When you find yourself nodding along with The New Yorker’s wry cartoons about life in the city, chances are good it’s another gem by Roz Chast.
The Brooklyn native, 61, sent her first cartoon to the magazine just a year out of art school in 1978 and has had over 1,000 of her wry portraits of city life published since.
On Thursday, April 14, the Museum of the City of New York will open a retrospective of her “dark and sympathetic” works, including a mural she hand-painted for the exhibit (of a subway car as living room, natch) as well as unpublished pieces and sketches to compare with the final published drawings — even cartoonists have editors.
“I was thinking [The New Yorker] wouldn’t take anything. I thought my work had much more in common with The Village Voice,” the artist said at a press preview on Wednesday. “It’s still thrilling for me when they buy a cartoon.”
It’s good that worked out, because her backup plan at the time was Playboy magazine. “They said, ‘Could you make it more Playboy?’ It came out like parodies of Playboy,” she recalled.
In person, Chast is small and joyful. Even though the Second Avenue subway line has been under construction her entire life, city living hasn’t made her a pessimist — but she’s suspicious of those who avoid its darker aspects. “If you always have to not talk about [an issue], ‘Let’s put a smile on it,’ that is so cynical,” she said. “I can’t watch sitcoms.”
She’s also put much of her own inner life on display, from a wall of phobias (everyone remembers the first time they met a waterbug) to what it’s like to be a fish out of water outside the city limits. Chast and her husband left Park Slope after the birth of their second child in 1990 for suburban Connecticut (she maintains a small studio on the Upper West Side), and she’s learned a lot about the whole other world outside NYC, including this thing called a mailbox.
The oldest sketch in the exhibit is one of a suburban mailbox, which Chast drew having only seen pictures of them. When her editor questioned the flag on its side, she said it was a handle to open it — and the editor signed off on it. “I don’t want to brag, but I know all about these mailboxes now. We even have one,” she joked.
For a lifelong subway rider (“I always felt like if I got Alzheimer’s, the stops on the D line would be the last things to fall away”) adjusting to a car-based lifestyle never really happened: “When you’re driving, you’re not really in a town.”
In the end, each kind of living has its quirks and charms, but you can’t take New York out of the girl. “For anybody who lives here, I think, it always has a pull to come back when I leave,” she said. “I can feel the pull, and it’s always a relief to come back.”
Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs
April 14-Oct. 9
Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave.