Crystal Bridges acquires major works by Jasper Johns, Louise Bourgeois

Jasper Johns “Flag,” 1983. Encaustic on silk flag on canvas 11 5/8 in. × 17 1/2 in.

One of the best collections of American art in the world continues to get better. And it just happens to be located right here in Arkansas.

As first reported by New York Times’ ArtsBeat Blog, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has acquired some hugely significant works recently, including Jasper Johns’ well known 1983 work Flag, and four works by influential artist Louise Bourgeois, including one of her 30-foot spider sculptures titled Maman.

Louise Bourgeois “Maman,” 1999, Bronze, stainless steel, and marble. 30ft. 5 in. × 29ft. 3 in. × 33ft. 7 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Installation view at Tate Modern, London, 2007. Photo: Marcus Leith © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA

The museum confirmed the New York Times article with a press release on Thursday.

Crystal Bridges bought Johns’ iconic work at Sotheby’s in November for $36 million, the Times reports, and the four works by Bourgeois – Maman 1999 (bronze, stainless steel, and marble), Quarantania, 1947-1953 (bronze, painted white with blue and black, and stainless steel), Connecticutiana, 1944-1945 (oil on wood), and Untitled, 1947 (oil on canvas) – are valued between $35 and $40 million.

Johns’ work was famously inspired by a dream he had in 1954. The South Carolina artist was named for an ancestor who was famous for rescuing a flag during the Revolutionary War. He created his first rendition on the subject in 1954, and created flag paintings, drawings, prints, collages and sculptures for decades before he created the iconic piece that will soon call Crystal Bridges home.

“From the 1950s, Johns’ art has vibrated along the division lines of modern art’s hierarchy, embracing and challenging ideas of abstraction, representation, subject matter, and the relationship of art to the personal and universal,” said Crystal Bridges Director of Curatorial Affairs, Margi Conrads. “With the first flag painting he offered a departure from Abstract Expressionism by reintroducing the use of conventional objects such as a flag, with a technique that stressed conscious control yet includes accidents and suggests spontaneity.”

Johns used the same basic composition for each of his flag works, including 48 stars and 13 stripes (the first flag was created before Hawaii and Alaska joined the United States.) The Crystal Bridges acquisition contains a silk flag collaged on canvas as its base layer. Johns then painted an image of the flag on top using encaustic, a medium of colored pigment mixed with hot wax.

Louise Bourgeois “Quarantania,” 1947-1953, cast 1990 Bronze, painted white with blue and black, and stainless steel. 80 1/2 x 27 x 27 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA.

According to the museum, Flag will be unveiled at a special exhibit near the entrance on June 13 (Flag Day), and Maman will be installed outside Crystal Bridges sometime this summer.

“We look forward to commemorating this iconic American work during Flag Day weekend,” said Crystal Bridges Executive Director Rod Bigelow. “The flag is the most enduring of Johns’ subjects, appearing in more than 90 works throughout his career. This acquisition enhances our ability to tell the stories of shifting art movements in late 20th-century American art.”

Bourgeouis, a 20th century artist who passed away relatively recently in 2010, is known for her emotionally charged work, often rooted in deeply personal themes that resonate a universal human experience.

“Louise Bourgeois contributed significantly to shaping American narrative with work that spanned most of the twentieth century and helped inform the growing feminist art movement,” Bigelow said. “We’re eager to share her acclaimed sculptures as well as her rare paintings which offer visitors a chance to explore her work in two and three-dimensions.”

Her sculpture Quarantania is already on display at the museum as part of the 1940s to Now Art Gallery, and two of her paintings – said to be the only Bourgeois paintings in any American museum – will be installed this summer as well.

Louise Bourgeois. Untitled, 1947. Oil on canvas. 44 × 26 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. © The Easton Foundation / Licensed by VAGA.

Maman, (from French: mama), measures more than 30 feet in both length and height, is one of the many examples of the spider image that first appeared in Bourgeois’s work in the late 1940s as drawings.

The first spider sculpture cast in bronze was made in 1990.

Bourgeois explained back then that the spider has always been a representation of her mother.

She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitos. We know that mosquitos spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.

Mamam was commissioned in 2000 for the opening of Turbine Hall Gallery, part of Tate Modern in London. Bourgeois saw this as an opportunity to create the single largest and most elaborate spider in her career. Maman would be shown there along with Bourgeois’s monumental towers as the inaugural exhibition in that gallery, and that work was the welded steel version from which the molds were made by the Modern Art Foundry for the subsequent six bronze casts.

In the years following the London exhibition, other casts of Maman entered the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa; the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao; the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; The Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul; and Qatar Museums, Doha. The original welded steel sculpture is still in the permanent collection of the Tate Modern.

While it was always Bourgeois’s ambition to see Maman, the largest-scale work she ever created, owned or exhibited in the United States, her home for more than 70 years, she died in 2010 with that dream unrealized.

“Crystal Bridges is honored to fulfill the late artist’s wish to have Maman exhibited in an American art museum,” Bigelow said. “The sculpture adds to our collection with sophisticated engineering and stainless steel armature, which will engage viewers and challenge our ideas of architecture and sculpture.”

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