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Photograph of Roz Chast in her Studio, 2015, by Jeremy Clowe. Norman Rockwell Collections. Photograph of Roz Chast in her Studio, 2015, by Jeremy Clowe. Norman Rockwell Collections.
In April, the Museum of the City of New York opened a new exhibit featuring the work of Roz Chast. While not every New Yorker may know Chast by name, most New Yorkers are familiar with her illustrations.

In 1978, just a year after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Art and Design, Chast dropped off her portfolio at The New Yorker. The magazine not only selected one of her drawings for publication but also told Chast to keep the work coming. Since then, Chast has published over 1200 works in The New Yorker, including 18 covers. And perhaps more than any other contemporary illustrator, Chast—a born and raised New Yorker—has consistently managed to capture the humor, beauty and at times, the sheer difficulty of living in the city.
It is precisely Chast’s uncanny ability to get inside New Yorker’s heads, hearts and homes that is evident when one enters Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs at the Museum of the City of New York. Organized thematically, the exhibit features over 200 works by Chast produced at different points in her career. Nearly all of the illustrations and objects featured in the exhibit have a direct connection to New York City. From her wry commentaries on riding the MTA to her reflective musings on what it means to live in an apartment with limited closet space to her humorous reflections on what happens when New Yorkers attempt to leave the city on vacation, Chast’s cartoons lay bare the people, places and conditions that make New York and its residents such fascinating subjects of investigation for everyone from artists and psychoanalysts.
What do you enjoy most about drawing New York City?

Roz Chast: New York is very dense. It’s dense with everything. It’s dense with visual information. I’m talking about Manhattan—every place you look, there’s something to see. There’s are stores, but it’s never just one level of stores. It’s two or three levels of stores. The first floor might be books, the second floor might be a place that does nails, and the third floor might be a place that stores furs. And then there’s the architecture—it’s one era of buildings slapped up right next to another with no space in between. That’s one of the things that I adore about New York City. There are not even words for how much I adore that. Everything smashed up against everything else.

From your perspective, what’s the most notable difference between New York and other U.S. cities?

Roz Chast: One thing that has struck me when I travel to other cities is that you can be on the street in the middle of the afternoon—at 2:30 or 3:00—and there’s no body there. It’s like a zombie apocalypse or something! I guess, in some cities, people live more by the clock? Maybe they are all at work? But in New York, people are always on the street. It’s just not as regimented. I love that about New York, and I love the fact that the city is so visually interesting, but it’s that compression and density that make New York so interesting.

How does New York’s compression and density impact its residents?

Roz Chast: When you’re in New York, you can’t be isolated in your own little car space, like you can in a lot of other American cities. And if you live in building, you’re going to have to eventually be in an elevator with your neighbors. You might even be smooshed up against them. This has to impact us on some level.
El, 2014, Illustration for 101 Two-Letter Words By Stephin Merritt by Roz Chast. All rights reserved.

Roz Chast’s New York Interiors


Although Chast now lives in Connecticut (yes, even diehard New Yorkers sometimes must leave in pursuit of more space and less noise), her cartoons reflect a deep familiarity with the city’s interiors. In many respects, this is no surprise. Chast was raised in a modest apartment in the Kensington neighborhood in Brooklyn. Indeed, her childhood home—along with its small and overflowing closets brimming with forgotten household objects—is at the center of her most recent book, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant. Prior to leaving New York City in the 1990s, Chast also spent well over a decade living in Manhattan.

Whether Chast is depicting her own childhood home in Brooklyn, a walk up in the East Village or a Park Avenue mansion, she has a striking ability to capture what the city’s interiors look like and to capture the impact these interiors have on their residents too. Most notably, Chast’s New York interiors are uncannily familiar. They often highlight the spatial extremes that characterize the city’s living spaces—minuscule or grand—alongside their quirky details ranging from dated wallpaper to salvaged chandeliers.
What fascinates you about New York’s apartment interiors?

Roz Chast: I don’t know about other city’s interiors, since I’ve never lived in any other big cities, but I grew up in an apartment in Brooklyn—not in the great outdoors. This means that all the images in my head, the images in my own personal image bank, are far more familiar with interiors than landscapes. When I’m drawing, I can imagine all sorts of couches and all sorts of end tables and coffee tables and what is going to be in the drawer of the end table and what is going to be on the table. This is quite different than how I imagine some place in the woods, which is more general.

Riding the MTA with Roz Chast


While there is no doubt that Chast has an penchant for capturing New York’s interiors and what exists just behind the surface of these interiors, over the course of her nearly four decade career, she has also frequently turned her attention to another place that New Yorkers spend a tremendous amount of time—the MTA. Chast’s June 30, 2008 cover of The New Yorker, “Subway Man,” transforms the MTA map into the nervous system of a harried looking man. On March 5, 2012, The New Yorker ran Chast’s “Second Ave Line” cover, which pokes fun at the false promises associated with the Second Avenue Subway line—first proposed in 1919 and yet to be completed—by suggesting the line will not only connect El Barrio to Brighton Beach but also eventually enable New Yorkers to shuttle to more exotic locales ranging from Las Vegas to the center of the earth. In Chast’s most recent MTA piece, “Subway Sofa,” which was created for the current exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, she brings one of her typical New York City apartment interiors to a subway car.
What were you thinking about as you developed your new piece, “Subway Sofa”?

Roz Chast: I wouldn’t say the MTA feels like home, but I grew up with it. There’s a familiarity for me. Whether I’m one of five people on car or one of what sometimes feels like five million people, I like looking at and listening to people on the subway. But sometimes when I’m on the subway and its really packed, I think, “Wow, we’re all doing a really good job not being jerks!” Some people are obviously better at this than others, but people generally try to keep to themselves. Everyone realizes the car is incredibly crowded and unless you’re an idiot, you try not to take up more space than you need to. Everyone is just being very decent—keeping to themselves.

Depicting New York Without the Landmarks


A notable absence from most of Chast’s cartoons, including those on display at the Museum of the City of New York exhibit, are New York City’s most recognizable landmarks. In fact, with few exceptions, Chast tends to illustrate New York City without including the city’s landmark buildings or monuments. In many respects, this sets her drawings apart from other depictions of the city on film, in photographs and in cartoons.
Is the exclusion of landmark buildings from most of your cartoons intentional?

Rox Chast: Well, I’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty. Maybe I will go some day, but it there will probably be a long line up and it will be too hot! Of course, I’m familiar with these landmarks, but let’s say, I drew the Chrysler Building in the background of a cartoon—then people may think the joke is about the Chrysler Building. When you draw a landmark building, like the Chrysler Building, the location gets very specific for many New Yorkers—the piece becomes about the corner of 42nd and Lexington. I don’t necessarily want to pinpoint where the cartoon is taking place, because most of the time, these exact locations are not what my work is primary about.
Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs is on exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York from April 14 to October 9, 2016.

Additional Info About the Building

Contributing Writer Cait Etherington Cait Etherington has over twenty years of experience working as a journalist and communications consultant. Her articles and reviews have been published in newspapers and magazines across the United States and internationally. An experienced financial writer, Cait is committed to exposing the human side of stories about contemporary business, banking and workplace relations. She also enjoys writing about trends, lifestyles and real estate in New York City where she lives with her family in a cozy apartment on the twentieth floor of a Manhattan high rise.