The Art of the Post: The Norman Rockwell Museum Goes MAD

MAD magazine joyfully ridiculed American culture, but now a distinguished museum has launched the first definitive exhibition of art from MAD, called – what else – “What, Me Worry?”

Painting by Richard Williams. MAD and all related elements ™ & © E.C. Publications. Courtesy of DC. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

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This month an exciting new art exhibit has opened at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Many people are familiar with this classic cover from The Saturday Evening Post by Norman Rockwell:

Painting by Norman Rockwell (©SEPS)

But today the original painting is hanging right next to this painting where Rockwell has been replaced by the MAD magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman:

Painting by Richard Williams. MAD and all related elements ™ & © E.C. Publications. Courtesy of DC. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

For decades, MAD magazine poked fun at Rockwell and The Saturday Evening Post, but this month the Rockwell Museum finally turned the tables, launching the first definitive museum exhibition of art from MAD, called “What, Me Worry? The Art and Humor of MAD magazine,” running June 8 – October 27, 2024. The result is a fascinating overview of humor in America, as portrayed by some of the best satirical artists and caricaturists in the country. (Full disclosure: I had a small role in advising the museum on this exhibit.)

Founded in the 1950s during the Eisenhower years, MAD joyfully ridiculed TV shows (remember The Flying Nun?), commercials, celebrities, cars, consumerism, movies, the Ku Klux Klan, big corporations, and of course, politicians. The exhibit takes us on a tour through the conformist ’50s, the JFK years, the hippies of the ’60s, the disco ’70s, the bicentennial, feminism, and on and on — gifted artists and writers combined their talents to reveal when the emperor was wearing no clothes.

Painting by Norman Mingo. MAD and all related elements ™ & © E.C. Publications. Courtesy of DC. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

MAD’s irreverent brand of humor became hugely popular. It inspired generations of children to look beyond the surface of things and not be duped so easily by TV advertisements. As co-curator Steve Brodner writes in the excellent catalog for the exhibition, because of MAD “we were now able to read newspapers, watch television, read books, see films — differently. It engendered in us an ability to come closer to what might today be called critical thinking….This nurtured a generation of questioners.”  And what a generation!  From The National Lampoon to Saturday Night Live, from George Lucas to Steven Spielberg, the exhibition shows how the ripple effect from MAD transformed not just our sense of humor but our attitudes toward the larger culture. The effusive tributes to MAD at the exhibition reveal the impact of young MAD readers who grew up to take leading roles in American society while never forgetting their childhood affection for the magazine.

Most importantly, the art at the exhibition is truly museum worthy. At its peak, MAD would’ve been insulted by the respect and dignity of a museum show. But now that we’re looking at MAD in the rear-view mirror, we can appraise these lovely pictures in the objective, balanced manner that genuine art deserves.

Photo by David Apatoff
Photo by David Apatoff

MAD’s beautiful drawings and paintings have been underestimated for years because they were shrunk down and reproduced on cheap paper in a humor magazine sold at a corner news stand. But when the original pictures are seen full sized and respectfully framed on a prestigious museum wall, the talents of their creators shine through. MAD assembled a stable of accomplished artists with distinctive styles and personalities. Visitors to the museum may recognize several of the artists from their work on icons of popular culture; these are the talented hands that created famous movie posters or national advertising campaigns or record album covers, but most people never paused long enough to learn their names. They all seem to have taken special pleasure in working for MAD.

The brilliant work of Jack Davis might be recognized for his cover paintings on Time magazine and his posters for major movies, but at the exhibit you get to enjoy his humorous side.

Artist Frank Frazetta became rich and famous for his serious oil paintings of barbarian battles, but here we see his lighter side, poking fun at Tarzan who gets in trouble with his gorilla friends for waking them up too early.

Painting by Frank Frazetta. MAD and all related elements ™ & © E.C. Publications. Courtesy of DC. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

Mort Drucker, who drew MAD’s movie parodies for 50 years, turns out to be the best caricaturist of the 20th century. While other caricaturists might spend a week perfecting a face for some literary journal, MAD required Drucker to draw that face in twenty different positions, with different expressions, from different angles, with different lighting. And unlike other artists who drew just the face, Drucker drew full bodies and backgrounds because he believed that a true caricature should take body shape and posture into consideration. He could draw a recognizable personality from behind.

Drawing by Mort Drucker. MAD and all related elements ™ & © E.C. Publications. Courtesy of DC. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

The biggest surprise of the show was that in 1964, MAD commissioned Norman Rockwell himself to paint a portrait of Alfred E. Neuman. After Rockwell had time to reconsider, he decided to back out of the deal. His letter to MAD is on display in the museum:  I’m scared,” he wrote. “I think I better back out of this one. After talking with you, and my wife who has a lot more sense than I have, I feel that making a more realistic definitive portrait just wouldn’t do. I hate to be a quitter, but I’m afraid we would all get in a mess.”

At the grand opening of the exhibition on June 8, artists and writers for MAD reconvened to celebrate.

Photo by David Apatoff. Left to right: Teresa Burns Parkhurst, Scott Bricher, Dave Croatto (in back), James Warhola, Richard Williams, Sam Viviano, John Ficarra, Jay Kogan (MAD/DC lawyer), Peter Kuper, Tom Richmond, Dale Stephanos, Scott Bakal, Maria Scrivan. Kneeling left to right: Desmond Devlin, Ray Alma, Johnny Sampson, Steve Brodner

Many of the pen and ink drawings in this worthwhile exhibit compare favorably against the drawings in contemporary “fine” art museums. Special kudos to the Norman Rockwell Museum and co-curators Steve Brodner and Stephanie Plunkett for having the vision to recognize true artistic quality in a humble and unlikely place.

What, Me Worry? The Art and Humor of MAD Magazine” exhibition can be seen at The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, June 8 – October 27, 2024.

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  1. Thanks for this insider’s look at the ‘MAD’ celebration at the Norman Rockwell Museum over the next several months. I’d love to visit myself, but am geographically challenged. This feature will simply have to do. I never knew the magazine had poked fun at the Post or Norman Rockwell. It’s a compliment though to be of such stature.

    MAD was funny, entertaining and clever in that it wasn’t mean-spirited to its subjects to derive the humor. My own favorite features were the TV and film spoofs by Mort Drucker. The drawings were caricatured, yes, but didn’t stray far from the actors portrayed.

    I appreciate all of the angles and work you go into here regarding what Mort did. It was a lot! I would think he worked very closely with the writer, because they were always wonderful. He also would include things that actually were in the respective films or shows being spoofed, which I found funny.

    The times we live in now are such a spoof of themselves, there’s nothing ‘normal’ left to spoof. Too many things (and people) now are parodies of themselves. The magazine had a good run up to several years ago, which is an excellent run. These are tough times for the magazine biz, with little or no margin for error. So there’s a little irony here that the Norman Rockwell Museum is graciously holding this MAD tribute, BUT when things are all in good fun to begin with, it makes all the difference. Bring it on!


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