Pop Sincerity

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The New York Sun

Mac Conner: A New York Life, in its final weeks at the Museum of the City of New York, is an exhibition not to miss. Illustrations by McCauley (“Mac”) Conner (b. 1913), a figure the museum calls “one of New York’s original ‘Mad Men,’ ” vividly evoke American popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

Though Conner calls himself an illustrator, not an artist, it is difficult not to compare the lively designs here to Pop Art produced around the same time, works by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), Alex Katz (b. 1927), James Rosenquist (b. 1933) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987). These artists referenced popular culture in America, but they did so ironically, critiquing consumerism while profiting from it.

Like his predecessor, artist and illustrator N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), Conner is missed if seen solely in the context of commercial art. Conner’s direct, honest use of color and narrative is a lesson in the differences between Pop irony, which seems to still affect much of the art world today, and Modernism’s straightforward use of color and composition. Conner’s creative frankness connects him much more directly to the Modernist tradition embodied by Henri Matisse (1869-1954).

In Conner’s gouache and acrylic illustrations, broad areas of color are exploited compositionally to create space and light relationships. His visual intelligence in storytelling—guiding the eye with color and detail through complex changes in point of view and narrative—never loses coherence. If color sometimes loses its place in the spatial rhythm, his drawing reasserts itself to make the narrative point.

In “The Good Husband,” 1955, a long horizontal work, Conner sets up a ricochet effect between color, drawing and narrative. The use of color—the black-blues are sharply drawn against the garish, heated light red—creates an opposition that opens the composition and bounces the eye around. The red moves left to right, from coat to glove to walking stick, leaving the eye immersed in the cool blues of fountain and architecture. Warm whites lead the eye back to the red of the central figure’s face. From there, shadows lead into a face on the left, whose gaze to the right leads the eye through the composition again. The visual richness of “The Good Husband” rewards consideration, the picture unfolding with time, disclosing nuanced relationships of color and narrative imbedded in the painting.

Conner exploits photography without being dominated by it. His extensive use of cropping and offbeat points of view owes a lot to the “snapshot” effect. Using a photo studio and actors posed in costume, Conner photographed the narrative situations he needed for his assignments throughout his career. This exhibition displays black and white photos alongside Conner’s drawings, presenting a gifted draughtsman who freely moved the figures in his compositions around, changing their expressions and inventing color schemes for his illustrations, ultimately leaving the preliminary photos far behind.

“Let’s Take a Trip Up the Nile,” ca.1950, depicts a couple having a conversation on a fire escape as seen from above. But Connor has placed the viewer outside the maze of metal supports of the fire escape. The story here is the fantasy of escape, the two figures stepping out onto a fire exit, dreaming about getting away from it all, yet caught, as if in a spider’s web, in urban latticework. The spatial complexity of the scene is echoed in the complication of the couple’s entwined hands, a brilliant detail that enhances both the composition and the narrative of the picture.

Connor’s compositional daring is pushed to the limit in “There’s Death for Remembrance,” ca. 1953. Here a figure tumbles down a flight of stairs, pushing against the picture plane, into the viewer’s space, as horror-stricken faces watch the scene. A design comprised of predominately brick reds, the color in this interior scene works as space and feels strangely solid, encompassing the onlookers while ejecting the falling figure. Connor has the ability to tell multiple stories simultaneously, giving different points of view in the same painting.

In “How Do You Love Me,” ca. 1950, the comparison with Pop Art is intriguing. Pop’s ironic refusal to emotionally commit to its subject matter is in stark contrast to Conner’s candor. Here a woman in the foreground wears a preoccupied expression on her face while a man on the sidewalk behind her moving the other way peers over his shoulder with a look of consternation. Tension between the figures keeps the eye moving back and forth, from black shapes to red shapes through the warm whites of sidewalk and skin, analyzing the picture for answers. There is no irony here, no sense that the viewer is being mocked with a double entendre. The emotional intensity of this image is communicated powerfully and directly by Connor’s line and color.

With all the constraints of commercial art, creating designs on a deadline for clients at magazines and advertising agencies, Connor manages to consistently convey lively authenticity.

Mac Conner: A New York Life, on view through Jan. 19, 2015, Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, 212-534-1672, www.mcny.org

More information about Simon Carr’s work can be found at www.simoncarrstudio.com


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