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Crystal Bridges Acquires Twentieth-Century Works from the Collection of Art Historian Francis V. O’Connor

still life painting of an object with a feather, tube and pink opening
Francis V. O'Connor, Untitled, ca. 1958, oil on canvas board, 14 1/4 × 10 1/4 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, Bequest of Dr. Francis V. O’Connor, 2021.18.

Francis V. O’Connor (1937-2018) was a legendary New York-based art historian, poet, artist, and collector. A leader in the field of American art history, O’Connor chronicled the impact of federally funded arts projects for decades, advancing scholarship on American visual artists and muralists who worked on New Deal arts projects in the 1930s. This government-sponsored initiative, managed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), was created in an effort to boost the economy by commissioning artists for work during the Great Depression.  This pursuit allowed O’Connor to build a network of colleagues and artists, and simultaneously, his own collection and archive.

Crystal Bridges is a proud beneficiary of a portion of the O’Connor estate, recently acquiring works by important twentieth-century American artists such as Berenice Abbott, Aline Fruhauf, Jacob Kainen, Hans Namuth, Man Ray, Susan Tessem, and even O’Connor himself. Read on to learn more about these recently acquired works and the artists who inspired O’Connor.

Thomas Hart Benton: Nods to Jackson Pollock

O’Connor was the foremost scholar of Jackson Pollock, authoring (with Eugene Thaw) the famed drip painter’s catalogue raisonné, which featured several works by Pollock from the Crystal Bridges collection. Pollock was a student of Thomas Hart Benton in New York, and the two shared a complex, rich friendship, bonded in masculine ideologies and legacy. O’Connor’s holdings of drawings by Benton reveal the artist’s intricate production process as well as his connection to Pollock. There is rich display potential for showcasing these Benton drawings from O’Connor’s estate alongside beloved Pollocks from the Crystal Bridges collection in the future.

Berenice Abbott and Man Ray: A Snapshot

Fellow New Yorker and WPA artist Berenice Abbott is well represented in the O’Connor gift by three brilliant, black-and-white photographs. Abbott photographed the Church of St. Nicholas while with the WPA, one of many street scenes with elusive shadows from her Changing New York series. Abbott, like Benton, traveled to Paris in her youth to expand her artistic education. While in Paris, Abbott worked in Man Ray’s darkroom from 1922-1923. Abbott connected with numerous French painters and photographers in Man Ray’s studio, prompting a great shift in her production after she returned to New York in 1929.

Arline Fruhauf and Jacob Kainen: Celebrating Graphic Artists

O’Connor maintained a deep appreciation for the contributions of American graphic artists. He collected prints, posters, caricature drawings, illustrations, and archival material produced by artists from the graphic arts division of the WPA in New York. Arline Fruhauf’s untitled lithograph of a muralist painting above three observers naturally complimented O’Connor’s collecting interest, combining the whimsical sense of caricature with an astute reverence for the labor of the mural painter. Jacob Kainen’s drypoint is quite a stylistic departure from Fruhauf’s prints, showcasing O’Connor’s expansive taste as a collector during the age of abstraction in the early twentieth century.

Susan Tessem & O’Connor: Drawing a Hard (Grape) Line

Susan Tessem’s Hard Grape (ca. 1968) is somewhat of a delightful, contemporary outlier from O’Connor’s collection. Her paintings from the late 1960s are decidedly more geometric abstractions with hard-edged, brightly colored forms. Her playful rendering of the blue, window-like form amid an otherwise two-dimensional plane is subtle, yet impactful in a way that feels akin to O’Connor’s own painting style in Untitled (ca.1958). Susan Tessem’s work is currently on view in the Contemporary Art Gallery and O’Connor’s painting is installed in the Studio off Walker Landing.

The exceptional quality and art historical significance of these works distinguish these highlights from the collection of Francis V. O’Connor. It is with deep honor and appreciation that we at Crystal Bridges hope to continue O’Connor’s legacy by celebrating American art through this collection.


Written by Larissa Randall, curatorial associate, Crystal Bridges.