Conner's Couples: Electric, Spectral, Dreamy
The text quoted here is from my audio guide copy for the Mac Conner exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. If you go to the exhibition, you'll get an opportunity to hear all this delivered in my dulcet tones. And go you should, because the show is fascinating window into the early Mad Men era.
This classic two-color illustration accompanies “No Kiss for Kate,” by Timothy Acres.
College senior Kate Kalil is a driven young woman, focused on “making her way in the world.” Intelligent and beautiful, she was Valedictorian of her high school, president of the college forum, and even a model in the annual fashion show. The story traces the arc of Kate’s relationship with her friend George, to whom she may or may not be romantically connected. Through some complicated events surrounding a Christmas dance, Kate recognizes her deep love for George, who she fears has fallen for another. George’s Christmas present–a diamond ring–corrects her impression. It seems there will be plenty of kisses in Kate’s future.
Conner pictures Kate standing at the formal apex of effusive lovers and embracing couples. Her hands, gloved in green, touch only metal. Her rueful isolation is unmistakable, but at least she is smartly attired, with accessories matching the green dress she wears under her white coat. As a character, a study in style; as an illustration, an essay in gray and green. Poised and lovely, she resembles Audrey Hepburn, an “it” girl of the 50s.
In William Brandon’s “The Ghost Takes Charge,” the ghost of Mr. Updyke travels to his old home, where he recalls being badgered by his wife about the fireplace and the numerous arguments they had about the temperature in their house. His visit, which occurs on New Years Eve, finds his wife comfortably toasty, watching a television program as the new oil burner purrs and the thermostat reads 82 degrees. Angered by her new purchases, Mr. Updyke discovers–to his surprise–that he is capable of moving the thermostat, which he adjusts to 55 degrees. His wife becomes cold and inspects the thermostat, confused. When she dials it back to 82, he resets it to 55. The story ends with Mr. Updyke settling in to play this game for as long as it amuses him.
The illustration combines an exaggerated bird’s-eye point of view on the room and Mrs. Updyke with an intriguing formal device: the mischevious ghost traced in white line. The introduction of the line in an otherwise fully articulated tonal picture calls attention to itself: we can’t stop looking at the line as line. Such heightened awareness of a work’s formal language of construction has been associated with Modernism.
This scene of intimacy is made up exclusively of things and people: matching purple bicycles, a picnic basket with wine bottle, a reclining woman and man, and an almost inexplicable striking orange spot, a piece of fruit. Conner provides no description of the space or setting: it is entirely implied. The strong sense of design and downward-angled point of view show Conner using inventive perspective to his advantage.