We sat down with the centenarian recently at the Delaware Art Museum, which has a retrospective of Mac’s work from the 1950’s.
McCauley “Mac” Conner worked as an illustrator during Madison Avenue’s 1950’s heyday, drawing pictures for both advertising and book covers from to romance and crime fiction.
If you’re familiar with HBO’s depiction of the world of advertising ‘Mad Men,’ then you know the era and culture Conner worked in. “Mac Conner was an original mad man in the sense that he worked in advertising and also in illustrations for magazine fiction,” said Mary Holahan, curator of illustration for the Delaware Art Museum.
But don’t call Mac Conner a commercial artist though. “I never liked the word commercial art, I was an illustrator.”
He always drew for a commercial, realist point of view. “My point of view was the way I lived, I never went in for crazy hats and stuff.”
Norman Rockwell was a big influence on his work. “Inspired by his sense of humor and plus his painting of course, he was a great painter.”
Like Rockwell, Mac even landed his work on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. But his work goes far and beyond that milestone.
The exhibit on display in Wilmington covers not just his advertising work, but also his fiction work. The work itself has an almost photographic quality to it. My favorite works were the crime noir illustrations. From the colors to the composition of the pieces these works really jumped out at me.
In fact, color was one of Mac’s trademarks. “Colors are probably the things that attract people the most. It’s very dramatic, it was an important part of his design sense,” Holahan said.
Even more than the color for me was some of the things depicted in the illustrations, gunshots, blood trickling out of a wound, smoking. Yes smoking! Remember the days of flipping through a magazine and seeing people smoking? It was everywhere, billboards and television commercials, even TV shows. It was almost jarring to see the smoking in Mac’s work as I hadn’t seen it in that context since I was a boy.
If you are of a certain age you will definitely get that sense of nostalgia from Mac’s work, but they don’t seem dated. “When we look at them now, we recognize they are from another period, but the color and the composition and all the design elements comprise works of art that speak to us today,” Holahan said.
Wilmington, Delaware is of course the home of illustration through the work of Howard Pyle and his school atteneded by famous students like Frank Schoonover and N.C. Wyeth as well as others. That’s a big reason why the museum feels it is important to host an exhibit like this. “There are compelling reasons for people to value this work because its beautiful but also because its part of a historic tradition,” Holahan said.
This exhibit also afforded me the pleasure of getting to talk to Mac about his work and life. “Certainly its the first experience that I’ve had with an artist of this age whose looking back at work that he did such a long time ago,” Mary said.
For Mac, it’s a joy to see his work front and center for a new generation to view, “Its good to know its still around, it’s good for the ego of course.”
“I look around and see what you’ve accomplished over the years. I can’t even draw a line now, I can’t even draw a line and I look at this stuff and I say how the hell did that guy do it.”
I don’t know how Mac made this body of wonderful and beautiful work, I’m just glad he did, and that I got to experience it with him, if only for a little while.