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"First 50" MCA, Chicago

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Showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago - now through August 19, 2012

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“First 50” highlights the first fifty works acquired by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The show opens with an impressive mixed media figurative work entitled Six Women by artist Marisol, placed in a hallway prior to the small space housing the show. The piece is designated with the #1 on its placard, along with its title and artist, highlighting its place as the very first acquisition of the forty-five year-old museum. According to the exhibition synopsis provided on printed handouts, the museum received its first donation a year after the museum opened up to public viewing in 1967 (at a previous location). The remaining works are numbered and placed in chronological order, based on when the museum achieved ownership. A few more works appear along with Marisol’s sculpture in the hallway, leading into the single room designated for the remainder of the show.

What is most shocking about this show is the large majority of works that are not present. With the exhibition’s sole goal being to feature the first fifty works acquired by the museum, the show had a set of constraints placed upon it in terms of what could be shown. Unfortunately a large number of works were not present in the exhibition. The absent pieces were simply designated with a black frame and a placard designating the artist, title, and its placement in the acquisition list. Apparently, while some of the absent artwork has been auctioned off, most of the missing works have disappeared from the collection and their current whereabouts are unknown. Additionally, no imagery exists for many of these mystery works. The only means of garnering information on these missing artworks is the small synopsis that appears on the exhibition handout.

It seems that a large number of the works on display were originally donations rather than works the museum pursued owning which raises the question of whether contemporary art museums should house permanent collections which may lose relevance, or instead focus on traveling exhibits showcasing various artists and movements. While the show was somewhat sparse in in the work that was actually present in this unique exhibition, there were a few select well-known artists represented. These works include a small study by Photorealist Chuck Close, a drawing reproduction by Henri Matisse, and a 2-Dimensional work by sculptor Alexander Calder that was made in conjunction with the unveiling of his better-known sculptural work located at the Federal Plaza. It is also interesting to note that many of the works that were available for viewing have rarely if ever been exhibited prior to this showing. This definitely makes for a very unique, once-in-a-lifetime viewing experience.

While viewing of those well-known artists and rare works is sure to be appreciated, even more prominent in this exhibition is the selection of Chicago Imagists that makes up the latter part of the exhibition. These works, by artists Roger Brown, Philip Hanson, Gladys Nilsson and Ed Paschke, are well-known. They were the United States representatives in the 1973 Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil with the works later traveling to various museums before returning to a homecoming at the MCA. They remain part of the permanent collection.

Overall, “First 50” is a good glimpse at how the Museum of Contemporary Art has become the museum it is today. The show is a good concise history lesson for art lovers who have come to enjoy the MCA’s other exhibits. While there is only a small group of works on display, the exhibition is effective in highlighting the MCA’s intention of acquiring a collection of modern artwork for public viewing.

Melissa Gumbs

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