Art Preview: “Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon” at Archives of American Art

Artist Peggy Bacon is at the center of an unusual exhibit.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Artist Peggy Bacon. Photograph by Soichi Sunami, courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum.

One of the Smithsonian’s least-known branches, the Archives of American Art has a wealth of information in its collection—more than 16 million letters, diaries, manuscripts, and photographs related to the visual arts—most of it searchable online. The archives also presents three or four exhibits a year in DC’s Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, the building that houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.

Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon,” through September 30, explores the interconnectedness of the art world, using American illustrator and printmaker Peggy Bacon as a focal point. “She was very prominent in the 1920s and ’30s and was known for her caricatures of celebrities,” says archives specialist Mary Savig. “Bacon became part of this cohort of young artists who moved to Woodstock, New York, and she had a very wide network.”

The exhibit plays off the notion that any two people can be connected via six degrees of separation or fewer, as in the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which challenges players to connect celebrities via the prolific actor. The show’s main feature is a matrix with Peggy Bacon at the center, linking people as disparate as singer Mary Chapin Carpenter and Eleanor Roosevelt. “It’s very random,” Savig says, “but it reveals how each person is related to the art world, in sometimes quirky and poignant ways.”

Display cases contain items that lead back to Bacon. One holds a snapshot of artist Una Hanbury and Georgia O’Keeffe, which in turn leads to objects featuring Buckminster Fuller, Isamu Noguchi, and Konrad Cramer, whose scrapbook contains a holiday card from Peggy Bacon. Says Savig: “It really shows the range of materials we keep.”

Through Sept. 30 in the Reynolds Center’s Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery, Eighth and F sts., NW; 202-633-1000; aaa.si.edu.

This article appears in the July 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.