Patented Rube Goldberg

  • by Sura Wood
  • Wednesday March 21, 2018
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An award-winning, self-taught artist; a punch line; a canny social satirist and raconteur: The many facets of cartoonist Rube Goldberg, a man whose name is synonymous with wacky, chain-reaction contraptions, are explored in the Contemporary Jewish Museum's latest show, "The Art of Rube Goldberg." Culled from an archive of 50,000 drawings, the exhibition, lightly mapping his life and career, traces the development of his style, lacerating wit and vaudevillian humor dating from the turn of the 20th century.

The show features original artwork for cartoons with snappy titles like, "If the Hat Doesn't Fit, It Isn't Always the Hat's Fault," "Mike and Ike - They Look Alike," "Lala Palooza" and "Boob McNutt"; a cache of photographs and home movies; the invention drawings for which he's best known - more on those goodies later - and examples of his brief tango with the advertising trade and successful foray into editorial cartooning. "Peace Today," which depicts a huge atomic bomb teetering on a precipice above an abyss of global oblivion, won him a Pulitzer in 1948, while "The Great Upside Down Philosopher," a 1950 drawing of an inverted Joseph Stalin holding a paper that decrees top is bottom, black is white, far is near and day is night, high is low, cold is hot, yes is no, etc., has a curious resonance with our current political predicament.

A native San Franciscan, Goldberg, whose father was the county sheriff in the 1890s, attended Lowell High School, and, though he had his heart set on becoming an illustrator, graduated with a respectable engineering degree from UC Berkeley in 1904. Sidetracked early from that pragmatic career path, he landed a job as a sports cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle, moved to New York City in 1907 to pursue his dream, and never looked back. The single-panel cartoons "Foolish Questions," as in, "Ask a stupid question, get a sarcastic, even stupider answer," launched in 1908, were an instant hit with readers. A national syndication deal for his strips netted him $200,000 a year, and within the decade, he became a household name. Nice work if you can get it. Sure beats laboring in obscurity for the San Francisco Sewer system.

Admittedly, this writer is of two minds about cartoonist shows - not because cartoons don't qualify as art, but because it can be taxing to wade through the copious text of multiple multi-panel cartoons in an exhibition setting, as opposed to reading them in relative comfort, preferably with a bagel and morning coffee, in the smaller-dose, published formats for which they were intended. But there's no denying Goldberg was a true American original. And he was no slouch. He was buddies with boxer Jack Dempsey, Will Rogers, Groucho Marx, the Gershwins and Charlie Chaplin; one can only fantasize what it must have been like sitting at a bar with that crowd. It wasn't long before Hollywood beckoned, and in 1930, Goldberg tried his hand at screenwriting. He designed sets and penned the script for the first Three Stooges movie, "Soup to Nuts," where he made a cameo appearance, and he influenced the classic feeding-machine sequence and self-operating napkin that appeared in Chaplin's "Modern Times." In 1995, the Postal Service honored the latter invention, perhaps his most famous, with a commemorative postage stamp. But Goldberg didn't warm to Hollywood, and soon returned to his New York stomping grounds. Still, his reach into the movies would be long: "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "PeeWee's Big Adventure," "Final Destination," "Back to the Future" and "Wallace and Gromit" relied on Goldberg-style machines in their storylines, and directors from Wes Anderson and Spielberg to Tim Burton have quoted his humorous chain-reaction sequences. Although Goldberg has roared back into consciousness courtesy of the Internet, he never went out of style because the absurdity he relished lampooning continues to reign. Where is he now when we really need him?

Though they constitute only a fraction of his output, Goldberg's screwball invention drawings steal the show, much as they defined him in the public mind and overshadowed the rest of his work. As a way to be remembered, however, it's not half-bad. These popular parodies are the reason he entered the lexicon and rated an entry (an adjective) in Merriam-Webster's dictionary. Enlisting his aptitude for slapstick gags and rendered in a faux diagrammatic style aping U.S. patent applications, they detail ludicrously complicated, zany machines, complete with operating instructions, he once characterized as "a symbol of man's capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results," and "satirical representations of progressive nothing."

"In black-and-white, I consider myself the most prolific inventor today," he opined in 1930. "I turn loose roughly 400 inventions a year." His drawings offer helpful tips like avoiding the landlord by submerging in your private submarine, and step-by-step solutions to annoying problems, from automatic suicide devices for unlucky stock speculators and mosquito exterminators that work while you're asleep to the only method for getting an oblivious waiter's attention. A page here includes a color drawing of a boot attached to the back of a golf enthusiast's head, poised to kick him in the butt to ensure he keeps his head down during a shot, and a miniature bell-buoy that locates the bar of soap that sank without a trace in the bathtub.

An illustrated plan for dodging pesky bill collectors, masterminded by Goldberg's alter ego, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, and enlarged for a wall-sized mural, can be summarized as follows: a folding hat rack pushes a cabbage into a net, which pulls a cord, causing shears to cut string; a bag of sand drops on a scale and pushes a broom, upsetting a pail of whitewash that spills all over you, making you to look like a marble statue and therefore impossible to recognize. Not to worry: bill collectors don't know much about art.

Don't try this at home.

Through July 8.