American Painter, Sculptor, and Installation Artist
Summary of Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago was one of the pioneers of Feminist art in the 1970s, a movement that endeavored to reflect women's lives, call attention to women's roles as artists, and alter the conditions under which contemporary art was produced and received. In the process, Feminist art questioned the authority of the male-dominated Western canon and posed one of the most significant challenges to modernism, which was at the time wholly preoccupied with conditions of formalism as opposed to personal narrative and political activity. Seeking to redress women's traditional underrepresentation in the visual arts, Chicago focused on female subject matter, most famously in her work The Dinner Party (1979), which celebrates the achievements of women throughout history, scandalizing audiences with her frank use of vaginal imagery. In her work, Chicago employed the "feminine" arts long relegated to the lowest rungs of the artistic hierarchy, such as needlework and embroidery. Chicago articulated her feminist vision not only as an artist, but also as an educator and organizer, most notably, in co-founding of the Feminist Art Program at Cal State Fresno as well as the installation and performance space, Womanhouse.
- Inspired by the women's movement and rebelling against the male-dominated art scene of the 1960s, which lionized the Minimalist work of artists like Donald Judd, Chicago embraced explicitly female content. Creating works that recognized the achievements of major female historical figures or celebrated women's unique experiences, Chicago produced a rich body of work that sought to add women to the historic record and, more generally, to enhance their representation in the visual arts.
- Just as she elevated explicitly female subject matter, Chicago embraced artistic media whose creators were exclusively or mainly women and (perhaps not coincidentally) dismissed by the high art world as merely "craft." Art forms such as needlework, ceramic decoration, and glass art are central to Chicago's work, often included alongside traditional high art media, such as painting. Works such as The Dinner Party helped validate the importance of crafts-based art forms and break down the boundaries separating them from their "high" art counterparts.
- Along with fellow artist Miriam Schapiro, Chicago co-founded several pioneering ventures that sought to change the structure of women's artistic training, as well as broaden their access to, and visibility in, contemporary art. The women-only Feminist Art program, established at California Institute of Arts, centered on women's identity, experiences, and collaborative, discussion-based practices such as consciousness-raising. Womanhouse, co-founded by Chicago and Schapiro as an outgrowth of the Feminist Art program, was an installation and performance space dedicated to female creative expression.
Biography of Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago was born Judy Cohen in 1939 in Chicago, Illinois, in the last year of the Great Depression. She grew up in a liberal environment; unusual for the time, her intellectual Jewish parents both worked to support their children and openly articulated their left-wing politics. Chicago began drawing at the age of three and attending classes at the Institute of Chicago starting in 1947. In 1948, her father, Arthur Cohen, left his union job in the midst of the McCarthy blacklist and the controversy surrounding the family's "Communist" leanings. Two years later, he died from a massive stomach ulcer.
Important Art by Judy Chicago
Composed of three dome-like forms and using transparent material with spray-on plastic, this piece is rendered in the Minimalist style of Chicago's early work. Its use of repeated shapes and glossy, "industrial" media suggest the work of artists such as Donald Judd, though there is significant contrast to the hard, geometric forms of Judd and his contemporaries in the deployment of softer, rounded forms that suggest a kind of ambiguous femininity. Critic Susan Jenkins suggests that the work prefigures the "purely feminist idiom" that was to come: the three domes make up what came to be Chicago's signature stylistic motif, the triangle, closely associated with vaginal imagery in Chicago's oeuvre.
Created by the artist after Chicago's decade-long "struggl[e]... in a male-dominated art community," Through the Flower marks the artist's newfound embrace of less abstract and more accessible imagery: the female sexual organ, depicted here as a round element or opening. The painting's "trippy" opticality relates at least in part to the artist's experience with mood-altering drugs. The subject matter is radical: genitals were always demurely concealed or merely suggested in the tradition of the female nude, yet here the vaginal opening constitutes the focus of the work. Through the Flower is one of the landmark pieces of Chicago's early feminist phase. It serves as the title and cover of the artist's 1975 autobiography as well as the name of the non-profit feminist art organization she founded in 1978.
The Dinner Party is a monumental installation celebrating forgotten achievements in female history. Chicago described it as, "as a reinterpretation of The Last Supper from the point of view of women, who, throughout history, have prepared the meals and set the table." The central form is a forty-eight-foot triangular table with symbolic places set for thirty-nine "guests of honor"—remarkable women from different stages in Western civilization. Each guest has her own runner, embroidered on one side with her name and on the other with imagery illustrating her achievement. Each place setting includes a glass plate, decorated with a butterfly or floral motif symbolizing the vulva. By incorporating elements of a contemporary social event with the status and appearance of a banquet, Chicago elevates her guests to the role of heroes, a traditionally male epithet. In essence, Chicago states, the work "takes us on a tour of Western civilization, a tour that bypasses what we have been taught to think of as the main road." The floor is inscribed with the names of 999 additional women worthy of recognition, while acknowledgment panels on the walls honor the 129 collaborators who worked with Chicago on the piece.
Regarded as an icon of 20th-century art, The Dinner Party is arguably the most significant and recognized piece of feminist art ever made, notable in its incorporation of collaborative working process, political symbolism, the sheer scale of the media response, and the unprecedented worldwide grassroots movement it prompted in reaction to the work's condemnation. The piece's lasting importance lies in its defiance of fine-art tradition by representing a feminine history suppressed by patriarchal society, as well as its celebration of the traditional "feminine" crafts: textile arts (weaving, embroidery, and sewing) and ceramic decoration. Featured in sixteen exhibitions in six different countries, The Dinner Party has been seen by millions of viewers.
Response to the work has been mixed. Many have praised the work, including art historian Susan Caldwell, who wrote that "it produces the sort of chill that comes only from beautiful works of strong conviction and conception." American curator and art critic Lucy Lippard said of the work, "My own initial experience was strongly emotional... The longer I spent with the piece, the more I became addicted to its intricate detail and hidden meanings". Some critics, however, hold negative opinions of the work, with American art critic Hilton Kramer calling the work "vulgar" and "crass", and artist Cornelia Parker stating "we're all reduced to vaginas, which is a bit depressing. It's almost like the biggest piece of victim art you've ever seen. And it takes up so much space! I quite like the idea of trying to fit it in some tiny bin – not a very feminist gesture but I don't think the piece is either." The work has also been criticized for having a racial bias. Writer Esther Allen notes that the work excludes Latin American women like Frida Kahlo, and author Alice Walker notes that Sojourner Truth's plate is the only one that has three faces instead of a vagina, possibly, she proposes, because "white women feminists, no less than white women generally, cannot imagine that black women have vaginas".