Established in 1967 to offer a complement to the primarily older offerings at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has evolved from a tiny upstart to one of most influential such institutions in the country and, indeed, the world.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding and its many accomplishments since, the MCA, 220 E. Chicago, has organized a large-scale set of three overlapping exhibitions that draws extensively on its now far-reaching collection.
“It just seemed like such a big milestone for the museum,” said chief curator Michael Darling, “and people maybe wouldn’t have realized that we’ve been around that long. So, it just felt like a great opportunity to take a look at what we’ve been doing.”
Under the over-arching title, “We Are Here,” deliberately intended to involve viewers and suggest multiple meanings, the first of the three thematic shows, “I Am You,” runs through April 1 and the other two begin Oct. 21 and continue through Jan. 28; mcachicago.org
On view will be scores of works in multiple media, ranging from established masterworks by Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons and René Magritte to new, previously unseen acquisitions that address historical gaps and show the collection’s increasingly international flavor.
“We’re trying,” Darling said, “to make it not just a navel-gazing exercise and patting ourselves on the back, but trying to make exhibitions and projects that are still absolutely relevant for people who don’t even care that it’s our birthday but just want to see what is going on in the world of contemporary art.”
Here are 10 other exhibitions worth exploring this fall:
Sept. 9-Nov. 5, “Jennifer Packer: Tenderheaded,” Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, 5811 S. Ellis; renaissancesociety.org. Artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2012-13, Packer creates gently expressionist, technically secure portraits and still-lifes with an elusive, reflective air. This selection of new and recent paintings is the New York artist’s first solo institutional exhibition and signals the rise of an important talent.
Sept. 9-Nov. 26, “Hebru Brantley: Forced Field,” Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 Cottage Hill Ave., Elmhurst; elmhurstartmuseum.org. Getting his start in the 1990s spraying graffiti on walls and train cars on Chicago’s South Side, Brantley has since morphed into an internationally recognized painter and sculptor. Drawing on comic books, Japanese anime and his own street-art roots, Brantley uses his signature, pop-infused characters, Flyboy and Lil Mama, to address a range of socio-political issues, including racial and cultural stereotypes, and have some fun at the same time.
Sept. 12-Oct. 29, “Singing Stones,” The Roundhouse, DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place; expochicago.com/programs/palais-de-tokyo-hors-les-murs. Curated in Paris by the Palais de Tokyo as part is of its international initiative, “Hors les Murs (Outside the Walls),” this Expo Chicago-related exhibition features 11 emerging artists from the French and Chicago art scenes. New and recent works will be shown in the distinctive confines of the Roundhouse, an 1881 building designed by the famed Chicago architectural firm, Burnham and Root.
Sept. 12-Dec. 9, “Roman Ondak: Man Walking Toward a Fata Morgana,” Visual Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E. Ontario; artsclubchicago.org. A representative of his native Slovak Republic at the 2009 Venice Biennale, Ondak has shown extensively in Europe but has been featured in just two previous solo exhibitions in the United States. In this major showcase, he will explore memory and place with a series of paintings and four sculptural installations, including “Escape Circuit” (2014), an arrangement of 42 wooden and metal cages purchased in the markets of Mexico City.
Sept. 13-17, Expo Chicago, Navy Pier’s Festival Hall, 600 E. Grand; expochicago.com. Founded in 2012 as replacement for the defunct Art Chicago and its predecessor, this annual international art fair has become a not-to-miss stop for collectors, art professionals and other interested viewers from across the country and beyond. This year’s edition features 135 premier galleries from 58 cities around the world as well as related programming, including an array of forums and panels and discussions.
Sept. 16-Jan. 7, Chicago Architecture Biennial, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; chicagoarchitecturebiennial.org. After making its much-publicized debut two years ago, this international design showcase returns for its second iteration with more than 140 practitioners from 20 counties. More than a dozen biennial-related exhibitions elsewhere around Chicago include “Ângela Ferreira: Zip Zap and Zumbi,” running Sept. 7 through Dec. 10 at the DePaul Art Museum, 935 W. Fullerton (773-325-7506; museums.depaul.edu).
Sept. 23-March 11, “William Blake and the Age of Aquarius,” Block Museum, Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston; blockmuseum.northwestern.edu. Artistic and cultural influences come from sometimes surprising places. So, it was with William Blake (1757-1827), an unconventional English poet, painter and printmaker, who turned out to be a powerful source of inspiration for the counter-culture artists, poets and musicians during San Francisco’s Summer of Love in 1967. This show celebrates this unexpected conjunction, combining works by Blake with more than 150 paintings, drawings, posters and works in other media from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
Oct. 8-Jan. 7, “Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art In Brazil,” Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan; artic.edu. Not exactly a household name, this artist, known simply as Tarsila, was nonetheless a key figure in the development of Brazilian modern art. This unprecedented exhibition, which the Art Institute co-organized with New York’s Museum of Modern Art, features 120 paintings, drawings and historical documents focused on the 1920s, when the artist traveled between Paris and Brazil and developed her own distinctive and still-influential style.
Oct. 12-Dec. 22, “Disruptive Perspectives,” Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago, 600 S. Michigan; mocp.org. Drawing on the revealing imagery of eight photographers, this timely exhibition examines a range of identities within the LGBTQ community. According to an accompanying press statement, it challenges traditional views of male and female and presents “gender and sexuality as a panoply of possible variations.”
Oct. 29-Jan. 17, “Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia!: Soviet Art Put to the Test,” Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan; artic.edu. Before the Central Committee of the Communist Party decreed in 1932 that socialist realism would be the country’s only authorized style, the Soviet Union was a hotbed of creative experimentation. With nearly 550 works dating from the Russian Revolution through 1938 shown via careful reconstructions of 10 displays from that era, it will be the largest exhibition of Soviet art in the United States in 25 years.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.