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Celebrating Illustration, Design, Cartoon and Comic Art of the Mid-20th Century

Marilyn Conover Interview, Part 1

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A few years ago I tracked down and phoned Marilyn Conover, an artist whose impressive work I'd just then discovered. I was expecting to have another in what had become a series of pleasant strolls down memory lane with another remarkable illustrator of the mid-20th century. In fact, Marilyn Conover, 84 years old at the time we spoke, had virtually nothing good to say about her career during that 'golden age' of the commercial art business. Conover's candid recounting of a time I imagined would be filled with fond recollections of past accomplishments was actually so off-putting to her that she told me it was making her physically ill to discuss it with me. My intention this week is not to cast a pall over a time many of us hold up as the last great era in illustration, but rather to honestly share a different perspective of someone who lived and worked in those times. For better or for worse here is Marilyn Conover unvarnished, unsentimental, and unapologetic. ~ Leif

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LP: I found this series of illustrations you did for a story called "Here Come the Brides" by Geraldine Napier...

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MC: Oh God, that's early stuff. That was in... '61 or '62... I was in Westport CT when I did those and working for some goofy studio in Boston, I think. I went on to be represented in New York and did my best stuff... Time covers and illustrations for magazines... and then I went on to portraits from there.

LP: Well I'd love to know more about that - about your whole career, in fact.

MC: Well, I used to do all the beautiful girls standing by televisions and new refrigerators and all that. The magazines were crammed with gorgeous illustrations back then.

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LP: Yeah, I just love all the stuff you find in the magazines back then; Al Parker, Al Dorne... all the guys from the Famous Artists School...

MC: That Famous Artists School was a piece of crap. I mean those fellows didn't do the correcting [of student assignments].

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It was right there in Westport, a few blocks away from me, and the only artists who did any of the correcting were guys who couldn't make it in the real illustration business anymore. And they were never allowed to handle the same person - the same student - more than once.

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MC: It was started when a bunch of those gorgeous guys got smashed at a party and thought it'd be a great idea - and it was! - and they made money forever, I mean ten or twenty years. When I used to go get the train to New York I used to go by the plant every day but, I mean, that was just a sham to get money out of little people in Dubuque and everywhere else.

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MC: I mean if I was an artist working there and I wanted to follow up with you and you wanted to follow up and ask me questions; if you wanted to contact a real artist, you couldn't do that because they didn't want you to develop a relationship with a real artist because that would circumvent the slobs that were running the thing. I mean I can't tell you how much I wouldn't use that 'school' as a beacon of any sort. And those guys in the beginning, I mean they invested in it and that was that.

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LP: Can you tell me about the beginning of your career?

MC: I started out with Bielefeld Studios in Chicago...

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... then with Kling Studios (that was a big studio).

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They had Tom Hall and Howie Forsberg - that was huge at that time in Chicago. Do those names ring a bell? Tom Hall?

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LP: Oh, absolutely. I've talked to Tom Hall's daughter as a matter of fact. So were you working in Chicago or was that long-distance work?

MC: I was born in Chicago. That's where I started. That's where I worked for my first 'name' studio and where my husband, who was also an illustrator and had been a Marine, worked for Gil Elvgren.

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LP: I'm sorry, did you just say your husband worked for Gil Elvgren?

MC: He was his apprentice, yes. Why?

LP: Marilyn, I don't know if you're aware of this but today Gil Elvgren's originals sell for as much as two or three hundred thousand dollars each.

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MC: Oh, we used to be in the studio when he was painting the damn things. You know, they were really beautifully done... what did you say; two or three hundred thousand each?

LP: Yeah.

MC: Oh my god... he was thirty five when Hendrick [Marilyn's husband] and I were twenty. We were just wide-eyed apprentices but...

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... you know who Dave Garroway was? He was the first one to do the Today Show out of Chicago - he was part of this whole party group we had with Gil and Joyce Ballentyne. She worked with Stevens-Gross with Gil Elvgren.

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LP: Maybe you could explain something to me... were they all students of Haddon Sundblom? Because I know he had many apprentices and they all have sort of a similar style...

MC: Gil was. Oh yes, Haddon Sundblom invented the Coca-Cola Santa Claus. He made Santa Claus the big, jolly, chubby guy we all know today.

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MC: His son jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge or one of the bridges, I think. He was not too great a father.

LP: Oh my gosh!

MC: But... that's happened to a lot of great people. Y'know, it's making me sick. I don't want to think of those years anymore. They were the hardest years of my life.

Continued tomorrow

Murray Tinkelman on Alex Ross: "He was vastly underrated."

Friday, April 11, 2014

In May of 2009, I interviewed Murray Tinkelman about his career. Our far-ranging discussion included many sidebars; one in particular, about Alex Ross, provides a fitting conclusion to this week's series on the artist... ~ Leif


LP: There was a guy at Cooper's who left before you got there... a guy named Alex Ross.

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MT: Yeah, I knew Alex.

LP: Oh really?

MT: Yeah. He did leave before I got there. The covers he did for Good Housekeeping were wonderful.

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MT: But he could also do a sexy woman...

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... he was also very innovative. 

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MT: He's second only to Al Parker in his innovation and experimentation.

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(Above: one of eight Alex Ross illustrations from Cosmopolitan magazine, June 1956. Ross did each illustration for each story in a different style - repeating a feat previously accomplished only by Al Parker, to the best of my knowledge)

LP: I'm so happy to hear you say that, Murray - especially you - because when I look at Ross' work, I see a lot of departure from the traditional look of that period.

MT: Absolutely.

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LP: And I look at that stuff and I wonder: "How come this guy isn't getting more attention?"

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MT: I haven't got the slightest idea.

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MT: I'm still trying to get Alex into the [Society of Illustrators] Hall of Fame. I showed a about half a dozen of his slides at our last Hall of Fame meeting.*

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MT: Y'know, I was boarding an airplane in a small commuter airport about seventeen, twenty years ago... and we're on the tarmac. (There was no jetway, you just went out onto the tarmac and up two steps into the plane). And there was a guy in front of me - a very handsome guy - and he was carrying a package under his arm.

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MT: ... and it looked like an illustrator's package because it was neatly taped and so on. And I kinda strained my neck and bent way over and I see a return address... and it's Alex Ross.

LP: Wow!

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MT: So I tapped him on the shoulder and I said, "Mr. Ross, I'm a huge fan of yours. I've admired your work for years!" "Oh really," he says, "and what's your name?" "Murray Tinkelman," I says. "Oh, I've admired your work, too!"

LP: Very cool.

MT: Yeah. Y'know, when his illustration career ended, Alex Ross turned to painting.

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MT: And he painted untold numbers of absolutely gorgeous semi-abstract floral paintings - maybe 20" x 30" acrylic - very bright, very cheerful... joyous paintings. 

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MT: I don't think they were really heavyweight, but they were incredibly sellable. He'd have an annual one-man show every year for maybe six or eight years at Joe DeMers' gallery on Hiltonhead Island. He was a terrific artist, vastly underrated.

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Addendum: In a 1980 speech about Ross’s achievements as an illustrator, Fred Whitaker, long-time American Artist writer and celebrated water colour painter, likening his work to such famous American illustrators as Remington, Homer and Hopper.

Whitaker said, “When the story of today’s art epoch is written, there may well be general agreement that the real art contribution of the mid-twentieth century was that of the illustrators and commercial artists. I know of no artist who experiments more than Ross in approach to the mode of presentation; in color, in the manner of applying paint, in his brushing, in the use of new angles of compositional arrangement. His one great fear is that he may become static, even afraid of copying himself.”

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* To date, Alex Ross has not been inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.

The Norman Rockwell Museum Presents: Baseball, Rodeos, and Automobiles: The Art of Murray Tinkelman - on view through June 15, 2014

“Baseball, Rodeos, and Automobiles” celebrates over 60 years of artistic creation by Murray Tinkelman, one of the nation’s most prominent illustrators, educators, and illustration historians. The exhibition explores the artist’s interests, imagination and evolving technique, including elaborate pen-and-ink drawings that have become his trademark.

Alex Ross: "... a mind unencumbered by academic regulation..."

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Below is the first Alex Ross illustration I ever saw. It was more than ten years ago and I was just getting seriously interested in mid-20th century illustration. This piece intrigued me. Such a lovely girl... such a knowing look... such nerdy glasses... and such an orange sofa.

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That slightly unsavory looking fellow making entreaties... I don't think he knows who he's dealing with. Neither did I...

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... but I had a feeling I'd stumbled on someone worth investigating further. This Alex Ross was different somehow.

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Alex Ross once said, "As one who has experimented with practically all known mediums, materials, and tools, and has, I hope, a mind unencumbered by academic regulations, I am disappointed that I have not yet come up with that secret technique to mystify all the experts."

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"I am convinced, however, that my experiments are not wasted."

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Alex Ross was indeed tirelessly experimental in the art of picture-making. He wrote the words above in 1962, but it was already evident to Norman Kent when he interviewed Ross 15 years earlier in 1947: "Your newest work is losing its slickness," said Kent, "and I attribute this in large measure to your experimenting with mixed methods."

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"One of these days an art director will call you up and tell you not to bother with making a finish - that he is going to make color plates right from your sketch."

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(It happened in Cosmopolitan magazine, 1956 ~ L)
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Ross' experiments with media and style - and with subject matter - only accelerated during his busy 1950s period. "I believe I spend more time planning a picture than in the actual painting," said Ross. "The subject is my first consideration. At this point I face a crucial decision. I am one of those odd people who have a genuine liking for both modern and traditional painting."

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"Where this paradox will lead me is anyone's guess."

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Continued tomorrow

Alex Ross: More Than Just a "Boy-Girl" Illustrator

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

In the years before the paperback industry won the hearts and wallets of the fiction-reading public, writers told their stories in the pages of the nation's magazines. At least one fiction story - usually several, usually serialized - was the norm in the pages of any weekly or monthly publications aimed at the broader public. Fiction stories in magazines (more often than not propelled by a romantic theme) always began with a beautiful illustration.

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For artists like Alex Ross, this was fertile soil in which to plant the seeds of a successful illustration career.

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After his first assignments for Good Housekeeping many more followed from the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal and all the rest. Ross had fairly burst onto the scene, handily proving he could paint compelling scenes of sweetness and light.

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So it's not surprising that art directors quickly pigeon-holed him as a "boy-girl" romance artist. The money was good and the assignments plentiful...

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... but Ross had other ambitions.

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It took five years of accepting assignments from the Saturday Evening Post before the editors finally gave in to his pleas for something 'a little darker.'

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Finally, in 1947, Ross was given his first mystery story to illustrate: Richard Powell's "Barracuda."

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Ross said at the time, "I enjoyed it so much that the farther I got into the plot, the more nearly I forgot all about illustrating it."
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"It took an effort to put down the manuscript and get busy painting."

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Like most story and advertising illustrators of the day, Alex Ross would paint a 'rough sketch' version of his proposed artwork for client feedback...

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Once approved, he'd organize a photo shoot so he'd have accurate reference to work from while rendering the finished artwork. Ross was an adherent of Robert Fawcett's philosophy that "intelligent friends are usually much better for modelling. They haven't been spoiled by acquiring that model's habit of mugging and grinning under all circumstances."

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For the "Barracuda" series, Ross's younger brother, Clyde, posed as the hero.

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His older daughter, Arlene (who, remember, was the model for her dad's first Good Housekeeping cover five years earlier) played the role of a girl in the story named Sherry. And Ross' friend and fellow illustrator, Wesley Snyder, portrayed the villain of the story.

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Even as early as 1947, when he worked on the "Barracuda" series, Ross was becoming less reliant on photo reference. He made a habit of taking only a few shots to capture nuances of poses already worked out in his preliminary sketches. He was not yet ready to work entirely from imagination... but that day would come.

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Because just as Alex Ross refused to be typecast by genre, he also would not be trapped by style, technique or medium. All were fair game to the restless artist, as we shall see... tomorrow.

Continued tomorrow
 

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