Hurry Hurry to Catch Rube Goldberg Exhibit

The Art and Wit of Rube Goldberg (through June 9, 2019)
Frank E. Schoonover: American Visions (through May 27, 2019)
Norman Rockwell Museum (Stockbridge, MA)

 {Click images for full-size views}

I have fond childhood dreams of chortling over syndicated cartoons featuring the improbable inventions of Reuben (“Rube”) Goldberg (1883-1970). In part that was because of my obsession with his board game “Mousetrap,” but it was also because of Goldberg's backdoor social commentary. As a college student I learned of the philosophical principle known as Occam’s razor*, which is often shorthanded as “the simplest solutions are the best.” That’s not quite what it means but any way we look at it, Rube Goldberg was the anti-Occam’s razor. There was no small task Goldberg couldn't transform into an antigodlin contraption. 

A small but delicious and (alas!) soon-to-close show at Norman Rockwell Museum in the Berkshires dusts off Goldberg’s wit for those who recall it and serves as an introduction for the non-initiated. Goldberg was one of the few people whose name became an adjective; a Rube Goldberg machine is one that uses whimsical and overly elaborate methods to accomplish the mundane. If you're a Wallace and Gromit fan, Wallace's madcap inventions are directly inspired by Goldberg. But even Wallace looks tame in comparison to Goldberg. His alter ego, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, complicated every task, be it shading one’s self from the sun, keeping a buttonhole flower fresh, or polishing shoes. I’m sure there many today that will still find humor in his machine for helping viewers better appreciate modern art.

Goldberg won many awards in his lifetime, but his 1948 Pulitzer was for political cartooning, an overlooked aspect of his career. He saw two world wars and viewed each as a terrible waste. Goldberg called attention to the bitter irony of living in a world that simultaneously promotes the global cooperation and celebrates robust bodies, and one plagued by the eviscerating effects of warfare. Although he held Western Cold War assumptions after World War II, he also saw the atomic arms race as madness rather than deterrence. One can only image his war dead cartoon today, with added crosses for every conflict from Korea and Vietnam through the idiotic Gulf wars. 

I wonder what Goldberg would make of today’s app society. He was one of the first to lampoon self-photography, so I’m sure he’d find lots of fodder in a world of selfies, useless apps, and latter-day Rube Goldberg inventions. I think of Goldberg whenever I read that some investor with more cash than commonsense sinks money into things such as “smart” water coolers, iBeer, and apps that sound like an electric shaver or a flushing toilet. My car’s user’s manual is over 400 pages, which means there’s a lot of senseless gadgetry involved when all one really needs to do is turn it on and put it in gear. (If you’re wondering about the navigation and music systems, those are separate tomes.)  We also have such mind-boggling inventions such as microwave scrambled eggs–which take twice as long as making them from actual eggs–underwear built for two, and a putting green you can use when you’re using the loo. (I suppose now we need a virtual putting green that synchs with the flushing toilet sound app.)

Where’s Rube when we need him? Lord knows we need someone to make us laugh at our foibles. For a few more weeks his work will be at the Norman Rockwell Museum. 

A show closing in just a few days at the NRM features painter Frank Schoonover (1877-1972), who was one of the many illustrators and painters trained and/or influenced by Howard Pyle (1853-1911). (That list includes Maxfield Parrish, N. C. Wyeth, and Norman Rockwell.) Schoonover isn’t as well known but you’ll certainly see Pyle’s handprints all over Schoonover’s canvases. Like most from the Brandywine River School, Schoonover loved dramatic stories of explorers, pirates, knights, and Joan of Arc. He was especially drawn to the American West, the struggle between man and nature, and writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London.

When he needed to, Schoonover wasn’t afraid to cross into commercial terrain. Note the subtle advertisement in the attached camping scene. Some might find that Schoonover’s work transgresses the porous border between historical and histrionic–his first typewriter painting, for instance–but I quite enjoyed my introduction to his oeuvre.

There is also an exhibit that explores the connections between Rockwell and his friend and one-time therapist Erik Erikson. Erikson has long been among those psychologists whom I most admire. His stages of life theories of psychological development has always made more sense to me than theorists such as Jean Piaget who claim that our basic personalities are already shaped about the time we enter primary school. Who knew that Erikson also sketched and painted? My assessment? As an artist, Erik Erikson was a great developmental psychologist.

Rob Weir 
*Razor means “principle” in philosophy and has nothing to do with removing body stubble!


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