In 1978 the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago (220 E. Chicago Ave.; 312-280-2600; mcachicago.org) presented the first solo museum exhibition of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in the United States. Nearly four decades later, the institution presents “Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo,” which puts two of Kahlo’s rarely seen portraits, La Venadita and The Tree of Hope, in dialogue with artworks by 30 international artists working today, including Sanford Biggers, Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman.
On view through October 5, the show is organized around four themes in the portraits: gender performance, national identity, the political body and the absent or traumatized body. Here, MCA curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm discusses the exhibit.
Q: What inspired you to put this show together?
A: I have felt energy around a new wave of feminist activity and dialogue, mainly in the pursuit of equality and human rights for everyone, not just women. For me, and for many, Kahlo is an icon of individuality, courage, freedom and the transcendence of very difficult obstacles in one’s life. I also wanted to do this show now to bring an important artistic figure, who over the years has become a kitsch celebrity and whose paintings are often overshadowed by her life story, into a conversation with contemporary art to show how important and revolutionary her work was, and still is, today. It merits a fresh look. And most importantly, the issues that were addressed in her work are still highly relevant. In particular the question of gender seems very timely, as there is more of an open public dialogue around LGBTIQ concerns and gay marriage.
Q: What do you hope to glean from showing Kahlo’s works alongside those of contemporary artists?
A: I’ve placed it in a new intergenerational context to show how art history is an ongoing process of looking forward, backward and sideways. It allows us to think about the prescience of her work and find threads that connect her with artists of subsequent generations. It also shows us that artistic expression and the struggles of what it means to be human—and to be ourselves—transcend place and time and are universal.
Q: Are there any parallels or comparisons in particular that you hope to draw?
A: In general we are making thematic connections derived from what is visible in Kahlo’s two paintings [La Venadita and The Tree of Hope]. But we are also invoking her spirit of rebellion, transgression and subversion both in terms of content and art-making and aesthetics.