STOCKBRIDGE — In the realm of popular art, there’s famous and then there’s famous. Rube Goldberg, the legendary American cartoonist, owns a rare distinction to prove the latter: an entry in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary that has nothing to do with the man himself. Go ahead, look it up: “Rube Goldberg, adjective,” defined as “accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply.”
Having your name enter the lexicon indicates uncommon impact on the world at large, and Goldberg surely had it: His wry, vervey renderings of complex machinery designed to perform mundane tasks — a “simple mosquito exterminator,” for example, which is anything but, luring the bloodsucking insect by lever and pulley into a mirror and finally, a trap — by the 1930s had earned him a far-reaching reputation.
His later work through the ’40s became more political, biting, and acidic, but an uncanny wit and sense of the absurd never left him. That, as much as anything, explains why he endures. “The Art and Wit of Rube Goldberg,” a new show at the Norman Rockwell Museum, puts that much on clear display.
Goldberg, born in San Francisco in 1883, grew up in a world being rapidly transformed by industrialization and technology. He came by his fascination with machinery naturally — he never studied art, but developed his facility for drawing as a mining engineer. That training seems to lead naturally into what became his life’s pursuit: His first job, drawing schematics for San Francisco’s burgeoning infrastructure — sewer and water lines, mostly — would have honed his skill for schematic drawing, and his sense of humor took care of the rest. (The museum is offering regular drop-in “art labs,” where kids can build their own Goldberg-inspired contraptions; the next is Monday.)
Moving from San Francisco to New York in 1907, he began drawing for the New York Evening Mail, where his career took off: He created several syndicated series, “Boob McNutt” and “Mike and Ike (They Look Alike)” among the best known. In the 1920s, “The Inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts” became the regular showcase for his off-kilter contraptions.
Goldberg’s many machines delight with sheer absurdity — “Great Discovery,” from 1913, details an 18-step process to open a bottle of beer, involving lit candles, burnt string, burst pipes, a falling potato, and a phonograph — but there’s wisdom to his wit as well. Goldberg was a keen observer and critic of a world growing more complex before his eyes, and the satire in each of these pictures is thick.
After the second World War and beyond, his wit turned dark indeed. Drawings here presage Cold War-anxiety with alarming frankness: In “Style Note From Russia” (1947), a bear wears a coat of many pockets filled with the countries of the evolving Soviet bloc; “One Little Match” depicts a shiny, dark dome of an atomic bomb welcoming a “provocative incident.” Another, 1948’s “Hope to Find the End,” doesn’t seem all that hopeful: A row of identical crosses stands in for the dead of war after war, while a berobed figure with her eyes blindfolded wears the banner “Civilization,” smiling.
It doesn’t seem much like kid stuff, I know, and even Goldberg’s zany contraptions carry darker meanings that have sharp resonance in this moment of social-media disasters and technology run amok. Then again, why isn’t it? Humor has always been the best interface to grapple with difficult subjects, and even better when captured so stirringly in the hands of a master like Goldberg. We all struggle to teach our children about the world. One thing we can agree on, I think, is we can’t shield them from it forever. As an entry point, I don’t know if you’ll find one more gentle, and more true.
THE ART AND WIT OF RUBE GOLDBERG
At the Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, through June 9. 413-298-4100, www.nrm.org