by David M. Roth
When four Bay Area art institutions, each acting independently, mount exhibitions addressing the same topic at roughly the same time you can be fairly confident that something’s in the air. That something, judging from the exhibitions’ titles — Mechanisms (CCA Wattis), Chris Eckert: Privacy Not Included (San Jose ICA), Cult of the Machine (de Young) and Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists and The Art of Rube Goldberg (both at the CJM) – has to do with technology and our eternally fraught relationship with it. CCA's show, curated by Anthony Huberman, examined systems underlying everything from romantic relationships to building ventilation. The ICA exhibition, curated by Cathy Kimball, takes on surveillance. Cult of the Machine, organized by Emma Acker, looks at Precisionism, art about industrialization and urbanization from the 1920s and 1930s.
CJM’s foray into this territory, which coincides with the museum’s 10th anniversary at the Daniel Libeskind-designed former power station building, the plays out across two intertwined shows. One is a retrospective look at the life and times of cartoonist Rube Goldberg. (1883-1970). The other, Contraption, organized by CJM Chief Curator Renny Pritikin and SF State Professor of Art Mark Dean Johnson, features painting, drawing, installations and kinetic sculpture from 16 artists whose works, spanning nearly a century, put under a microscope the modernist idea that science is mankind’s brother.
Goldberg emerges as a pivotal figure, if not a towering presence. He skewered rationality like no one else, and for that reason, his works appear in both exhibitions, serving as both a conceptual beacon and a spiritual touchstone. The Art of Rube Goldberg, features 75 original drawings, memorabilia, books, photos and films. It tracks the artist’s 72-year career — from his origins as a teenaged prodigy in San Francisco to his salad years, as a between-the-wars, New York-based syndicated cartoonist, to the wacky diagrams of contraptions for which he is today best known, and to the late-in-life political cartooning that won him a Pulitzer in 1948. He worked almost up to his death.
The thread connecting Goldberg’s activities was a brand of now-extinct vaudevillian humor that marked him as both quintessentially American and Jewish. If there were contradictions between the two – and in the 1920s there most certainly were — he collapsed them by aiming his witticisms at an audience of millions. Whether targeting the idle rich, top-hatted plutocrats or hapless plebes, Goldberg exposed the absurdities of American life and the mechanisms (social, political, economic and ideological) that held them in place. A particular focus was industry, mass production, and urbanization, which between the wars, changed American life as radically as the iPhone and social media would decades later. Stupidity, in various guises, he lampooned with relentless good humor until he turned his attention to politics near the end of his career, at which point he became downright acerbic. Goldberg’s views, you realize as you tour the exhibition, were startlingly prescient on a variety of topics, from nuclear war to political influence peddling. One of his last cartoons, a cover for the March 15, 1967 issue of Forbes, accurately predicted the future of home entertainment. It shows a family with each member glued to a different electronic device. Visually and verbally, his style, it’s also plain to see, influenced several generations of artists, including Jean Tinguely, Robert Crumb, William T. Wiley and the Swiss duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss to name just a few.
Almost any panel (or sequence of panels) in this tightly focused, chronologically presented show, curated by Max Weintraub, delivers a good laugh, but none more so than the Foolish Questions series, wherein dumb queries elicit appropriately snarky responses. But it’s in the final sequence of the exhibition and in the opening of Contraption that two shows overlap, bringing into sharp focus a central theme embodied by Goldberg’s everyman character, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. In these cartoons, Butts attempts simple tasks, like mailing a letter, opening a screen door and swinging a golf club, only to be sucked into mechanical gauntlets of his own invention that leave him dazed and dumbfounded, wondering why he even bothered. Battling uncontrollable forces with improvised, jerry-rigged solutions is, of course, a quintessentially Jewish theme. Contraption probes it in a variety of ways, beginning with Dada-inspired artworks from Bernie Lubell and Bella Feldman, two critics of technology-inspired utopian thinking. Their forte is making machines that are perfectly useless. Feldman’s Day’s Work (1998-2000), a wall-mounted sculpture consisting of tool-wielding arms attached to a nonfunctioning wheel, greets visitors at the entrance to the upstairs gallery looking like something out of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. Elsewhere, two miniaturized versions of that same idea, one in a vitrine, the other in a bell jar, underscore the notion of mechanized folly. Lubell’s Theory of Entanglement (2009-18) — a towering, pedal-activated knitting machine built from a boggling concatenation of gears, pulleys and wheels — demonstrates even better than even Goldberg’s inventions how massive amounts of energy can be expended with little or no payoff. I watched people pedal madly in an attempt to activate the knitting apparatus. Few succeeded, and those who did, did so with great effort. Still, the ingenuity behind it feels wondrous, as does Pencil Vortex (2017), a kinetic sculpture made of 222 pencils by Ned Kahn. They hang from electric, ceiling-suspended motors, swaying like a trio of hula dancers.
The fold-out boxes created by Bruce Handelsman (1953-92), modeled after Rajasthani “temple boxes,” hold panoramic photomontages of rooms the artist inhabited in India and San Francisco while coming to grips with a fatal medical diagnosis. Oddly, they read less like momento mori than portable wunderkammers – celebrations of sacred space. Wave II (2007), a ceramic sculpture by Annabeth Rosen, the subject of an upcoming retrospective at CJM, has no apparent connection to the theme of the show, but it’s an arresting sight: hundreds of kelp bulb shapes tossed together and set upright in the form of a wave, frozen at the top of its arc.
If other parts of the show feel like an elaborate and sometimes overwrought science fair, that is by design. I’m thinking here of Sheri Simons’ After All (2018), a nod to Leon Scott, the French inventor who, in 1856, created a mechanism to visualize sound. He attached a megaphone to a metal drum onto which the electro-mechanical impulses of a man singing Au Clair de la Lune were incised. Simons, a la Goldberg, makes her replica of Scott’s device far more elaborate than it need be. Instead of simply connecting a microphone to a stylus and a spinning drum, she places a wood armature resembling a fallen broadcast tower between the endpoints of the device, turning what would otherwise be a mere knockoff into a sculptural triumph.
Photographer John Gutmann (1905-1998) displayed a particularly keen eye for inventions of this sort. His 1938 photo of an automobile-mounted telescope, looking more like a weapon of war than an instrument of science, along with two other images — one of a tiny one-person helicopter (Stanley Hiller Up in the Hornet, 1952) and another of a towering elevator car garage from 1936 — testify to just how enthralled the world once was to invention, even the crackpot variety.
Not everything in this exhibition is looks at technology with a nod and wink; the show contains a handful of works that express grave doubts about efficiency, mass production, automation, resource extraction and the like. Irving Norman’s (1906-1989) 1935 painting, Rush Hour (Lunch), a ghoulish almost pop-surrealist representation of factory life, likens early 20thcentury working conditions to those of a concentration camp or a slave ship. However grossly it exaggerates the dehumanizing rigors of the assembly line, its anti-capitalist message resonates. So, too, do Judith’s Belzer’s paintings of vast industrial corridors (2012-2014). These ruined landscapes, warped by unseen forces, feel monstrous, never mind the artist’s cheery color palette. More apocalyptic still is the epic drawing by activist/artist Richard Kamler (1935-2017) titled Holocaust (1976), an elegiac collection of tortured souls that spans an entire wall. It contains no machines or machine references, save that of a single gun. But the political and bureaucratic machinations driving the events pictured hover close at hand, magnifying the impact of an already gut-wrenching scene. It’s the physical centerpiece of Contraption and one of the show’s highlights. (For more about Kamler, including images of the above-mentioned drawing, I direct you to Robert Atkins’ moving remembrance of his 40-year friendship with the artist.)
The other highlight – and also the biggest surprise in this show — comes at the end, in a room given over almost entirely to Carol Bernard, a little-known 89-year-old artist living in Davis, Calif. Her precise, claustrophobic pen-on-paper drawings of imaginary cities rival those of Bruce Conner for obsessiveness and nearly indecipherable detail. Readable as both objects and energy fields, they occupy a visionary realm midway between gothic and sci-fi. Inside the same room, there’s a drawing on vellum by Miriam Dym,The Engineer’s Value (1994-95), displayed in a lightbox. Where Bernard provides macro views of fantastical worlds, Dym, in this piece, drills down inside them, offering a perspective akin to one of those exploded mechanical drawings that show how parts of a device fit together.
Beyond the obvious aesthetic rewards offered by this inspired double billing of Goldberg and his descendants, what emerges most clearly from these two shows is our ambivalent relationship with the machine. We love wiz-bang sensations delivered by new inventions, but we resist dealing with their unintended consequences. While logical positivism teaches that history moves linearly – and that each step along the way brings us to a better place – experience shows the history of technology operating more like a wheel, disruption being the one thing that actually goes around. No doubt, as fallout from the current Zuckerbergian moment continues to pile up, more shows of this sort will soon be in the offing.
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“The Art of Rube Goldberg” through July 8, 2018 and “Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists” @ Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) through July 29, 2018. Other artists included in “Contraption” include: Edward Biberman, Boris Deutsch and Howard Fried.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.