I had the honor Thursday night (and again Friday morning) of meeting and introducing the legendary New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast to the crowd gathered for the Hennepin County Library Association’s Pen Pals Lecture Series at Hopkins Center for the Arts.
A short, thin, lovely woman with big glasses and the rapid-fire wit of a lifelong New Yorker (though her husband is from Golden Valley), Chast is about as humble a legend as you’re ever going to meet. I asked her to sign my copy of the Mar. 4, 2013 cover of the New Yorker—her most recent cover illustration, titled “Ad Infinitum”—and I wanted her to sign it big and bold, so that I could show off the signature to my friends. Instead, she signed it small—very small—in the lower right-hand corner, above her printed signature.
I can understand not wanting to deface your own handiwork, but may I suggest that if she ever wants to embrace her role as one of the 20th century’s greatest cartoonists, she needs to develop a signature equal to her status. Now, every time I show that cover to someone, I’m going to have to point at her signature and say, “See, there it is, in the corner, in purple Sharpie. How much would you pay for that on e-Bay?”
An interesting transformation takes place with people like Chast, at events like Pen Pals. Backstage, she seemed timid and nervous. A few minutes before going on, she said to me, “This is the point when I wonder: What am I doing here?” I didn’t say it, but I thought, “You’re here to pick up a big check and be adored by hundreds of your biggest fans. It’s kind of a dream gig, if you ask me.”
When one is introducing someone as funny as Chast, it’s important to get the audience laughing. I take that responsibility seriously, and put a little more effort into coming up with funny things to say than you might think. By way of introduction, I told a story about my own recollections of when Chast’s cartoons started showing up in the New Yorker. I personally loved one of the jokes I told, but it didn’t get much of a laugh. Here’s what I said—judge for yourself:
“You see, my dad subscribed to the New Yorker. This was back in the 1980s, when they’d stretch a 200,000-word article about spelunking in the Amazon over three issues. I was young then, so I of course had a short attention span. I simply couldn’t read anything longer than 10,000 words.”
Pure gold, if you ask me.
But, predictably, I got the biggest laugh by talking about one of my favorite Roz Chast cartoons. The caption read, “Introducing Idiotman,” and the picture was of a guy in a Superman cape with a big “I” on it, saying, “At the end of the day, it is what it is.”
The transformation I mentioned took place when she stepped up to the lectern began talking. Her charm and intelligence immediately began shining through as she discussed her childhood growing up as an awkward, neurotic, health-challenged kid and gradually tuned her comic sensibilities by reading National Lampoon, Mad magazine, and her most kindred cartoon spirit, the master of macabre, Charles Addams. Like rocker David Byrne, she attended the Rhode Island School of Design and, after receiving some of the finest formal artistic training this country has to offer, she chucked it all and returned to her first love: drawing cartoons.
You might think Chast leads a charmed life, and in some ways maybe she does. In 1978, at the age of 23, she dropped off a packet of 60 cartoons to the New Yorker offices, they picked one to publish, and she’s been a New Yorker staff cartoonist ever since. How often does that happen? But she does earn her keep.
Some of the most interesting factoids Chast shared with the audience in Hopkins had to do with how things work behind the scenes at the New Yorker, a topic of endless speculation to those of us who have never made it through the front door. According to Chast, it’s pretty much a shark tank, and she has to earn her dinner every week. The New Yorker has 40 staff cartoonists, she says, and every Monday, each cartoonist is required to submit 8-12 roughly sketched ideas. This amounts to about 400 ideas a week, but the editors only choose about 25 for each issue. Consequently, says Chast, 90% of the cartoons she writes never see the light of day and end up in a file drawer in her office.
It’s humbling to know that even one of the best cartoonists in the business has only a 10% success rate. It’s kind of inspiring, too, to know that the path to her kind of success isn’t a sprint—it’s a slow, methodical trudge through good days and bad, just like us mere mortals.
On those bad days, Roz, when the funny isn't flowing, just remember: We love you, so please don’t stop. And thanks for visiting.
ANDY WARHOL COMES TO TOWN—AGAIN
If you’ve got an extra $250,000 laying around, now’s your chance to buy an original Andy Warhol. At Aria, Christie’s auction house has set up a combination Warhol exhibit/sale featuring about 50 original Andy Warhols, including sketches, silkscreens, photos, and paintings. For the 1-percenters, prices range from $6,000-$10,000 for some photographs, up to $250,000 for a silkscreen portrait of former Star Tribune owner Gardner Cowles.
In fact, the show has several Twin Cities tendrils. It’s partially meant to recreate a show Warhol did in Minneapolis in 1974 at the Locksley-Shea Gallery—and, in fact, Gordon Locksley lent Christie’s several pieces to round out the show. Proceeds from the art sales benefit the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
The exhibit is open to the public this week through March 23, from 10 a.m., to 6 p.m, and even if you’re not a die-hard Warhol fan, I urge you get down there and look around. The reason is that it’s a rare opportunity to see a side of Warhol that doesn’t gets much attention, and that’s the side of the working artist, not just the celebrity.
Just as it’s heartening to know that Roz Chast spends much of her time scribbling cartoons that no one will ever see, walking around this show one gets an appreciation for how much time Warhol spent doing relatively mundane things like sketching airplanes, pigs, fish, frogs, fruit, and flowers, playing with ideas that didn’t necessarily go anywhere. There’s plenty of fully realized work in the show, but some of the most interesting stuff is literally from his drawing board, because it offers a rare glimpse of his artistic mind at work.
Even if you can’t afford anything in the room, it’s still fun to play the auction game and window shop for the piece you would buy, if you had the scratch. My favorite, a simple silkscreen of some flowers, goes for a mere $30,000.
Maybe I’ll buy it in my next life, when I’m a legend.
Andy Warhol in Minneapolis runs through March 23 at Aria, 105 N. 1st St., Mpls, 612-460-1051, ariampls.com