Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon

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Editorial Review

Show proves it’s a small, small world
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 20, 2012

Although it’s in an art museum, the exhibition “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon” is less about things seen than things unseen. Organized by the Archives of American Art and on view in the Smithsonian’s tiny Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery, the smart if esoteric show is all about invisible connections.

Taking its wry title from the pop-culture parlor game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” -- an exercise in Hollywood trivia in which actors and filmmakers are shown to be linked to actor Kevin Bacon through six or fewer steps -- the exhibition tries to do the same thing with the art world, substituting the game’s namesake for an obscure American artist and illustrator. Through photos, artworks and correspondence, such art-world luminaries as Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Judy Chicago, Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Buckminster Fuller, Winslow Homer and others are all tied to Peggy Bacon (1895-1987), a painter who is probably best known for her children’s books and celebrity caricatures for Vanity Fair and other magazines.

The photographer and art dealer Stieglitz, for example, is here because he mounted a 1928 show of Bacon’s caricatures at his New York gallery. The painter Pollock was pals with Bacon’s husband, artist Alexander Brook (illustrated by a photo from about 1950 that shows the two men in a car together). The connection to Kahlo, the famous Mexican painter, is a little harder to explain. Bacon once studied under artist John Sloan, who exchanged letters with Walter Pach, a painter and critic who knew muralist Diego Rivera, who was, of course, married to Kahlo.

And that’s only four degrees of separation. As with all of the links in the show, Bacon’s association with Kahlo is laid out in a clear sequence of letters, doodles and photos, like a chain. (Oddly enough, Kahlo pops up a number of times -- in a 1938 photo; in a 2008 sketch of her by contemporary artist Janice Lowry; and in a 1939 letter from her to her lover, photographer Nickolas Muray. Maybe the show could just as easily have been called “Six Degrees of Frida Kahlo,” but it wouldn’t have had the same ring.)

As artifacts, the objects in the show are often interesting in and of themselves. Along with Kahlo’s steamy love letter, there’s another mash note from sculptor Isamu Noguchi to the painter Andree Ruellan. Ray Johnson, that cheeky pioneer of mail art -- in which artists used the postal service, not galleries, to showcase their work -- contributes not one but two examples of his work: a silhouette of a horse whose body parts are labeled with the names of such cultural figures as Hugh Hefner, and an invitation, mailed to assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, to the Marcel Duchamp Fan Club.

How did Johnson and Cornell know each other? According to the show, they bonded over their love of singer Dionne Warwick.

As a collection of pictures and writings, “Six Degrees” is a lot of fun. It’s good to see the Archives of American Art -- a reposi­tory of art-related ephemera chiefly used for scholarly research -- get playful. In recent years, it has mounted several charming shows, including one focused entirely on artists’ lists.

But the exhibition also is a pretty succinct embodiment of a big idea. Life is all about connections, and Peggy Bacon isn’t the only one who’s inextricably linked to everyone else.

The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, July 20, 2012

Nickolas Muray’s photograph of a 1938 gathering at the home of Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, speaks volumes about the interconnectedness -- one might even say the incestuousness -- of the art world.

On the floor in the foreground sits Muray, who had been carrying on a clandestine romance with Kahlo since 1931. (Kahlo, who appears to be giving Muray the eye, wrote a love letter to Muray on Feb. 16 of that year, which is included in “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon.” So is a love letter written to Andree Ruellan from Isamu Noguchi, another of Kahlo’s numerous lovers.)

Sitting between Rivera and the tempestuous Kahlo -- they would divorce in November 1939, only to remarry a year later -- is Miguel Covarrubias. He was the famous caricaturist for Vanity Fair whose celebrity portraits were a major influence on -- you guessed it -- Peggy Bacon.