As I mentioned in a post in 2014, I’ve long been impressed by the mid-20th century illustrations of MacCauley “Mac” Conner, an influential artist whose work was a prime example of the Madison Avenue advertising culture showcased in the Mad Men television series. This was a period that also represented last great heyday of magazine illustration in America.
Rather going into more detail here, I’ll refer you to my original post on Mac Conner, and concentrate in this post on the exhibition of his work currently at the Delaware Art Museum.
My admiration for Conner’s work was based largely on seeing it in reproduction — for an illustrator, that’s how it’s actually meant to be seen — but seeing his original art in the show, in a large and very well organized retrospective, just knocked me out.
I was frankly even more impressed than I expected to be. Throughout the show, I was wowed by Conner’s masterful handling of gouache and his consistently daring and inventive compositions.
Conner (who is still with us at over 100 years old) is an artist who was clearly not content to sit within the limitations of his field, but always pushing at the borders (both literally and figuratively) of what could be done with the printed page.
He experimented with novel points of view, referential repetitions of colors and images within the theme of an image, suggestions of elements not present (like walls, floors and horizons), daring crops, simultaneous representations of multiple views of the same scene, jarring juxtapositions of size and distance and sharp projection of emotional content.
Concurrent with his explorations of composition (in which negative space played a huge role) was his experimentation with the use of his medium, usually gouache on illustration board, at times augmented with pastel, ink or pencil.
His style evolved from Norman Rockwell influenced realistic rendering to the almost flat modernist style that came to exemplify 1950s and 1960s magazine illustration, in which rendering, if present, was often confined to the edges of forms. He also experimented with both rough and fine lines, textural effects and color palettes from monochromatic to duotone to full color, often with clever use of a contrasting color within an almost monochromatic composition to both highlight important elements and tie the composition together.
Underlying all of his inventiveness and restless exploration was his keenly developed draftsmanship and an unfaltering grasp of perspective, anatomy, facial expression and spatial geometry.
The exhibition at The Delaware Art Museum was developed by the Museum of the City of New York, which apparently has a superb collection of Conner’s work, and is similar to some degree to previous exhibitions in New York in 2014 and at the Norman Rockwell Museum in 2016.
The Delaware Art Museum has a selection of images from the show on their website, but they are disappointingly small, though there is a brief video on the page that shows some of the images in more detail.
Also disappointing is the inexplicably small printed volume that accompanies the exhibition. I do have an understanding of the economics of printing, but why take illustrations often meant to be double page spreads in magazines that could be almost 11 x 14 and print them in a book less than half that size? (Sigh.) The book was prepared by the Museum of the City of New York to accompany a previous exhibition and is apparently no longer available except at the exhibition venues, so if you want it, pick it up at the museum.
The best image source for Conner’s work online is this article from 2014 in The Guardian, in which the images are large enough that you can begin to get a feeling for the character of Conner’s beautifully handled gouache paintings. There is an unofficial Tumblr blog but few other online resources for his work.
The Original Mad Man: Illustrations by Mac Conner is on view at the Delaware Art Museum until September 14, 2017.
This is a tremendous show — stunning work, beautifully presented — and fans of illustration, daring composition, gouache painting (or the Mad Men TV show, for that matter) should not miss it.