A blockbuster Frida Kahlo art exhibition opens next month in the last place you’d expect to find it: a community college in Glen Ellyn.
Diana Martinez and Justin Witte worked to bring the Kahlo show to the College of DuPage for nearly four years, ever since a donor to the school invited Martinez to lunch to discuss “something big.”
“From that moment, it’s just been totally consuming,” said Martinez, the director of the college’s McAninch Arts Center.
Curated by Witte, “Frida Kahlo: Timeless” will present some two dozen Kahlo works valued at $113 million. The last time a Kahlo exhibition of that size made a splash in the Chicago area, the Museum of Contemporary Art played host in 1978.
The Mexican painter remains an enormously popular cultural figure, fashion muse and feminist icon who defied the conventions of a male-dominated art world. In Kahlo’s paintings, women are not objectified but radiate strength.
Her subject matter was often deeply personal and political, but Kahlo’s image — signature unibrow, slight mustache, floral crown, formidable stare — has turned into a commodity. Her likeness appears on socks and kitchen utensils.
A fuller picture of an enigmatic artist emerges with the COD exhibit. Photographs show Kahlo at a picnic laughing with friends and not so keenly aware of the camera.
The exhibit includes a model version of Casa Azul, the U-shaped, cobalt-blue house Kahlo shared with her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, south of Mexico City.
Then there’s a Kahlo-inspired garden. Kahlo costumes. Even a reproduction of the bed where Kahlo used to paint when bedridden as a result of a horrific bus crash that left her with a broken spinal column and a lifetime of pain.
But none of it overwhelms the art.
A Frida Kahlo art piece is hung in the Cleve Carney Museum of Art in the McAninch Arts Center. The exhibit opens to the public next month at the College of DuPage campus in Glen Ellyn.
– Courtesy of CCMA
Kahlo’s paintings — and only her paintings — are displayed on the white gallery walls of the school’s Cleve Carney Museum of Art. Along with exhibition areas in the McAninch Arts Center, the college is dedicating 10,000 square feet of space to “Frida Kahlo: Timeless.”
With all the buzz, organizers expect attendance could top 100,000. So far, ticketholders are coming from 48 U.S. states and seven countries.
“There’s always a lot of excitement around Frida, but this is a chance to really have some time to spend with her work,” Witte said.
How did paintings from one of the 20th century’s greatest artists wind up at a community college in Glen Ellyn?
Alan Peterson, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, first suggested the idea to Martinez in the fall of 2017, the start of a plan to persuade the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Xochimilco to loan the college 26 pieces from its collection.
“Honestly, in the beginning, I thought this is really far-fetched that they will say ‘yes,'” Martinez said.
But Peterson happened to be friends with Carlos Phillips, the son of the museum’s namesake, Dolores Olmedo, a former model for Kahlo’s husband and patron of the powerhouse couple. Soon, it wasn’t such a far-fetched idea.
“From that day forward, there wasn’t a day that this hasn’t been swirling through my head of how can we do it,” Martinez said.
She and Witte assured the Olmedo museum the exhibit “would be presented in a way that was worthy of Frida Kahlo.”
Banners advertise the upcoming Frida Kahlo exhibit in Glen Ellyn.
– Paul Valade | Staff Photographer
Martinez envisioned a “people’s exhibition” that would be accessible to a wide audience and honor the spirit of an artist who defied social norms.
The college also showed it was capable of hosting a high-value exhibit by expanding an on-campus gallery. The $3 million project brought lighting, security, climate-control upgrades and a new name to the school’s gallery, now known as the Cleve Carney Museum of Art.
“It was a lot of, at first, dreaming big, thinking big,” Witte said.
Everything was falling into place when the pandemic forced the school in April 2020 to delay the exhibit a year.
A resolute Martinez and the school forged ahead with the support of corporate sponsors.
“There was never one blink or thought of canceling it,” she said. “It was always, how are we going to do it? What do we need to do?”
But she still had to work through a series of pandemic-induced challenges.
A Frida Kahlo exhibit opens June 5 at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art in the McAninch Arts Center on the College of DuPage campus in Glen Ellyn.
– Paul Valade | Staff Photographer
While the campus was closed to visitors, the arts center took ticket orders through a P.O. box. Witte, the museum’s curator, reworked the entire exhibit layout to provide more room for social distancing.
And yet the exhibit kept getting bigger and bolder.
“Every aspect had to change,” Martinez said. “Scanning tickets instead of touching tickets. Making headset tours. So many things changed and kept us so busy. And the more time we had to collaborate and work together, the more ideas came.”
Martinez, for instance, collaborated with the architectural firm behind the Cleve Carney addition to re-create Kahlo’s Casa Azul for a children’s area near the entrance to an outdoor patio garden designed by West Chicago’s Ball Horticultural Co.
What you’ll see
Visitors will first enter through a historical exhibition just outside the museum gallery in the lobby of the McAninch Arts Center.
The historical portion of the show contains a trove of photographs, a timeline of Kahlo’s life, and replicas of her bed, orthotic braces and dresses.
The college’s theater costume designer, Kimberly Morris, and her staff re-created what Kahlo famously wore: full skirts and embroidered blouses, a style she adopted from Indigenous Mexican women.
Justin Witte, left, curator of the Cleve Carney Museum of Art, and Diana Martinez, director of the McAninch Arts Center, make final preparations for the upcoming Frida Kahlo exhibit on the College of DuPage campus in Glen Ellyn.
– Paul Valade | Staff Photographer
Many of the photographs come from the Olmedo museum and Kahlo’s private collection. Her father, Guillermo Kahlo, was a professional photographer.
“So she was really aware of the power of the photographic image, and a lot of the images we see of her are very intentionally crafted,” Witte said. “As someone as intelligent and skilled as Kahlo, she was aware of how to use the camera lens to kind of promote an image that she wanted.”
He’s drawn to snapshots of Kahlo letting her guard down or silently lost in thought in her courtyard garden at Casa Azul.
In total, the exhibition will feature more than 100 photos. Unlike other Kahlo shows, the pictures won’t be shown alongside her paintings.
“Frida Kahlo: Timeless” will open June 5 for a three-month run at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.
– Photo by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives
“I was really intent on presenting her paintings in a way we would any other artist,” Witte said. “Like any artist, Frida created these to be statements, images on their own. They were not intended to be an accent to something else.”
So Witte thinks of the outer, historical exhibition as the external world of Kahlo, and the museum gallery as the internal, quieter space where her paintings can speak for themselves.
The 26-piece collection shows Kahlo’s evolution as an artist, with works from just the second year she was painting until 1954, the last year she was alive. Nineteen are oil paintings out of less than 200 Kahlo made in her lifetime.
– Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Small Monkey, 1945, oil on Masonite, Collection Museo Dolores Olmedo
Some of her best-known self-portraits from the 1940s will be shown. In “Self-Portrait with Small Monkey,” Kahlo holds a captivating, confident gaze. After her spinal surgery, she gave an intimate view of her chronic pain in “The Broken Column” painting.
Witte especially admires Kahlo’s “tenderly presented” portrait of Doa Rosita Morillo, a matriarchal figure whose hands are knitting. Morillo’s son originally owned the collection that will be on display.
“What’s so magnetic about her art is that she reveals a lot of vulnerability in her paintings, which takes a lot of courage,” Martinez said. “She reveals her pain. She reveals jealousy. She reveals fear. She reveals so many messages and symbols.”
In recent years, to view Kahlo’s works from the Olmedo collection, you had to travel to Mexico or to shows in Budapest, Milan and Moscow.
“Regardless of anything else,” Witte said, “the opportunity to come see this many of her original works is not one that’s going to come around very often.”