Friday, March 22, 2013

HerStory: The Legacy of Judy Chicago

Driving the World to Destruction - Acrylic and oil on Belgian Linen - Judy Chicago, 1986
(Click on images for larger view.)

"I knew that I didn’t want to keep perpetuating the use of the female body as the repository of so many emotions; it seemed as if everything - love, dread, longing, loathing, desire, and terror - was projected onto the female by both male and female artists, albeit with often differing perspectives. I wondered what feelings the male body might be made to express. Also, I wanted to understand why men acted so violently.”
- Judy Chicago, describing her Power Play series (examples above & below)

"The “PowerPlay” series allowed Chicago to exploit and improve upon the cartoonish neo-expressionism of Schnabel, Kostabi, the German Neue Wilde, and other heroes of the moment, turning their pretense at angst and anomie into actual sociopolitical statements, rife with actual anger and confusion. In depicting man’s struggle to manifest aggression and maintain dominance over woman, Chicago was able to convey, even in the cruelest and most violent images, a sense of universal tragedy. Everybody loses, the “PowerPlay” paintings and studies insist, and men are as trapped in and diminished by their roles as women in and by theirs."

- Peter Frank, Huffington Post, via this David Richard Gallery blog page 

"... I found out that many women before me had broken through female roles and made themselves into successful, independent and creative people. Yet the struggles and successes of one generation did not necessarily guarantee greater ease to the women of the next. Instead of the work of one woman attesting to the potential of all women, the work was ripped out of its natural context by male historians. One historical period would allow women more freedom... Then male dominance would assert itself again. The women's achievements would be left out of recorded history, and young women could not model themselves upon the struggles and accomplishments of their mothers."
- Judy Chicago, 1973, 1977

"H. W. Janson, author of the best-selling art history textbook, History of Art (1962), was often quoted as saying that a survey necessarily included only the high points of Western art and that no women artists met that standard."
- excerpt from the .pdf file: Stepping out of the Beaten Path: Reassessing the Feminist Art Movement  by Judith Brodsky and Ferris Olin


Last month, I added a new section of links on Trans-D's sidebar devoted to women artists throughout history entitled: Women in Art: HerStory. I've included links which cover female artists from the manuscript illuminators of the Medieval period to the Guerrilla Girls of today, in hopes of partially filling the chasms that exist in what is generally referred to as "art history" - specifically that being taught in the latter half of the twentieth century, and, to some degree, into the 21st - and, a more comprehensive view.

In the 70s, as a young artist, I possessed two books which, to this day, have held honored positions on my shelves. The first was the biography of Georgia O'Keefe, (who will eventually be included in my Patron Sainthood series). The other is a signed paperback entitled "Through the Flower; my struggle as a woman artist" by Judy Chicago, whom I was fortunate to meet in 1994 at one of her lectures held in Connecticut. Happily, Judy Chicago is a living treasure - therefore, no "sainthood" yet!

But, that was it. Apart from Marie Cassatt, O'Keefe and Chicago (before I'd read her book) there had been no other female artists I'd been introduced to... certainly not in art school. If I judged the world situation by what I gleaned from textbooks at the time - and Janson's tome, referenced above, was required art school reading - there were no female artists of note... ever!

To some degree, the absence of women in art history textbooks has been remedied. But, are the fates of women vastly improved? It depends on who you ask.*

Then again, there seems to be a subliminal movement these days to undermine and devalue historical context across the board... as if nothing before the advent of present-day technology has any validity or viability, nor any meaningful relationship to the events of the present day. But, this is a crippling form of tunnel vision, which endows the more unfortunate aspects of our collective past a regenerative power.

Many younger women might be reminded that women in the western world weren't able to vote until 1918, and then, only over 30 years of age. And it wasn't until 1967 - less than 40 years ago - that the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women was proclaimed. The subsequent - and legally binding document - the United Nations' 1981 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, though signed by the United States, was never ratified, and, worldwide, in the countries in which it is recognized, is rarely enforced.

The Dinner Party - installation - mixed media - 1974-1979, Judy Chicago

Regarding Chicago, however, while "sainthood" can wait, there's never any time like the present to give credit where it's due... and, in terms of women in art history and herstory in general, no artist has contributed as much as Judy Chicago

Back in the 60's and 70's she was the proverbial fly in the ointment. Born July, 20, 1939, she was the first woman to singlehandedly fight the gender bias in the male-dominated art establishment that surrounded her, and she pulled no punches. In regards to her own art, she ignored the gender-imposed limitations of her time and sought instruction outside the traditional venues; she learned to spray paint in an auto body shop, learned to work in plastics, and trained in pyrotechnics for her own displays. In1970, in Fresno, California, she founded and taught the first feminist art program, and, in the following year, a program at CalArts in Los Angeles. In 1971, she - along with Miriam Schapiro, and, initially, Paula Hays - opened the first female-centered art installation, Womanhouse.

Around the same time, Chicago began questioning documented history, specifically searching for women's contributions to the arts and the sciences which, up till that time, was an obscure, "underground" line of inquiry - a parallel "herstory" desperately in need of rescue and redemption. She began ferreting out the stories of those uncelebrated women, which, in 1974, inspired one of her most notorious, timeless, and critically-acclaimed installations: The Dinner Party, ultimately a collaborative work that would take 6 years to complete.

Detail of The Dinner Party installation: Elizabeth Blackwell's setting - 1974-1979, Judy Chicago
Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum

The Dinner Party is described on the Brooklyn Museum site, where the installation is now a permanent exhibit, as: "an icon of feminist art, which represents 1,038 women in history; 39 women are represented by place settings and another 999 names are inscribed in the Heritage Floor on which the table rests. This monumental work of art is comprised of a triangular table divided by three wings, each 48 feet long."

Above and below are several details of The Dinner Party, with their corresponding links.

Dinner plates From The Dinner Party installation (Left to right):
Georgia O'Keefe, Petronilla de Meath, HypatiaTrotula.
1974-1979, Judy Chicago

Since the time of The Dinner Party, Chicago has been prolific as an artist, committed as teacher, and, as an activist, remains a perennial force to be reckoned with. Combining her broad understanding of the human condition and an intimate relationship with her own personal, visionary process, Judy Chicago is as vital and relevant today as she was at any point in the past.

She now resides in New Mexico with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, teaching and working under the auspices of her non-profit feminist art organization, Through the Flower.

The Three Faces of Man - Sprayed acrylic and oil on Belgian Linen - Judy Chicago, 1985

Above is another of Chicago's paintings from her Power Play series: The Three Faces of Man. Metaphorically concise, to the point of being grotesque, it's pretty powerful stuff. But, hey, wait a minute, wasn't this cat in the news not too long ago? Life imitating art seems to be the order of the millennium!

Below is a 2010 YouTube video of Judy Chicago discussing feminist art. Another video - as the recipient of the 2011 Governor's Award, can be found here. Also, a recent (March 1, 2013) PBS special featuring an interview with Chicago - "Makers: Women Who Make America" - can be found here.

By the way, I recently learned it's "Women's History Month", so, despite the fact that this post has been sitting in draft-mode since January, now seems like a fine time to post it.

Well, sort of. That is, if "history" months - be they women's history month, black history month or national dog history month - weren't just so much patronizing BS. You'll note, for instance, there seems to be no cause for a designated "White Male History" month...

Anyway, it gets worse. I learned today that "International Women's Day" was held on March 8. Oh, you missed it, too? Well, look at it this way: if you were fully human, or, maybe just male, every day, in the official world, would be your day.


In regards to woman in the sciences, they are perhaps in need of redemption more than women in the arts. Nature, the international journal of science, has several articles addressing the subject, found herehere, and here... with a more optimistic viewpoint found here.

Judy Chicago's quotes and images have been posted here with permission from the artist.

Judy Chicago:
Through the Flower:

Update 6/24/13: Two members of the Russian Punk band, Pussy Riot, become special guests at the Dinner Party.  Also: the NY Times article, and a New Statesman article: Pussy Riot: "People fear us because we're feminists".


  1. Love her art...even if I am of the male persuasion.

    I tend to stay out of gender politics -- believing that we are all just human...all equal, but sadly I see that is not the accepted view. This sort of post opens my eyes.

    1. Thanks, Bob.

      I think a lot of artists and creative people in general tend to have a bird's eye view of the human condition. We do our obligatory fly-bys, cast a cold eye, sigh, and then move on. We kind of have to. We have a long way to go.

      Then again, younger women tend to have their own biology working against them... they know they're being screwed, but, as women, they figure that's the whole point. When gestation is no longer on the table, however - or, in the case of gay women, never was to begin with - one feels a certain obligation to ones gender. Like, every now and then, it seems prudent to assert: "Hey, sis, keep in mind, you're still being screwed. No, I mean, REALLY screwed!" ;-)

    2. PS I had to become post-menopausal before my feminism could out itself. In the case of Judy Chicago, however, she put her cards on the table from day one. Few women have the guts and integrity to do that. So, repeat after me, girls: Hail, Judy!