Not that Goldberg didn’t take dead aim at his country on occasion: He was, to quote Josh Perelman, chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections at the NMAJH, a “critical observer of his world during rapidly changing and tumultuous times.” Several of his cartoons from the 1930s criticize Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. In one, the then-president (unmistakably rendered with his massive jaw and clenched teeth) studies a cluster of tubes. They’re labeled with government agency names, and look as if they might have been designed by Professor Butts on a bad day—FDR seems surprised that his prized toy produces nothing more than a few drops of water. A later drawing (for which Goldberg won a Pulitzer Prize) shows a happy family perched on a massive atomic bomb that, unbeknownst to them, is teetering on the edge of a cliff. That was in 1947, two years after a team of whiz kids invented a gadget deadly enough to obliterate entire cities.
The machines Goldberg dreamed up over the course of his long career could be friendly or sinister, charmingly useless or terrifyingly efficient. Perhaps that’s why his cartoons have inspired so many different kinds of creatives—they’re inkblots, betraying the viewers’ own attitudes about science, technology, and the future. For Swiss
, whose kinetic art is unmistakably Goldbergian, useless machines were metaphors for the evils of capitalism, their only true function to torture the working classes. Something similar could be said for the grimy tubes and wires running through Terry Gilliam’s dystopian masterpiece Brazil
(1985), which seems to take place in a world run by Professor Butts’s evil twin. And what are the rusty chains and cages in the Saw
movies if not Rube Goldberg machines designed to torture their victims?
In their experimental film The Way Things Go
(1987), Swiss artists
invoke another side of Goldberg’s cartoons: the hypnotic, almost Zen-like wonder they can inspire. The film—seemingly shot in one continuous, half-hour take, but actually stitched together from a series of short scenes—chases a chain reaction from one object to another: a rocket deflates a balloon, which starts a fire, which drops a marble onto one side of a lever, which sets a barrel rolling, and so on. It’s an extraordinary spectacle, the kind Goldberg spent his professional life imagining on paper, but never tried to build.
When Goldberg was born, it’s easy to forget, most of America was lit by candlelight. He died in 1970, the year after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The intervening period saw the greatest explosion of science and technology the world has ever witnessed. While the decades since Goldberg’s death have been just as exciting, technology has gotten less and less tactile during this time—the mechanical processes that once powered our devices have largely been replaced by invisible computer programs. The result is a legion of sleek, otherworldly objects like the iPhone, which seem simple, even when they’re a million times more intricate than Butts’s self-operating napkin.
Maybe that’s why the NMAJH’s exhibition feels surprisingly poignant at times: Rube Goldberg’s machines are unparalleled monuments to the analog era, the very last time in history when complex machines were simple enough for ordinary people to understand.