Willem de Kooning, “Cross Legged Figure” (1972), bronze, and Franz Kline, “Vawdavitch” (1955), oil on canvas (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — Of all the museums in Chicago, the one that keeps surprising me and making me go back is the Museum of Contemporary Art. This year the MCA mounted an absorbing show of work from the 1980s, it is hosting a year-long residency by Scottish artist Martin Creed, and currently has the first museum exhibition of work by Rashid Johnson. But the best exhibition they have at the moment, and possibly the best exhibition anywhere on the planet in terms of stunning-art-per-square-foot, is a rather small exhibition of works from the museum’s collection called MCA: DNA New York School.

Installation view: visitors looking at the Rothko painting, with Stankiewicz painting visible on left. (click to enlarge)

In just one small gallery, and two walls of the landing outside that room, you can see a series of works that will make your jaw drop: a 1955 painting by Franz Kline, a 1949 painting by Barnett Newman, a statue from the early 1960s by Isamu Noguchi, a 1958 painting by Philip Guston, a bronze from 1972 by Willem de Kooning and a painting from 1969 by Mark Rothko. Half of these work have been in storage, some of it for fifteen years or more, and this exhibition is part of an effort by the MCA to highlight rarely-seen aspects of its collection. They have hit the ball out of the park with this one. Even the “minor” New York School artists, such as Richard Stankiewicz and William Baziotes, are represented by respectable paintings. The effect of seeing these works, almost all of them masterpieces, is to engage your sense of wonder about how lucid and perfect Abstract Expressionism was.

Mark Rothko, “Untitled” (1969), acrylic on paper on canvas, and Barnett Newman, “Galaxy” (1949), oil on canvas. (click to enlarge)

I have to wonder if the MCA is upping its game because of the gigantic presence of the Art Institute of Chicago, with its massive endowment and its Renzo Piano-designed modern wing. If so, the competition has brought out the best in the MCA: this show kicks the ass of anything I have seen in Chicago in the last year, no exceptions.

MCA: DNA New York School is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (220 E Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through September 9, 2012.

Philip A Hartigan

Philip Hartigan is a UK-born artist and writer who now lives, works and teaches in Chicago. He also writes occasionally for Time Out-Chicago. Personal narratives (his own, other peoples', and invented)...