New York

Rube Goldberg

Hammer Galleries

In Rube Goldberg’s show of cartoons and sculpture I had hoped to encounter some of those inventive and amusing contraptions that made Goldberg famous. For in some ways the nuttiness of his high phase is a natural, homegrown Dadaism, more than simply a parallel to the more intellectual varieties and wider in its appeal, like the relation in music between Spike Jones and the famous German piece called Bahnfahrt. It seems more apt than accidental that once Goldberg actually contributed a drawing to one of the New York Dada periodicals—The Blind Man, if I remember right. Unfortunately this was not the side of Goldberg available here, except for a watercolor called Sure Cure for Nagging Wife (or Husband) Who Continually Criticizes Your Driving, showing a rather Oldenburgean car with exaggerated mock-technological works and a semiautomatic wife control device.

Largely, however, the work from 1913–63 is just straight, if clever, cartooning. Not that it isn’t funny, and not that it isn’t “modern” in its own way: it even suggests Feiffer in its trailing off of a momentary, insightful experience through numerous frames, as in Your Table Always Seems to Be 1,000 Miles from the Door. But it’s mostly too square, like Will Rogers minus the progressivism. Similarly, the explicitly political cartoons are not exactly misguided, but they have an insidious way of treating political problems as mysteriously incomprehensible “white folks’ business,” by making points that don’t step on toes and tend to discourage John Q. Public from being at all ideological. Hope is placed squarely in horse sense, even though so many of the jokes turn on the fact that the other guy never seems to have any. Ha ha.

Toward the end of his long life Goldberg (1883–1970) gave up cartooning and turned to something he overconfidently called sculpture. It is perfectly hideous. It doesn’t cloy, it curdles. It belongs to the realm of joke-shop ashtrays with drunks leaning against lampposts. One even attempts to mock modern art, specifically Giacometti: an exaggeratedly tall and rubbery basketball player mock-abstractedly called Vertical Line. Curiously, though, some of the old Rube shows through. In the midst of all the twaddle there are a few pieces whose overbearing kitschness nearly becomes clear social criticism. This is true of the figures belonging to the “Board of Director” series: works Iike Horatio Alger Little, Chairman of the Board, and George Washington Fink, Jr., Vice-President. In a way, the end of the career may be a bit like the beginning. If Goldberg was once a Dada-by-ear, he wound up a semiconscious creator of a barbershop funk.

Joseph Masheck