SVA Celebrates Cartoonist and Humorist Roz Chast with the 2018 Masters Series Award and Exhibition
November 12, 2018
by Folake Ologunja and Greg Herbowy
Emma Allen, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker, has a second- or third-hand story about Roz Chast, one of the magazine's most prolific and best known contributors. In 1978 Chast sold her first work to The New Yorker, a surreal bit of humor called "Little Things." Arrayed throughout the hand-drawn panel are a series of nonsensical shapes, each labeled with an equally nonsensical name—a "redge," a "sood," a "spak." It's hard to imagine a gentler gag—and there was some precedent for this sort of absurdist, punchline-free humor in the magazine—but not everyone associated with the publication was won over right away.
Not long after, Allen says, "an older cartoonist asked [then] art director Lee Lorenz if he owed Chast's family money—so big was the scandal caused by such small things. By now, of course, it's abundantly clear that the debt is all on our end."
This fall, SVA honors Chast with its 30th annual Masters Series award and exhibition. Created by SVA founder Silas H. Rhodes in 1988, the Masters Series celebrates the great, and often unheralded, visual communicators of our time. "The Masters Series: Roz Chast" will be a comprehensive retrospective of Chast's celebrated career and include her cartooning and illustration work, selections from her more than 20 books and a hand-drawn mural, as well as examples of her personal work, including notebooks Chast kept in high school, embroideries, hooked rugs and hand-dyed pysanky, or Ukrainian-style Easter eggs.
Chast's work has appeared in several magazines through the years, including Village Voice and National Lampoon, but she is most closely associated with The New Yorker. In addition to her many cartoons and illustrated essays, she has created some 10 covers for the publication, and her nervous sense of humor and energetic style have become intrinsic to its identity. "Roz seems to have always been enamored of the hilariously jarring: the revolting food label, the offensive get-well card, the nihilistic needlepoint pillow," Allen says. "She has provided The New Yorker with an incredible trove of odd details and objects, as well as a cast of neurotic characters whose anxiety vibrates through the very lines with which they're drawn."
This anxiety is not a put-on. Chast once told an interviewer, "On every level I feel like anything horrible can happen at any moment"—this for an article to ostensibly promote Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York (2017), her personalized travel guide to New York City. Early in her career, this nervousness even found expression in the scale she worked in. "I used to work really tiny," she says. "I thought if I worked small, nobody would mind me that much. If I take up as little space as possible, then everything will be okay, nobody will get mad at me."
In addition to collections of her New Yorker work, Chast has written and illustrated a range of books, including the alphabetized inventory What I Hate: From A to Z (2011); children's books like Around the Clock! (2015) and Too Busy Marco (2010); and collaborations with fellow New Yorker contributor Calvin Trillin (2016’s No Fair! No Fair! And Other Jolly Poems of Childhood) and songwriter Stephin Merritt (2014's 101 Two-Letter Words). Her first memoir, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, was published in 2014. An account of her relationship with her elderly parents in their final years, it went on to become a best seller and win a National Book Critics Circle Award (it was also shortlisted for a National Book Award).
Going Into Town is lighter in tone and subject than Chast's memoir but it is still characteristically wry, taking detours to note such odd, arguably unpleasant details of city life as slow buses and smears of gum on the sidewalk. It also has an SVA connection: It began its life several years ago as a going-away gift for her youngest child, who was leaving the family's home in Connecticut to attend the College.
Chast is working on another New York–centric book, this one focused on the overlooked neighborhoods of her hometown of Brooklyn—places like Gravesend, Canarsie and Mill Basin. Though her past work evinces a complicated relationship with the borough—"I hated Brooklyn," she writes in Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?—she admits to a certain possessiveness regarding its lesser-hyped areas. "It bothers me when people talk about Brooklyn as if it's synonymous with Williamsburg or Park Slope or Carroll Gardens," she says. "It's so much more diverse, so much bigger and more complex and interesting."
After a self-described "unhappy" childhood in Flatbush—much of it spent alone making art and reading Mad magazine, the cartoons of Charles Addams and Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy strip— Chast attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where she studied painting. After graduating in 1977 she returned to New York City, where she quickly established her cartooning career. (She was first published in Christopher Street, a gay men's magazine she discovered when she came across a left-behind copy on the subway.) Her distinctions include the Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities as well as honorary doctorates from Dartmouth College, Pratt Institute and Lesley University (formerly the Art Institute of Boston). In 2015 the Norman Rockwell Museum presented "Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs," curated by the museum's deputy director and chief curator Stephanie Plunkett (MFA 1990 Illustration as Visual Essay). The exhibition has since traveled to the Museum of the City of New York and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, in San Francisco. Plunkett and the Norman Rockwell Museum are partnering with SVA to present Chast's Masters Series show; the Danese/Corey Gallery, which represents Chast, is also loaning works.
"The Masters Series: Roz Chast" will be on view at the SVA Chelsea Gallery, 601 West 26th Street, 15th floor, from Saturday, November 17, through Saturday, December 15, with a reception on Thursday, November 29, 6:00 – 8:00pm. Chast will also give an artist's talk at the SVA Theatre, 333 West 23rd Street, on Wednesday, November 28, 7:00 – 9:00pm. All events are open to the public.
Related: SVA Honors Roz Chast with 30th Annual Masters Series Award and Exhibition
A version of this article appears in the spring 2018 issue of the Visual Arts Journal.