curator of public programs.

"We asked Roz to come up with an idea for a mural which would speak to her love of New York and she said 'what about a group of New Yorkers sitting on a subway.'"

Large wall mural.

In 1978, a year after graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, Chast dropped off a portfolio of original drawings at The New Yorker's office. The magazine selected one of them: a drawing of "Little Things" executed in a loose style markedly different from that of the magazine's usual cartoons.

When she came back to pick up the portfolio,"there was a note from Lee Lorenz, the cartoon editor. He said to start coming back every week, so I did."

Since then, over 1,200 of Chast's works have been published by the magazine.
Born in the working- and lower-middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood of Kensington/Parkview—"deep Brooklyn"—Chast was the only child of two first-generation New Yorkers, both educators who subscribed to The New Yorker and inspired her art and world view.

Both her strong-willed mother, Elizabeth, and her kind, worrying father, George, were born in 1912 to Russian-Jewish immigrants, were raised in tenements in East Harlem (where they met in fifth grade), moved to Brooklyn, had Chast at the relatively late age of 42, and worked for decades in the Brooklyn public schools.
Photograph by Roz Chast, c. 1970

Chast took this photograph as a teenager with her beloved Minolta, "the first 'big item' I ever bought…I was very interested in photography, especially street photography…I liked looking at people more than, say, Ansel Adams and all those beautiful but empty landscapes."

This image captures local residents sunning themselves on the benches lining Ocean Parkway, a few blocks from where Chast lived. She recalls, "My grandmother used to sit there, though she's not in that photo."
Whitney Donhauser, Director of The Museum of the City of New York, Roz Chast, and curator Frances Rosenfeld.
Scientist (Ice Cream) cover illustration for
The New Yorker, August 4, 1986
Subway Man, The New Yorker cover, June 30, 2008
The New Yorker (Mother's Day), May 12, 2014 Eustace Tilley, 90th anniversary cover illustration for The New Yorker, February 23 and March 2, 2015

The cover of What I Hate from A to Z (2011)--one of nine books authored by Chast

Inspired by an anxiety-filled world and the artist's own youthful phobias, What I Hate from A to Z offers a humorous take on the classic children's alphabet book.

Roz Chast's images depict some of her least favorite things, from her fear of getting lost and of rare diseases to balloons, quicksand, and the color yellow. Some of these frights, such as waterbugs and faulty elevators, have a distinctly New York flavor.

On cataloging her anxieties, Chast notes that "when I can't fall asleep, I play what I call the 'alphabet game,' creating categories and a list of words beginning with each letter."

Edward Munch's iconic 1893 painting, The Scream, was appropriated for the book's cover.
Installation view of The Cartoon Memoirs section of which there are five.
Premature Burial, from What I Hate from A to Z, 2011 Quicksand, from What I Hate from A to Z, 2011
With her distinctive shaky line and her wry, often dark, yet sympathetic text—always done in her own handwriting—Chast invites us into the psyches of a motley cast of characters. Her besieged moms and dads, hostile adolescents, weird neighbors, local eccentrics, and stressed-out city dwellers plagued by anxiety and self doubt, collectively suggest a reflection on her own life.

Book Jacket for Roz's best selling memoir

Though Chast's narrative of old age, sickness, and death is universal, her version of it is inflected by her particular circumstances.

The saga brings her back to Brooklyn for the first time in over a decade, forcing her to revisit an unhappy childhood and confront the full emotional legacy of her parents' hardscrabble upbringings. As she sorts through her parents' apartment and its "crazy closet," she recognizes herself (and her difference from them) and the sources of her own neuroses.

Her memoir ultimately presents a loving but clear-eyed tribute to her parents—their foibles, idiosyncrasies, and relationship. In Chast's words, "I didn't want to forget how they talked and I didn't want to forget how they were…"

Pamphlet for "Sing 71" concert, from 1971

Chast drew the program cover for Midwood High School's "Sing" competition, an annual singing contest between different public high schools in New York that was founded in 1948 by a Midwood music teacher and is still held today.

As a teenager, Chast found one of her greatest influences in R. Crumb, the cult underground cartoonist who came to fame in the 1970s via Head Comix. In an interview, Chast said she was not a part of the Midwood "art crowd," and she described herself as rather "shy, hostile, and paranoid" as a teenager.

Page from "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?"
The Wheel of Doom

Chast depicts her mother as riddled with anxiety about the world outside her home. In fact, as so many of her cartoons for The New Yorker reflect, Roz was taught from an early age that danger lurked everywhere around her – in the subway, restaurants, crowds of strangers, in movie theaters and supermarkets, even incubating in friends and neighbors.

Page from "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?"

"My mother had a strong aversion to doctors and hospitals."

At age 93, Elizabeth suffered a bad fall but resisted going to the hospital. In recalling her mother's intense suspicion of doctors, Chast revisits the sources of her own neuroses, an abundant subject of humor in her cartoons.


Chast's perception of her parents' interdependence, despite their often tense relationship, suffuses this exaggerated depiction of her stressed father's response at Elizabeth's return from her brief hospital stay.
A vitrine with "Objects from Elizabeth Chast's Crazy Closet"-Horsehead bookends; The Reader's Encyclopedia by William Rose Benet and Elizabeth Chast's purse.

Chast remembers that Benet's guide, the authoritative one-volume reference on world literature, was a "very beloved book of my dad's. As you can see, it's heavily annotated and filled with clippings. He loved words and word origins."
The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy

First published in 1899, The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy is the world's best-selling medical textbook.

Organized by internal body systems, this volume was an important and somewhat troubling reference guide for Chast and her parents through childhood and beyond. It was a formative book of Chast's youth; in the artist's view, almost any ache, pain, or ailment had deadly consequences that could be found on its pages.

"I knew that a sore throat was not a mere sore throat but leprosy—everything you wanted to know about scurvy but were afraid to ask. I was terrified of lock jaw. Every week I would learn a new disease to be afraid of." The book was also used to store prescriptions, articles on health, and directions from physicians, including those seen here.
Close up of Elizabeth Chast's purse.

The New Yorker,
April 12, 2004

This brightly-colored New Yorker cover was inspired by Chast's interest in pysanka, the Ukrainian folk art tradition of decorating Easter eggs.
Cartoon Pysanky, 2010-13; Hand-painted eggs; Eggshell, dye, and polyurethane
The eggs are displayed in a mirror-backed vitrine so the viewer can see both sides.

The decorating of Easter eggs, called pysanka, is a Ukrainian folk art tradition. The name comes from the Ukrainian verb pysaty, meaning "to write," a reference to the way designs are "written" on the eggshell with hot beeswax (which resists the color dyed over it). The eggs are often created for Ukrainian religious occasions, like funerals and Easter rituals, and they are traditionally believed to have talismanic powers.

To create her storytelling eggs, Chast employs a range of "pysanky-specific tools": a German Blas-fix that bores a hole in the egg and pumps out its interior fluids; a kistka, a drawing tool that dispenses melted wax; Mason jars full of colored dye; and a candle, to heat the wax in the kistka and, later, to burn it off the shell. However, Chast's pysanky depart from the traditional forms; classic pysanky artists use a specific range of colors and images, like hens and sheaves of wheat, each of which holds a particular symbolic meaning, while Chast has made the practice her own. "After doing it for a while I got into being more free-form about it," she said.
Yes, No, Maybe, 2013; Hand-hooked rug; Wool on linen

To learn the traditional craft of hand-hooked rug making, Chast received instruction from noted rug artist Leslie Guiliani. Chast particularly enjoys the challenge of composing with bold shapes, borders, pattern and lettering. She thinks of each loop of her hooked rugs as a pixel in a highly magnified computer image. Bits of seemingly anomalous colors appear in larger color fields; a spot of turquoise or violet can have an energizing effect. She keeps a handy stash of colored strips left over from other rugs to toss into the mix. For her, flat, boring color areas or a paint-by-number effect are to be avoided at all costs.

Dad's Favorite Foods, 2014
Hand-hooked rug
Wool on linen

Chast's interest in traditional crafts has inspired a personalized approach to the classic art of the hand-hooked rug. As in her drawings, eccentric characters, cozy interiors, animals, and a selection of artifacts from her unique canned goods collection adorn her fresh take on a venerable craft. Chast, who often has tactile projects in the works, notes that in contrast to her cartoons, her rugs do not need a punchline—though text does play an important part.

In Dad's Favorite Foods, she illustrates an array of her father's favorite breakfast foods, which he would linger over and enjoy "for hours."

"Summer Psychology Session," 2006 cover illustration for The New Yorker, August 7, 2006 Image courtesy Danese/Corey, New York

As seen in this cover illustration, a psychologist's work is never done. This doctor's traditional August break has been interrupted by a demanding client, likely a New Yorker, in a situation that exemplifies our rapidly paced, 21st-century lives.

This is not the only cartoon in which Chast pokes fun at New Yorkers' commitment to psychotherapy – a topic that has also proven a perennial source of humor for other New Yorker cartoonists over the decades.
The Birth of Venus, 2014 cover illustration for
The New Yorker,
August 4, 2014
Poster for The Allergist's Wife, signed by the cast
6:15 PM: Whitney Donhauser and Roz Chast in the auditorium for a sound check.
Whitney Donhauser, Roz Chast, and Frances Rosenfeld.
Julie Trebault, Curator of Public Programs, and Roz going over PowerPoint presentation.
Julie and Roz.
Frances Rosenfeld greets her mother Gillian Rosenfeld , a retired educator.
7 PM: Everyone's seated and the program is about to begin.
The event, held in the Ronay Menschel Hall, was sold out in advance.
Nancy Tompkins, an elementary school art teacher, and Steven Bluttal, a freelance book editor.
The writer Michael Hearn is a great admirer of Roz Chast. I could hear him chortling all the while as he went through the exhibit. It turns out that Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Auburn knew Mr. Hearn's book The Annotated Wizard of Oz and the two got into a serious discussion of all things Oz.
Sandy and Mark Auburn with their son.

David is about to direct a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in June for the Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge. He is married to curator Frances Rosenfeld.
Roz welcomes the audience, most of whom looked like they had emerged from one of her cartoons.

"When I was a little kid I knew that leprosy was very rare in Brooklyn but that didn't prevent me from feeling a tingling in my hands."

"Charles Addams was my first true cartoon love. My parents used to vacation in Ithaca and I spent hours in the Cornell Student Center where I discovered his work. I was obsessed with his sense of humor which was so dark. He made fun of stuff you weren't supposed to make fun of. I loved 'sick' jokes when I was a kid."
"Little Things" was Roz's first cartoon in The New Yorker, published in 1978.

"I thought about being an artist when I was only three years old but KNEW I wanted to be a cartoonist when I was 12. I thought maybe I could work for The Village Voice and that's where my first work appeared when I got older--and in The National Lampoon.

"In April of 1978 I learned about the 'drop off' day at The New Yorker and I dropped off 50 to 60 cartoons in an envelope on the designated day. "
"This is how I imagine my cartoons whizzing their way to Lee Lorenz."
"And this is how I imagine the Editors ( Lee and David Remnick) on the other end looking at my 'batch' as it's called. I usually have five-six in a batch. The magazine receives 800-1000 every week and they buy 20. The odds are stacked against you."
A page from her book, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

The text from this page reads:

I wish that at the end of life, when things were truly "done,"
there was something to look forward to. Something more pleasure-
oriented. Perhaps opium, or heroin. So you became addicted. So
what? All-you-can-eat ice cream parlors for the extremely aged.
Big art picture books and music. Extreme palliative care, for
when you've had it with everything else: the x-rays, the MRI's,
the boring food, and the pills that don't do anything at all.
Would that be so bad?
Roz ended her talk by showing the last drawings she made of her mother on her death bed.

She told us that earlier in the day she had taken her mother's ashes, with her father's, to Mt. Lebanon Cemetery in Queens. "Today, I got them a niche."
A Q&A following Roz's talk where we learned that Louis C.K. is among her favorite comedians because "I like storytelling that is funny."
And then a book signing where Roz signed books for about an hour followed by a reception until 9 PM.
At the reception; Frances Rosenfeld and husband David Auburn, and David's mother, Sandy Auburn.
Three of Roz's numerous books.
Mug, $14. Tote Bag, $25.
Georgecel Reynoso, the Assistant Manager of the Gift shop with a Roz Chast jigsaw puzzle ($18). Norlyn Nunez, Visitor Services Rep, with Chast poster ($19.95).

Michael Patrick Hearn, whose apartment floor will collapse if he adds another book.

Hearn's collection consists primarily of children's books and their illustrations with emphasis on the classic as well as modern.

"Of course I am fascinated with L. Frank Baum and Oz. And I am especially fond of Russian children's book illustration from the Tsar to Stalin's destruction of the Russian avant-garde."
End of the evening: Julie Ember and Eric Mueller, who purchased a LOT of books and a poster. They work for the Bryant Park Association — Julie is the Associate Director of Design and Eric is the Senior Graphic Designer.

"We're both part of the Roz Club."
"Cartooning is for people who don't do anything else." — Roz Chast

Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved. Contact Jill Krementz here.