Tonight Mac Conner: A New York Life opens at the Museum of the City of New York. It consists of about 70 gouache paintings plus plenty of ephemera, especially advertising tear sheets and correspondence. Mac Conner enjoyed a heyday as a magazine illustrator between 1948 and 1963. He illustrated fiction for Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Woman’s Day, and many other periodicals. He also did plenty of ad work that ran in the very same magazines. When his market effectively collapsed in the mid60s, Conner adapted and went on to do romance paperback covers in the 1970s and 80s.
The man–a stylish bon vivant in his prime–is still alive, at 100. He will be attending. I’ve sat with him and conversed; he’s still quite sharp, and an extremely charming fellow.
Late last spring, as Sarah Henry, deputy director and chief curator at MCNY, was putting the team together, I got a call to see if I would be interested in serving as curator. I have been writing on illustration and visual culture for some time now, and have played a role in the creation and shaping of the Modern Graphic History Library. But still I was surprised–and delighted–to get that call.
And yet. I didn’t say yes straightaway. The reason I didn’t has to do with customary approaches to the presentation of illustration in museum settings. Because illustration has not, for perfectly understandable reasons, been integrated into the art historical narrative [NOTE: that clause could launch a thousand paragraphs, but not today] it often gets presented as 1) a kind of local or biographical curiosity, and/or 2) a naive, poor-man’s-art-history narrative of style. That is, gee whiz and/or narrow fandom.
So I expressed in interest in participating if we could agree that Mac Conner’s work would provide a window into postwar visual culture. That is, in addition to celebrating this remarkable centenarian, we could shed some light on illustrated periodicals as a form, situated in a particular time and place–midcentury New York–and embedded in a reading-and-looking magazine culture that had been established in preceding decades, especially after 1900.
Sarah agreed that yes, we could and should attempt to do most of that (though representing the new visual culture of Conner's 1920s boyhood would prove a bridge too far). In the meantime she recruited Terry Brown, former director of the Society of Illustrators on East 63rd Street, to serve as curator. I came on board as consulting curator, pleased to work with Terry, who I met years ago at a symposium we put on in St. Louis about the work of Al Parker. Terry is extremely knowledgeable about individual illustrators and careers. He took the lead in working with Mac and selecting works for the show; together we worked to break the material into meaningful chapters. Those chapters are not chronological, but thematic and topical. I did the primary writing of wall texts, labels and audio guide copy, working with a very skilled team at MCNY–Sarah Henry and Curatorial Associate Sara Spink. What a capable and productive curatorial staff! They punch well above their weight. In St. Louis I worked with my colleague Skye Lacerte at MGHL as we pulled together materials from our collections for the show. The exhibition was designed by Cooper Joseph Studio in New York. Stephanie Plunkett and the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies were also involved, and produced a compelling video based on interviews with Mac, who appears onscreen and in voiceover.
I completed my final task Sunday and Monday when I recorded the voiceover for the audio guide. We did the first of it at my wife Lori’s agency StoryTrack in St. Louis, then finished the remainder with Sara at MCNY yesterday. Today we're all celebrating the opening, and are being joined by my longtime colleague Jeff Pike, a key player in the creation of the MGHL at Wash U.
Working together, I think we have presented a well-balanced show that honors Mac for his distinguished work, and grounds that material in a larger context of periodical publishing and the culture of illustration. This is yet a young field with an underdeveloped literature, and it feels fitting and frankly good to add to our understanding of culture in this way. It's no surprise that the institutions coming together to do so would be a history museum (MCNY), a university (Wash U), and the Rockwell, admirably expanding its mission beyond Norman to published images, writ large. Art with a capital A can't really come to grips with such things for ideological reasons, not–as some might have it–qualitative ones.
I will post/tweet some images from the show opening later today. And tomorrow I’ll follow up with more about the show.
Finally, congratulations Mac!