In the gallery of San Franciscos Contemporary Jewish Museum, people looking at the art on the wall are laughing. Not just polite chuckles, but full-throated guffaws. Thats because Roz Chasts drawings hang on that wall, and thats what you do when you see one of her recognizable cartoonslike the one showing obsessive compulsive Santa making a list, checking it twicethen writing it again because the margins are crooked. Or the dumbest pacts with the devil ever that includes selling ones soul for tickets to a Bread concert or some hapless person who traded her soul in to be president of the Beanie Baby Fan Club (But it made so much sense at the time! she exclaims).
In the exhibit, Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs, Chasts cartoons for The New Yorker and other magazines are on display along with ones from her books, some personal mementos (and a couchChast does love to draw couches), and panels from Chasts graphic memoir about her elderly parents final years, Cant We Talk About Something More Pleasant? That book won many awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, and was named by The New York Times Book Review as one of the 10 Best Books of 2014. The book documents her parents decline in ways big and small, from the grime that began to cover everything in their apartment, to her fathers obsession with his bankbooks, which grows worse throughout the day (sunsetting its called in nursing homes), to her mothers more and more frequent falls.
Chast didnt worry about taking on a subject most people want to avoiddeathlet alone the trauma, expense, and heartbreak of dealing with ones parents failing physical and mental health.
I never felt like it was a risk, she said in an interview at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Washing windows on one of those thingiesthats a risk. Those are the things that really scare me. This is what I do.
It certainly is. Chast has drawn around 1,200 cartoons in the past four decades. She has other books for adults and children, including What I Hate: From A to Z and Too Busy Marco. This one, she says, was different.
It was very personal, she said. I wanted to do it because I didnt want to forget what it was like to go through it and also what my parents were like. So I really wrote it for that.
Chast knew how to start the bookwith a sudden desire to leave her house in Connecticut to visit her parents in Brooklyn, a place she didnt and doesnt like. She remembers the date because it was September 9, 2001, and she recalls seeing the World Trade Center towers from the window of the taxi she took from the train station. She also knew how it would endwith her mothers death at 97 in 2009 (her father died in 2007). But she wasnt sure how to organize it otherwiseuntil her therapist suggested chapters. That made all the difference.
I had never written a long form piece, and I had forgotten about chapters, she said. Once he said that, things started to fall into place.
Curated and first shown at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the show went on to the Museum of the City of New York and then to San Francisco, where it will be up through September 3. Renny Pritikin, chief curator at the museum, is delighted to display Chasts work. A lover of both pop and fine art, he says this is exactly the sort of show he wants to bring to the museum.
Theres a wonderful synthesis of language and pictures, he said. Humor is about concision of language, and a good joke tells the truth unexpectedly. Shes really, really good at that, and its important women are taking their place in the tradition of humor and cartooning. I think shes in that lineage of great New Yorker humorists like Dorothy Parker and S.J. Perelman.
Chast, 62, probably wasnt thinking of being part of a pantheon when she was a kid in Brooklyn, although she did want to escape to Manhattan. She always drew, she says, because she was an only child and because it was an apartment-friendly activity. You couldnt bounce a ball on the wall, she said. I wasnt going to be exploring any woods or streams or anything.
Her parents were both educatorsher mother was an assistant principal and her father taught high school French and Spanish. In the summers, they often went to Cornell for concerts and lectures with their teacher friends, and they would leave Chast in the library in Ithaca, which contained no kids books. But they did have a cartoon section. Chast particularly loved the work of Charles Addams, who she got to meet years later when she began being published at The New Yorker.
Chast studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, but after graduation she started drawing cartoons again and sending them out to magazines. She made her first sale to Christopher Street, a gay literary magazine that paid her $10, crap pay even in 1977, she said. She sold cartoons to other magazines, including the Village Voicewhere it was her ambition to work, thinking it fit with her style. But then she decided to submit a cartoon to The New Yorker in 1978. She says she was flabbergasted when they bought it. Shes been drawing for them ever since.
The book about her parents has been wildly successful, and Chast gets letters from people who relate to her experience of caring for parents while still working and taking care of kids, of cleaning out her parents things (Chast found the giveaways her parents had gotten for opening all those accounts that the bankbooks were fortoasters, clocks and blendersall unopened), and of hiring caretakers and worrying about money.
She hears from lots of people with backgrounds nothing like hers. She thinks some of it has to do with her parents generation.
A lot of it is the Depression, and World War II. There were so many things that defined my parents generation other than the fact they were Jewish and from Brooklyn, she said. Certainly the scrimping and the savingthat cuts across all kinds of background. Ive heard from rural Methodists, like, Oh God, my dad with the bankbooksthats just part of their world.
With the book, Chast wanted to pay tribute to her mother, Elizabeth, who played the piano and wrote poetry, and her father, George, who was sensitive and curious about language.
I hope I managed to convey I really did love them, she said about the book. They were unique and amazing, and Im glad they were my parents.