Museum Spotlight: Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs at the Museum of the City of New York

As one of The New Yorker’s most popular cartoonists, Brooklyn-born Roz Chast has been chronicling the anxieties, pleasures, and perils of contemporary life since the 1970s. Recognized by Comics Alliance as one of twelve women cartoonists deserving of lifetime achievement recognition, Chast has accumulated a body of work that includes over 1,200 cartoons published in The New Yorker and other publications, several illustrated children’s books, and her award-winning 2014 memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? The exhibit Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs, which is currently running now through October 9, features more than 200 works from the esteemed artist, showcasing her keen eye for the absurdities and insecurities that permeate daily life—including many situations that are particular to New York City. New York City Monthly was honored to speak recently with both Chast and Frances Rosenfeld, Ph.D., Curator of Public Programs at the museum.

You’ve been capturing the life of NYC residence since the ‘70s. In what ways have things changed and how much has stayed the same?

RC: New York has gotten cleaner and less crime-ridden. There’s more money, the subways are better, the construction never stops. But there are many ways it hasn’t changed. The streets are still packed with pedestrians who are still fascinating to watch. There are still weird stores on almost every block. It’s still an exciting, amazing place to live, to work, to walk around in, to visit. It’s never boring.

Much of Roz’s work showcases situations that are particular to living in NYC. Does this make the exhibit a natural fit for The Museum of the City of New York?

FR: We’re dedicated to chronicling the lives of New Yorkers – and, of course, how New York artists and writers have captured the city. Roz Chast’s work expresses the unique sensibility of a native New Yorker. As a cartoonist, she’s been chronicling the anxieties and follies of contemporary urban life for almost four decades.

If someone recently moved to New York, which piece in the collection do you think they would most instantly connect to?

FR: I think they’ll love “Nina’s Basic N.Y.C. Book”, the little guide she made for her daughter when she left for college, which maps out Manhattan and contains wonderful little asides about taking the subway and quick sketches of NYC characters.

If you were going to ask the great Roz Chast to draw out one of your own observations of city life, what would it be?

FR: She just did it! Her 10 by 14-foot acrylic painting “Subway Sofa”, which she created just for this exhibition, compares the experience of riding the NY subway with a bunch of strangers to sitting in a cramped living room with an eccentric family, each thinking her/his own thoughts while somehow co-existing together. It’s classic Chast because it plays with the idea that urban life can be at once perfectly familiar and still deeply strange and unpredictable.

Why is it important to keep that sense of lightheartedness going through life?

RC: Being alive is absurd. From the time we’re around four, we know that we die. Once you know that, it becomes sort of funny – to me, at least – how easily we, and I completely include myself in this, get bent out of shape over nothing.

Having seen…and drawn it all, what advice do you have for first time NYC visitors?

RC: If you’re going to the subway, keep your Metrocard in your hand.

There’s no shortage of great exhibits this month in NYC, what are three qualities that sets this one a part and makes it a must-see?

FR: You get to relive and rethink some of your basic everyday New York experiences, from riding the subway, to walking past doomsday-proclaiming eccentrics on the sidewalk, to sharing elevators with strangers – through the brilliant, darkly-humorous eyes of Roz Chast. You’ll never sit in crowded subway car again without cracking a smile.