In 1967, a small group of curators, art historians, artists, critics, and architects set up shop in the former Playboy headquarters at 237 E. Ontario Street. They shared in a singular conviction: that Chicago deserved an art space dedicated to the new and the experimental. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, (MCA) now in its fiftieth year, was founded on this ethic. It was founded as a space where curators and artists alike could take risks.
Those risks paid off, and the MCA quickly took its place at the forefront of American contemporary art institutions. It hosted the first solo museum exhibitions by too many significant artists to name, from Dan Flavin to Jeff Koons, was the first building in the US to be wrapped by Christo, was the site of the last major work Gordon Matta-Clark would complete, and hosted a groundbreaking performance by Chris Burden. Over the years, they have introduced new works from John Cage, Vito Acconci, Jenny Holzer, Olafur Eliasson, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Robert Smithson, to name a few. In 1968 they began to assemble a permanent collection. In 1978 they expanded. In 1996 they moved to their current location at 220 E. Chicago Avenue.
Just about everyone involved in the art world in Chicago is familiar with this basic narrative, and a good many of them, in my experience, consequently treat the MCA with a certain degree of reverence. It’s a shame, then, that the MCA doesn’t appear to share in this respect for its own legacy.
To the Racy Brink, an exhibition that opened earlier this month to “commemorate fifty years of boundary-pushing shows and artists,” is, rather tragically, installed like an afterthought. It appears abruptly, just beyond the brightly mirrored wall heading up the Takashi Murakami exhibit, in the southwest corner of the museum’s fourth floor. There, collateral and press clippings from some of the most significant and subversive art exhibitions of the twentieth century are hung, scattered like buckshot on the wall around a seldom-used elevator. The adjacent galleries are in a similarly-oriented state, with items of great individual interest on view, curated, however, with too little continuity among them to establish a meaningful image of the MCA in its early days.
With the exception of full-length film footage of Chris Burden’s noted performance piece, Doomed, there is virtually no work on view in this exhibition. This marks an interesting choice on the part of the curators (taking for granted that it is not beyond the means of the museum to secure the works in question on such an auspicious anniversary). The gravity of seeing the original works alongside the original exhibition materials should not be underestimated, and their absence feels like a missed opportunity.
There is the matter of Art by Telephone, as well. The seminal 1969 work, in which MCA staff executed art works on site following the instructions phoned in by artists including John Baldessari, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, and Robert Smithson was catalogued by Curator David H. Katzive, who recorded each call on ¼-inch reel-to-reel tape. Those recordings have been collected once again, and in the entry gallery of the exhibition, can be heard via the black rotary Bell telephones mounted on the wall. In the dim gallery, the invitation to pick up the receiver of one of these ubiquitous phones and listen in on these conversations should feel like a loaded one; it promises the quiet thrill not just of eavesdropping, but of briefly transcending time and space. There is a ghostliness in picking up the phone that wouldn’t be felt if headphones were provided instead. The familiar posture of standing at the wall with the receiver pressed to one’s ear provides an uncanny feeling of being truly present at the moment these conversations are taking place. In fact, I was so absorbed after only a few minutes, I caught myself nearly asking the voice on the other end to repeat something I had not heard the first time. This is, unfortunately, an impulse that must be frequently curbed, as this installation–which could have spelled redemption for the entire exhibition–is brutally undercut, the recordings drowned out, rendered nearly inaudible by the cacophony of sound coming from several other videos running in adjacent galleries. This mishandling of an installation that could have so easily been a deeply poignant experience for gallery-goers is nothing short of heartbreaking.
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago was founded as a dedicated space for the new, the experimental, the avant-garde and the risky. It has, overall, succeeded regularly in meeting that criteria with the works it has brought to the public in the last half century. To the Racy Brink, however, does not properly address the museum’s legacy, nor does it function as a retrospective exhibition befitting the caliber of artists whose careers the MCA helped established. It appears that in its commitment to always looking forward, the MCA has failed to cultivate its ability to look at the past.
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To the Racy Brink runs through December 10th at the MCA (220 E Chicago Ave). The museum is open Tues 10am-9pm, Wed-Thurs 10am-5pm, Fri 10am-9pm, and Sat-Sun 10am-6pm. Admission is $15 for adults, $8 for students, teachers, and seniors, and free for MCA members.