At 80, Judy Chicago is finally being recognized for the full range of her work

Published 12th December 2019
"On Fire at 80," (2019) by Judy Chicago.
Credit: Donald Woodman/Judy Chicago/Salon 94/Jessica Silverman Gallery/Cirrus Gallery
At 80, Judy Chicago is finally being recognized for the full range of her work
Written by Charlotte Jansen
This article was published in partnership with Artsy, the global platform for discovering and collecting art. The original article can be seen here.
What defines a Judy Chicago work? Until now, the artist's quintessential piece has been "The Dinner Party" (1974-79) -- one of the most iconic works of the 20th century, and perhaps the most famous feminist artwork of all time. Chicago first exhibited the installation in 1979, and everything she did before, and has done since, has been eclipsed by it -- something the artist admits she's struggled with.
"My goal for many decades has been to come out of the shadow of 'The Dinner Party,'" Chicago said via Skype, speaking from her studio in New Mexico.
In the past six decades, critical ideas about the artist, she said, have been "based on inaccuracy." Her work has not been explored through a comprehensive, institutional survey exhibition, so it's been difficult to get a coherent view of her trajectory beyond "The Dinner Party." Yet that may be changing as more exhibitions are focusing on Chicago's multifaceted practice, and in 2020, the artist will unveil her first ever retrospective, at San Francisco's de Young Museum.
"The Dinner Party" (1974-79) by Judy Chicago.
"The Dinner Party" (1974-79) by Judy Chicago. Credit: Judy Chicago/Artist Rights Society/Donald Woodman/Brooklyn Museum
Chicago is by no means ungrateful for the way "The Dinner Party" took off. After working on it for five years, doing 17-hour days in the studio, the installation went on a world tour and was seen by millions of people, before taking up permanent residence at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007. "I was happy for all the attention, but at the same time, for decades, it's completely blocked out the rest of my body of work," Chicago said.
Initially, "The Dinner Party" was dismissed by some critics, including Hilton Kramer, who called it "crass" and "very bad art" in the New York Times in October 1980; and Robert Hughes, who deemed it "cliché" in Time magazine that same year. This initial critical reception is telling of how Chicago's practice has been pigeonholed as purely feminist.
Yet support came from feminist writers like Lucy Lippard, who referred to the work's "intricate detail and hidden meanings." Lippard's observations of "The Dinner Party" could apply to Chicago's oeuvre as a whole: It is full of meanings that are yet to be revealed, and there is a lot we still have to learn about the indefatigable artist, who turned 80 this year. "It is another form of discrimination against women artists that the art world doesn't let the fullness of our production to come into the world," she said.
"Let it All Hang Out" (1973) by Judy Chicago.
"Let it All Hang Out" (1973) by Judy Chicago. Credit: Judy Chicago/ARS/ Donald Woodman/New Orleans Museum of Art
Chicago has, in fact, been at the forefront of many major art movements and the aesthetics that were forged in California in the 1960s and '70s -- from Pop Art to Minimalism and Light and Space; from body art to installation art -- though she was never accepted by them. While she remains a devoted "feminist spokesperson," Chicago would, she told me frankly, "much rather talk about (her) work."
This month, the first major survey of Chicago's work in the United Kingdom opened at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Newcastle. Elsewhere in the UK, there's been interest in Chicago's lesser-known works, such as "Immolation IV" (1972), which shows the artist Faith Wilding painted green and shrouded in pink smoke in the desert. The work features prominently in the current touring exhibition "Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance -- Act 3," now showing at the Arnolfini in Bristol. With the Baltic survey, the general public will gain an extensive overview of Chicago and just how prolific she has been.
"Immolation from Women and Smoke," a 1972 fireworks performance.
"Immolation from Women and Smoke," a 1972 fireworks performance. Credit: Judy Chicago/ARS/Through the Flower Archives/Salon 94/Jessica Silverman Gallery
The Baltic show includes a little-known collection of "very personal, very unknown" drawings, titled "Autobiography of a Year" (1993-94); as well as Chicago's first collaboration with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, titled "My Accident" (1986). The latter project narrates the accident that occurred three weeks after the couple married, when Chicago was hit by a pickup truck while out running. The two series reveal a different side to Chicago's practice, more personal and raw; "My Accident" includes photographs of the couple's home and a portrait of them in bed.
"It's really a major thing for me that people are beginning to see and understand the work I've created, a huge body of art on multiple subjects in multiple mediums, from the monumental to the intimate," Chicago said.
Those works include Chicago's pioneering play with industrial materials and methods. The artist has not only always moved freely between techniques considered traditionally "masculine" and "feminine" in the world, but has also been experimental in her approach to art-making in search of an innovative, more fluid visual language.
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This approach developed naturally through the way Chicago has directed her own education, which involved transgressing the binary gender boundaries of her day. She trained in pyrotechnics (though eventually had to abandon this training after she was sexually harassed, according to art magazine Apollo) and attended auto-body school -- something certain established artists at the time who were using spray paint and car parts in art, like her friend John Chamberlain, never did. "I was feisty and adventurous!" Chicago recalled with a laugh.
At auto-body school, Chicago was the only woman in a class of 250 men. "I had already discovered that there was freedom in materials that were not directly linked to a long art-historical tradition," she said. "I never liked oil paint. I didn't like imposing on the canvas in that way; I always associated the surface of the canvas with my skin."
Mastering the airbrush was a pivotal discovery. Chicago considers it "the single-most important tool of (her) career." What she learned while training in pyrotechnics and auto-body painting is evident in series such as her "Atmosphere" fireworks performances (1968-74) and pieces like "Car Hood" (1964), a section of Corvair hood sprayed pristinely with acrylic lacquer.
"Birth Hood," like the similar work "Car Hood," saw Chicago spray lacquer on a vehicle hood.
"Birth Hood," like the similar work "Car Hood," saw Chicago spray lacquer on a vehicle hood. Credit: Judy Chicago/ARS/Donald Woodman/Salon 94/Jessica Silverman Gallery
"I've always felt that even though the scene in the 1960s and early '70s was very inhospitable to women, that was still when I built the formal building blocks that have stood me in good stead in my career," Chicago said. "That's when I learned how to spray paint, to develop my color systems, when I started working in monumental scale."
The acclaim Chicago has received more recently has not only enabled her to steer the discussion around her work, but has also allowed her to revisit works that might otherwise have been erased. In 2018 at Villa Arson in Nice, France, she reproduced her 1965 "Feather Room" installation, a key Light and Space work that had not been seen since the year of its creation.
A recent exhibition on the early work Chicago made in the same period while living in Los Angeles and Fresno opened at Jeffrey Deitch's gallery in L.A. The show included paintings as well as minimalist, rainbow-palette sculptures that Chicago remade; she destroyed the originals because at the time, she "couldn't get anywhere with them," she said. The Deitch show was produced in partnership with New York gallery Salon 94, which began to represent Chicago in 2016; San Francisco's Jessica Silverman Gallery also began representing the artist that year.
"I'm getting the opportunity to do things I never was able to do along the way -- because I encountered such a lack of support, so much resistance, and so much basic sexism," Chicago reflected. "It's quite incredible what's happening now."
"Earth Birth" (1983) from the "Birth Project," by Judy Chicago.
"Earth Birth" (1983) from the "Birth Project," by Judy Chicago. Credit: Donald Woodman/Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society
Other projects of Chicago's, such as the "Birth Project" (1980-85) -- exhibited in the 2018-19 show "Judy Chicago: A Reckoning" at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami -- have begun to receive more attention, changing our idea of her as an artist and shifting her place in art history. Chicago herself has said that she decided not to have children, as she felt she wouldn't have been able to work in the way she has.
The "Birth Project" was an ambitious collaboration with over 150 needle workers, to celebrate and create a history for the miraculous, painful, and mystical birthing process. Literally weaving the personal together as a universal "herstory," Chicago's five-year-long tapestry (started in 1980 and completed in 1985) is one of the few attempts to introduce the subject of birth, with multiple female perspectives, into visual culture. It speaks of maternity and the female body, the monumental strength and universality of female experiences. It is a feminist work in this sense -- but Chicago frames the origins of humankind, and women not as other, but at the center.
Chicago is poised for reinvention, but that doesn't mean she will stop fighting for the underrepresented.
"On an institutional level, there has been very little change," Chicago reflected, referring to the recent "illusion of change in the art world," when in reality, it still favors white men. A recent report by artnet News and the Art Agency Partners podcast "In Other Words" found that only 11% of acquisitions by major US museums in the last decade were of works by female artists, and only 3 percent of female artists whose works are collected by these museums are African American.
"Purple Poem for Miami" a fireworks perfromance commissioned for Chicago's recent exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami.
"Purple Poem for Miami" a fireworks perfromance commissioned for Chicago's recent exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami. Credit: Donald Woodman/Judy Chicago/Salon 94/Jessica Silverman Gallery/Cirrus Gallery
Race, class, sex, gender -- these are the "invisible and unacknowledged forces are what I've been struggling against," Chicago said. She acknowledges that the landscape of contemporary art today is dramatically different. "Women and artists of color can be themselves in their art, and in their work, in ways you couldn't when I was young, when the highest compliment you can get was that you made work like a man!"
From the beginning of life to the end of life as we know it, Chicago has explored it all. Her current solo exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, "The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction," demonstrates the breadth of her creativity. The show includes her most recent body of work, reflecting on her own death and that of the planet. It includes works in glass, porcelain and bronze, as well as drawings produced in the last six years. With the show, Chicago said, she aims to fulfill a long-term goal: "to make the female experience a pathway to the universal."
"From the beginning, my goal was to make a contribution to art history," she continued.
Judy Chicago, it seems, might not be as easy to define as we've always thought.
"Judy Chicago" is on at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Newcastle, UK, until April 19, 2020. Her retrospective at the de Young Museum in San Francisco opens May 9, 2020.