Story and Photos by Stephanie Levin.
Remember The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago’s eponymous multimedia instillation, her 36 x 575 x 576-inch masterpiece the public wasn’t quite ready to digest in 1979? Crafted by hundreds of volunteers over a five-year period, and to a resounding success at its opening at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Dinner Party was subsequently scorned elsewhere, derided for its imagery, dubbed “feminine craft, and panned by institutional art critics. The controversy eclipsed Chicago’s vast body of work for decades.
“Everyone wanted to see The Dinner Party; no one wanted to display it,” recalls Chicago.
Art has always been a catalyst for social change, yet seldom celebrated upon inception. It requires tenacious steadfastness to one’s vision and voice throughout the artist’s career. To have the courage to forge ahead when galleries and critics shun your vision, leaving you marginalized in the contemporary art world, as was Chicago’s trajectory, is a testament to her tenacity and critical discourse which defines both Chicago and her art. A feminist and activist for social justice, Chicago’s vision–to fight against the erasure of women’s creativity and suppression in art– has finally crept into the psyche of the art world, taking a belated 30 years for the critics to both appreciate and fete her vast accomplishments.
Chicago has deep roots in the Bay Area, a place that nurtured and championed her vision. So, it is only befitting that the launch of Judy Chicago: A Retrospective launches its tour at the DeYoung Museum, 40 years after she exhibited The Dinner Party.
The exhibition includes approximately 130 paintings, prints, drawings, and ceramic sculptures, in addition to several films, and a documentary. Each body of work approximates eight years of research and work.
If you are not familiar with Chicago’s art or her history, then you wouldn’t know that she founded the first arts education program in the United States at Fresno State, and later at the California Institute of Arts, followed by the Feminist Studio Workshop as part of the Women’s Building in San Francisco. With programs established, Chicago left academia to concentrate on researching women in Western civilization and the erasure of their artistic achievements.
The retrospective explores and educates. Each theme, each piece of art has a profound philosophical and cultural connection emanating from Chicago’s moral compass as well as her impeccable research. Chicago’s focus has always been gender; her art is a result of her experience as a woman in the male-dominated art world, a world blind to her vibrant approach to validating women from birth to death.
Before entering the extensive retrospective, viewers come face-to-face with The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2015-2019), an examination of the end of life both human–a self-portrait identifying the universal experience, examined through Morality Relief in patinated bronze, and environmental, or planetary extinction, which depicts modern society’s depletion and destruction of other species. This series titled Stranded, Bleached, Collected, Poached, Vulnerable, each kiln-fired paint on glass from her 2016 collection, explores the human propensity to environmentally depleting the planet.
Within the retrospective are Chicago’s renderings and drawings from origin to completion, allowing the viewer to follow her process. The sculpture Snake Arm displays #1 study with watercolor and pencil on paper (2006) and #2, (2007) etching, cold work, and gold leaf on cast glass illuminating the process to the final sculpture.
As the viewers serpentine into the second room, viewers are afforded a sacrosanct experience: 1992, 54 x 504inch stained glass, Rainbow Shabbat, is Chicago and her husband, Donald Woodman’s culmination of The Holocaust Project, which began with a year of travel through Eastern Europe researching the project, which moves the viewer through one of the darkest experiences in the 20th Century to hope and joy, the world view of Shabbat.
The retrospective walks the viewer through Power Play, portals of male privilege, masculinity, and dominance, each massive frame on sprayed acrylic on linen. Chicago studied Renaissance religious figures for this series. The sinuous, male muscles command space and attention. Driving the World to Destruction, the 1985 108×168 inch painting is just one of the frames in this series, provoking the viewer to think about societal male roles throughout history.
As a mother, I was drawn to Chicago’s 1985 Birth Project, life-size tapestries illustrating the universal birth experience. Chicago noticed there were no images of birth in the artistic canon, so, with her sketchbook, she attended a friend’s birth process while sketching the process. It ultimately became the Birth Process. Each tapestry covers a separate wall, detailing stages of birth, and is a culmination of many hands, woven and embroidered by volunteers and new mothers who felt passionate about the project
There is, of course, a room devoted to The Dinner Party, and as I enter, I’m reminded of something Chicago noted in her opening remarks of the retrospective, referencing her first exhibit of The Dinner Party in San Francisco. The curator of the successful exhibit turned to Chicago and declared that she had reached the pinnacle of her career with The Dinner Party, to which Chicago responded, “Oh no, I’m just beginning.”
And what a beginning. There are several original plates on display, a number from the series Compressed Women Who Yearned to be Butterflies in Prismacolor and graphite on rag paper and China paint on porcelain. The Primordial Goddess, the Fertile Goddess, and Ishtar are among the female deities that have plates on the table.
Two of my favorite pieces in the retrospective are from Birth Hood (1965-2011), sprayed automotive lacquer on car hoods. Chicago explains that even though she took an auto body course to better understand the medium, Birth Hood was simply too much for the male art establishment in the 60s, who ridiculed Chicago’s biomorphic form, interlocking circles suggestive of the birth canal. Chicago abandoned the project to return to it 45 years later for its completion in 2011.
As viewers near the end of the exhibit, sprayed acrylics on canvas from the Through the Flower series (1973), draw the viewer into a prism of colors that light up the space. The last exhibit, Rainbow Pickett (1665), explores the conceptualism of space. The individually varied colored beams do not touch as they appear to lean into the wall, yet the shapes appear to unify through Chicago’s use of primary colors.
Judy Chicago: A Retrospective provokes at the same time it stokes contemplation. As I walked from exhibit to exhibit, it wasn’t lost on me that 45 years after the opening of The Dinner Party, women’s reproductive rights are once again under assault, not from the art world, but from politicians and courts. Indeed, Judy Chicago’s canon of art and her poignant arrow on gender seem timelier and more prescient than ever.
IF YOU GO: Judy Chicago: A Retrospective at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, Golden Gate Park: Open September 27, 2021, through January 9, 2022. On October 2, 2021, Chicago will be inducted into the Seneca Falls National Women’s Hall of Fame, where she will take her place in the celebration and inclusion of extraordinary women.
Should your travels take you to the following destinations, exhibits and shows of Ms. Chicago’s artwork can also be seen at:
The Nevada Museum of Art, Reno where “Dry Ice, Smoke, And Fireworks” Archive
is on view from August 28, 2021- March 27, 2022
In the Big Apple check out “Automania” from July 4, 2021-January 2, 2022
at Thé Muséum of Modern Art, NY, NY.
Kindly check all dates and admission times in advance.