Rube Goldberg's machines kick into gear at the Norman Rockwell Museum
STOCKBRIDGE — You might not hear the phrase as often anymore, but every once in a while, something will be described as a "Rube Goldberg machine." This is not a compliment.
Referring back to the work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Goldberg won fame in the early 20th century for his comic strip work featuring needlessly complicated machines of his own design that were meant for simple tasks. When you describe something, anything, as a "Rube Goldberg machine," you are saying that it over-complicates everything. Some would say that in the era of smartphones and tablets, we are all carrying personal "Rube Goldberg machines" around with us constantly.
The Norman Rockwell Museum opens "The Art and Wit of Rube Goldberg" with an interactive family event, 1-4 p.m. on Saturday, featuring mechanical sculptor Steve Gerberich leading a workshop that allows participants to create their own Goldberg machine. The show will present samples across Goldberg's career, including his machine cartoons and his later political work.
"He was all about doing this Every Man character who was just running all kinds of problems and mistakes," said the show's curator, Jesse Kowalski. "Also he would make fun of politicians and bankers and people in power as foils against the Every Man. It's all about technology and how technologies might change, but man is always going to stay the same."
Goldberg was born and raised in San Francisco, the son of the police and fire commissioner who tried to commandeer his son's future.
"He wanted to be an artist when he was growing up and his father did not want that," Kowalski said. "His father thought that was a silly goal and convinced him he needed to get an engineering degree, something that was going to be worth something someday."
Goldberg ended up working in the San Francisco sewers in 1904, but six months later got hired to draw cartoons in the sports section of the San Francisco Chronicle. By 1907 he moved to New York City to work on the comic strip Foolish Questions for the New York Evening Mail. In 1912 he began creating his machine cartoons, which led to his status as a well-paid, superstar cartoonist.
From 1922 to 1934, Goldberg produced seven simultaneous newspaper strips. Over the course of his career, Goldberg didn't just stick with newspaper cartooning, though he did create about 50,000 of them. He also wrote 15 books, numerous magazine essays, and even made seven animated movies in 1916. He toured with vaudeville from 1910 to 1915 and later had his own radio show and even a television game show.
"He really did a little bit of everything," Kowalski said. "You wonder how he had this much time. He was a very busy man."
Prior to World War II, Goldberg turned his attention to targeting Hitler, convinced that the world was not taking his violent anti-Semitism seriously enough. He continued in the political vein and in 1948 won the Pulitzer for his anti-nuclear war cartoon called "Peace Today."
His work continued in a political vein, targeting Communism, inflation, and the need for more cancer research funding, until his later years when he turned to sculpture.
"In 1964 he quit drawing altogether and focused on sculpture," Kowalski said. "He said he did everything he wanted to do and his quote is, `I simply got tired of the same medium for so long.'"
Goldberg died in 1970, but his influence has been seen in other mediums and examples are still popular today, as with the board game Mouse Trap, the 1980s films "The Goonies" and "Back to the Future" and a music video in 2010 by the band OK Go.
Kowalski put together a video presentation for the show to highlight the work that has been influenced by Goldberg's imagination and reveal how ideas from a cartoonist who began his career 100 years ago still permeate the culture they live in.
"The exhibit, too, is to help explain this to the younger generation," said Kowalski.
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