At the age of 100, McCauley “Mac” Conner, an illustrator known as one of the original Mad Men–those creative men (and, occasionally, women) who shaped brands and culture post WWII–has finally gotten his first solo exhibition.
Dubbed “Mac Conner: A New York Life,” the exhibit, which will be on display through January 19 of next year, features more than 70 original artworks created by Conner, who did illustrations for magazines ranging from Redbook to McCall’s as well as advertising clients like United Airlines, General Motors and Greyhound Lines from the 1940s through the early 1960s.
Conner, famous for his striking graphic approach, flourished during a time when New York City was the center of the publishing and advertising worlds, and the art of illustration was in vogue. The exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York allows viewers to see not only a sampling of his work (the bulk of it is from a 15-year heyday that began in 1950) but also get a sense of the process behind creating it via reference photographs, pastel sketches and letters from clients sharing their input–like any other professional illustrator, Conner needed to meet the expectations of others.
Terrence Brown, the former director of the Society of Illustrators and the curator of its museum for many years, guest curated the Conner exhibit and says he not only enjoyed culling Conner’s work but getting to know the man, who turns 101 in November. As the child of an advertising copywriter, Brown grew up hearing the stories of the Mad Men era Conner helped define. “Mac confirmed the dressy era that it was, and he also confirmed the lifestyle as exciting,” Brown says, musing, “Perhaps they didn’t know they were in a special time, but they enjoyed it to the nines.”
While the mid-century aesthetic has been revived in pop culture consciousness via Matthew Weiner’s beloved show, is the influence of Conner’s work still widely felt today? “As is the case with commercial art, the influences are brief and in most cases fleeting,” says Brown. “Just as Mac tried to be Rockwell in his youth, and a handful of younger artists tried to be Mac in his heyday, the lasting effect is nil. That has always been the nature of illustration. It reflects its day and moves on.”