Judy Chicago - Biography and Legacy
American Painter, Sculptor, and Installation Artist
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.
Having attended art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago throughout her teens, Chicago went on to train at UCLA, where she received her M.F.A. in 1964. Her early paintings were bold depictions of female sexual expression, but rejection from her peers soon persuaded Chicago to turn her attention to sculpture, creating casts strung with heavy ropes and large, clay forms in a less representational style. By the 1960s, Chicago—now married and with the last name of Gerowitz—began gaining recognition for these Minimalist, geometric works that suited 1960s art-world tastes. However, for Chicago, these works constituted an insipid version of her original vision, a suppression of her real concerns and forms of expression to fit in with a male-dominated aesthetic.
In 1961, Chicago's husband died in a car accident. Her use of imagery in the aftermath of this tragedy became notably more expressive and personal, rooted in her feelings and grief. In work from this period, there is the re-emergence of the body as theme and inspiration—still in abstract form, but recognizable as the female unwillingly dominated by the male, a visual motif for the obstacles Chicago felt she faced in life. The subsequent years reflect Chicago's continuing attempt to reconcile her identity as a woman and an artist. Attending graduate and later auto-body school, she learned both sculptural and spray-painting techniques. Chicago began to take risks with her increasingly representational depiction of the vulva, demonstrating a stubborn refusal to succumb to the abstract aesthetic prevailing in the patriarchally defined art world. Her first solo exhibition, occurring in 1965, was largely Minimalist, but through the mid-1960s and 1970s, her work became increasingly dominated by explicitly feminist themes. In 1969, Chicago remarried, but this time she rejected the tradition of taking her husband's name, selecting instead a new surname—Chicago—as a statement of independence as well as a tribute to her hometown.
In 1970, Chicago pioneered a radical educational experiment fundamental to the emerging women's movement. Chicago, along with fellow artist Miriam Schapiro, ran a women-only art course at California State University in Fresno before moving it to the California Institute of Arts in Valencia. The course focused on the development of technique and expression through the process of "consciousness-raising," which recognized female identity and independence through the group's art practice, combining object-making, installation, and performance. From this experiment emerged Womanhouse, an art space created by Chicago and her students to provide a forum for teaching, performance, exhibition, discussion, and expression. Although successful, the project was frequently beset with tension over leadership within the group. Chicago resented the inequality of the educational institution within which the project was based, and felt the need to create an "alternative system" far from Cal Arts. In 1973, she founded the Feminist Studio workshop in an entirely separate location in Los Angeles. There, Womanhouse expanded to become the Woman's Building in a site among numerous other creative feminist organizations. The female arts community in Los Angeles was now firmly established, and has become a major symbol of the 1970s feminist movement.
In 1974, Chicago began her most significant and most controversial work. In her drive to reinstate women's stories into mainstream historic narrative, she was drawn to art-making techniques dismissed by the fine art world as craft, such as ceramic decoration and embroidery. Working collaboratively using the needlework and glass-based practices of artisans, Chicago created an installation that celebrated the forgotten women of Western civilization. The Dinner Party (1979) was a monumental thirty-nine place dinner table presented in a triangular form with a plate to mark each guest's place, many of which were inscribed with symbols of the vulva. The Dinner Party opened in March 1979 at the San Francisco Museum to over five thousand attendees and much discussion. Dismissed as "kitsch," "bad art," and "obscene" by Hilton Kramer and other art critics, the piece was famously dismantled and stored away, rejected by institutions throughout the country. Three decades of protest and controversy surrounding the piece followed until it was finally reinstalled in 2007 in a permanent exhibition space at the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art in Brooklyn, New York. Amid the development of feminist thought that has occurred since the time of its creation, the work's association of womanhood with the overt physicality has most frequently provoked the criticism that Chicago essentializes women's experience as basic biological attributes, that being a woman can be reduced to simply having a vagina. The Dinner Party remains both an important symbol of the women's movement and a work of contention to this day.
In her later years, Chicago's focus shifted gradually from a solely feminist perspective to a broader concern with the underrepresentation of female experience in visual media. After The Dinner Party came the Birth Project. From 1980 to 1985, Chicago was in contact with women throughout the globe to create needlework pieces in response to a perceived absence of birth imagery in both historic narratives and the visual arts in general. The artist then turned her attention to exploring the manifestations of masculinity in a series of large-scale paintings entitled Powerplay, and then moved on to explore her identity as a woman of the Jewish faith. Working with the photographer and her soon-to-be third husband Donald Woodman, Chicago directed an eight-year-long project dedicated to unearthing Holocaust imagery and culminating in a multimedia installation, The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light. Like much her work, The Holocaust Project toured the U.S. to widespread acclaim and controversy.
Working again with experienced needleworkers, from 1994 to 2001 Chicago was occupied in creating Resolutions: A Stitch in Time, which reinvented traditional proverbs to promote lost social values for a contemporary multicultural society. In 1999, in partnership with Woodman, she returned to teaching, expanding her pedagogical approach significantly from the 1970s to incorporate a male influence. Chicago's three most recent projects have seen her documenting her cats in a humorous book, developing glass-blowing techniques, and engaging in a piece entitled Atmospheres, which recalls a project she began back in the 1970s. Using pyrotechnics, the latter work will be a smoke-and-firework piece that will be shown as part of Pacific Standard Time, an exhibition documenting and celebrating southern California art from 1945 to 1980, a period coinciding with Chicago's own activity.
The Legacy of Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago's work is significant for furthering the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and for the recognition and reinstatement of women's roles throughout history, as well as for her dedication to the deconstruction of traditional hierarchies of fine art and craft, her zeal for the rediscovery of forgotten or undervalued technique, and for her vision of collaborative art-making. Her commitment to female subject matter provided a critical example followed by several generations of contemporary artists, such as video and performance artist Martha Rosler, while Chicago's embrace of "female" art forms such as needlework and embroidery influenced many practitioners of textile art, including the contemporary textile artists Orly Kogan and Gillian Strong. Chicago's legacy is also felt in her role as teacher, writer, and moving force behind such ventures as Womanhouse and Through the Flower, dedicated to using art to prevent the erasure of women's achievements. Chicago has written eight major books documenting her and other female artists' work, including Women and Art: Contested Territory.