Not so complicated: The art of Rube Goldberg

A new exhibit in Philadelphia focuses on the art of Rube Goldberg.

Rube Goldberg, Foolish Questions Postcards, c. 1910. Color postcards. Artwork Copyright © Rube Goldberg Inc. All Rights Reserved. RUBE GOLDBERG ® is a registered trademark of Rube Goldberg Inc. All materials used with permission. (photo credit: RUBE GOLDBERG INC)
Rube Goldberg, Foolish Questions Postcards, c. 1910. Color postcards. Artwork Copyright © Rube Goldberg Inc. All Rights Reserved. RUBE GOLDBERG ® is a registered trademark of Rube Goldberg Inc. All materials used with permission.
(photo credit: RUBE GOLDBERG INC)
PHILADELPHIA – If you want to get to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, go to Independence Hall to see the Liberty Bell, then grab a kosher falafel and tehina shake at Goldie’s, climb the “Rocky Steps,” see the Rocky statue and take a selfie at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Museum, take in a Philadelphia Flyers hockey game at the Wells Fargo Center, then take two SEPTA trains to the Fifth Street and Independence Mall Station. Pass through museum security, take the elevator to the fifth floor and you will be treated to “The Art of Rube Goldberg,” the first retrospective exhibit in 40 years, celebrating the groundbreaking art of Rube Goldberg. Sound complicated? Rube Goldberg would be proud!
Goldberg, who lived from 1883 to 1970, built his distinguished career on making the simple complicated. By age 48, as the exhibit points out, his name was part of the lexicon and was added to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary. Rube Goldberg, now an adjective, is defined as “accomplishing by overly complex and humorous means what seemingly could be done simply.” The exhibition opened on October 12 and runs through January 21, 2019. It begins with one such contraption that visitors can manipulate and proceeds to show – through cartoon strips, puzzles, board games and video clips – the many sides of Goldberg, including sports writer, political cartoonist, ad man and Pulitzer Prize winner.
Docent Paul Woolf repeatedly laughed out loud as he read and re-read cartoons mounted on walls throughout the gallery. “His imagination is just incredible. He takes simple things and makes them so complex – or stupid, like his “Foolish Questions” cartoons. Goldberg’s first Foolish Questions cartoon was published in New York’s Evening Mail in 1908 and became an “instant hit.” Woolf humbly notes, “There are some aspects of his life people don’t know about – I didn’t! People know about his inventions but not his other works. He had 50,000 things in print in his lifetime compared to Charles Schultz (of “Peanuts” fame) who had 18,000. And he popularized the term ‘Baloney!’”
Goldberg, the third child born in San Francisco, California, to traditional German- Jewish immigrant parents Max Goldberg and Hannah Cohen, wanted to be an illustrator from an early age. His father, described as “flamboyant, a former cowboy and a political operator,” had other ideas. Goldberg studied mining and engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, where he wrote for the college humor paper. He took his first job with a San Francisco sewer company – and took a big pay cut when he left to become a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
GOLDBERG NEVER swayed from his true love, continuing to write and sketch works that included “Boob McNutt,” “Foolish Questions” and “Mike and Ike: They Look Alike.” His distinguished career included to a brief stint in Hollywood with friends the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx. He wrote the script for the Three Stooges movie, Soup to Nuts, designed many of the set pieces (chairs, tables) and even made a cameo appearance. Goldberg had two US patents in 1936 for the comic strip, “Lala Palooza.” As the exhibit notes, his cartoons “shifted focus with political discord mounting in Europe.” In 1947, Goldberg sketched a black and white cartoon of two people walking in the desert on what seem to be parallel paths. One is identified as “Jews” and the other “Arabs.” The caption reads, “When will they find a meeting point?” Goldberg received the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1948. He drew an editorial cartoon right after World War Two that focused on the threat of nuclear war in which the words “Atomic Bomb,” “World Control” and “World Destruction” appear in capital letters. The exhibit explanation says, “[Goldberg] never shied away from hot-button social and political issues, and temperance and prohibition were recurring themes.”
At the end of the exhibit, Goldberg appears in an advertisement for a gin company and for Lucky Strike cigarettes (1940s). It notes that he was an early ad man, penning content for Pennzoil Motor Oil, Goodrich Tires and Volkswagen. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Dr. Josh Perelman, chief curator and director of exhibitions and interpretation, playfully noted that his granddaughter Jennifer George said, “He never smoked a single cigarette in his life.” Goldberg was a lifelong cigar smoker. Goldberg’s work has universal appeal and has been credited with contributing to the rise of interest in helping students develop STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and math) by problem- solving. Yet, as Perelman notes, there is “a sense of Jewishness” in Goldberg’s work.
“He was a very observational cartoonist. As a member of a minority community, he was on the outside looking in. He walked the line between feeling he was a minority and feeling he was an integrated member of society. And there was a social awareness theme with political overtones throughout. This comes out of his formative years.” Perelman also noted there was something particularly Jewish in the “slapstick nature of his cartooning.”
Perelman sees great potential in exposing viewers to the full world of Goldberg. “For people of all ages, he was so well-known as an adjective. We have an opportunity to help him gain his due as a noun. A whole generation knows what a Rube Goldberg machine is, but they don’t necessarily know who Rube Goldberg was as a person.”