FORGET the 25 mangy cats in the scruffy room. It's the ironing board that makes the cartoon work. In this George Booth cartoon, the man in the bathtub exclaims, "Today is the day I start the new me!" while the cats ignore him. But the frayed ironing board is Booth's existential motif, a metaphor for work we've ever left undone and tossed aside on a whim.
Not that Booth would ever put it that way, or any of the other 18 cartoonists whose work is on exhibit at the Art Institute of Boston. Titled, "Lines of the Times: 50 Years of Great American Cartoons," the show includes 75 cartoons from such New Yorker magazine greats as Peter Arno, Charles Steig, Frank Modell, Mary Petty, Michael Crawford, Edward Koren, Charles Addams, Roz Chast, Victoria Roberts, and others.
If they are similar to other humorists who do their work and leave the interpretations to others, cartoonists like applause but probably aren't fooled often into thinking great meaning resides here.
That's why seeing these cartoons hanging on walls, with people laughing at them, is to view them with a different mind-set than flipping through the pages of the New Yorker (which prevented its name from being used by the show for legal reasons). Within the magazine, the cartoons look like family, wry and delightful. On the wall of the small exhibit, time and context reveal that cultural influences are at work. The cartoons are just as funny either place, but on the wall, just a little more serious.
There are older-looking clothes and attitudes in the cartoons drawn before the 1960s; after that year styles of dress change, and there is more emotional angst in cartoons from the '70s, and '80s, and into the '90s.
For instance, Edward Koren, the cartoonist who draws big-nosed, frizzy-looking, eager people, has a woman of the '90s grab hold of the lapel of the jacket of a construction worker after he has made a remark to her. "I'm the kind of a woman nobody calls pumpkin," she says to him a few inches from his nose.
Faced with a society that is exaggerated in more ways than ever before, cartoonists may be the ones who see the absurdities first. When Jack Ziegler draws two laconic cowboys leaning against a bar in a nondescript saloon, he takes a familiar setting, and gives it a twist too delicious even for the '90s. Says one cowboy to the other, "The shirt, kerchief, and pants - all Ralph Lauren. The belt and my undergarments - Calvin Klein."
What the saloon needed in the background was a George Booth ironing board.
* The exhibit continues at the Art Institute of Boston, 700 Beacon St., Boston, Mass., until March 8.