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Judy Chicago: Eruption of Form

When visiting art museums or drifting through galleries, most people don’t think twice about how many females are in the room or how many men have come to see the show. In the late 60s and early 70s, however, Judy Chicago was very concerned with this issue. Opportunities for women’s work to be considered as seriously as that of men were sparse, and work by female artists rarely gathered an audience outside of other women. The lack of support from both the government and society was enough to make an artist want to put down the paintbrush and walk the other way.

Photo Courtesy of Donald WoodmanPhoto Courtesy of Donald Woodman

Chicago set out to define the terms in which women could articulate their own art practice, be received openly by their peers, and create work that would anchor itself in its proper history. To do so, she founded the first feminist art program in 1970 at California State University. This launched her into what we now look back on as the historical moment of feminism in art.

In 1974, she conceptualized The Dinner Party. The idea was to represent all the women that had been erased from history. Seeing her project grow exponentially and in proportion to the subject matter, Chicago decided to use a variety of mediums to bring her vision to life, including china-painted plates, woodwork, and performance. The Dinner Party was completed after five years of hard labor, only to find its audience unreceptive: “Museums refused to exhibit it. Art critics vilified it. The House of Representatives in Congress debated and ridiculed it.” Now, we know The Dinner Party as one of Chicago’s fundamental works. It achieved its goal of permanent housing at the Brooklyn Museum, where Chicago recently held an exhibition of her early works.

Through the Flower, 1973Through the Flower, 1973

What were your first experiences with art?

I started drawing when I was three and started going to the Chicago Art Institute when I was five. We had some art in my house, but my parents were oriented more towards music. My father was an intellectual, and my mother had been a dancer when she was young. When I was four, my preschool teacher told my mother that I was talented and, like a Jewish middle-class mother, she sent me off to the Chicago Art Institute.

Do you think growing up around music influenced your approach towards art?

I think what influenced my approach to art was that my parents were political radicals. I grew up in the middle of music parties to raise money for the Spanish Civil War. My father worked nights and was home when I woke up from my afternoon nap while my mother worked during the day. He had a huge influence on me in the sense that we used to play these games when I was really little to train me in logic and ethics. He raised me to believe that I should make a contribution to the world.

When you conceived the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW), did you intend for it to be political?

My intentions in creating feminist art education, which at that time was geared entirely towards women, was a desire to provide young women what I had not received in my university studio art education. I would say that, in terms of your question about [it being] political, the fact that studio art education continues to be inherently discriminatory towards women and slanted towards men makes it already political. So what I was trying to do was simply introduce alternative politics.

How did The Dinner Party materialize?

It started first with the idea of painting. It was called 25 Women Who Were Eaten Alive. I was going to do abstract portraits of women on plates and I’d been studying China-painting for that. Because my research had demonstrated that there had been so many women whose achievements had been gobbled up and erased by history, I increased the number [of plate] to 100. That’s hardly a small project! At one point while I was starting the drawings for the first plates, I thought to myself, But plates belong on a table. That was what [changed] it from paintings on the wall to a multimedia installation.

The Dinner Party, Brooklyn MuseumThe Dinner Party, Brooklyn Museum

You set up this space that enacts a very organic gesture in human life—dinner, eating, civilized seating—to suggest a complete openness of dialogue, uncontrolled by the strict rules of the form.

I was looking for a metaphor to take on the issue of history while also finding a way to critique the way history had been presented and create a space for women’s achievements. Even though I often say that The Dinner Party is a woman’s story told with women crafts (China-paint and needle work), it still crosses gender lines in terms of its form.

How was the work received?

Well, see, that’s what’s so interesting because at the beginning, in the 70s the primary audience for women’s art was women, women would come and bring their sons, husbands, or male partners, who often came reluctantly.

For me, the great achievement in terms of helping to create change, or making a contribution towards change, is that now when I go to the Brooklyn Museum, there are a lot of men there, young men, by themselves. I’m like, Yes! That’s what my goal was. In that way, I think that there’s been a big generational change.

Last Spring, you set off a series of fireworks as part of your project, A Butterfly for Brooklyn, in Prospect Park. I think it’s very interesting that the work took on a ritual dimension.

The first butterfly firework I did was in 1974. It was called The Butterfly for Oakland. When the Brooklyn Museum was planning the Early Works show, since I had never done a fireworks piece in New York, they invited me to do one there. I was very eager to do that because, you know, in terms of erasure, my firework pieces had kind of gotten erased and its only recently that people have become aware of them.

There were 12,000 people there. I found out because we made a video of it that we’re going to premiere at the Brooklyn Museum in April 2014. When we did a little screening when I was in New York earlier this month, I realized there were actually many more people. There were people at their windows, on their decks, on their roofs, in the buildings that ring Prospect Park.
At the end, people started applauding and then everybody sang me “Happy Birthday.” Oh my god, it was unbelievable. I was weeping. People were weeping. What we wanted to try and get across in the video was why everybody was so affected by what happened there that night. In terms of my belief in the power of art…I mean, it was on display that night. It was just incredible. But you know, Butterfly for Brooklyn, grew out of a long tradition of my work in fireworks in the late 60s.
I was running into so many obstacles in terms of getting support for my ideas and wanting to expand them, so I stopped working with fireworks in 1974, and I didn’t do another firework piece until Pacific Standard Time (PST).

A Butterfly for Brooklyn, 2014A Butterfly for Brooklyn, 2014

What is the importance of the firework to you?

I can remember why I started doing them but it became very clear to me when I was looking at them in the context of the show at Brooklyn Museum. The late 60s and the early 70s were a time when I was trying to create a female-centered art practice and trying to liberate myself, in a way, from the formal constraints of modernism. I was also trying to figure out how to bring together the kind of formal excellence I’d developed in the first decade of my work with this urge to express myself freely as a woman. Liberating the color from the formal constraints that I was using, I think that was the impulse for the firework. Also transforming, softening, and feminizing the environment.

This issue is themed around radiance. Does the word “radiant” resonate with you?

Oh yeah! Of course it does. At the end of the 60s, I did a lot of work on color. I was interested in using it for its emotive meaning. In my paintings and of course in the smoke pieces, in the flares, in the fireworks, the color comes from the inside and erupts. I think radiant is a wonderful word in relationship to my work.

It seems that there is a strange tension between color and form in your work.

I work from a content base and then select the technique that best expresses the content, which is one of the reasons why I work in so many different media. For me, the form is in service to the content. It’s part of why I do so much research. I come to what I want to work on and then go down a path of discovery.

When I was doing research on women in history, I started doing paintings like the great ladies paintings. I was using an airbrush and painted them on canvas. I didn’t think the form was perfect for the content. Then, by accident, I saw a china-painted plate. I thought, Oh my god, that’s the way I should express this particular content. That led me to a 2-year apprenticeship in china painting. For me, making art is a process of discovery. I’m so opposed to this production method, where Oh! I have an idea and 25 people can make it for me, or I can send it to India to be painted…That means you’re just making products. I’m going the opposite way. I’ve worked with lots of people, in The Dinner Party and The Birth Project, and now I work almost completely by myself; my hand and heart to the viewer.

A Butterfly for Brooklyn, 2014A Butterfly for Brooklyn, 2014

What do you think the difference is now in terms of the result?

The Dinner Party blocked out all my other work for a really long time and then slowly people got to be interested in my early work. Now, there’s been a lot of scholarship on it, but in terms of my later work, it’s still very unknown. As a companion show to the one at the Brooklyn Museum, the New Mexico Museum of Art has a show up of my recent work. I had every artist’s nightmare that my early work was better. I was really nervous. The show opened and 1200 people came to the opening. People came up to me, I mean, total strangers. This man comes up to me and he said, “I am completely overwhelmed.” It made me realize that if I wanted to make a contribution, which has been the most important thing to me, following my own vision was the path to that. My vision is just very different from the mainstream. It always has been.

Do you think it’s possible to reorient the terms in which we speak so as to counter these patriarchal systems? Is this happening, or has this happened?

Well it certainly hasn’t happened yet! But there are definitely signs in that direction. For example, one of the things that was quite remarkable about PST was that it was probably the first mainstream aesthetic undertaking that challenged the mainstream modernist narrative that came out of New York and has been exported all over the world.

The PST shows hold a very different story of contemporary art. Instead of a single narrative, there were multiple narratives. Some of the best shows were the shows of the narratives you knew the least about. In New York, the Brooklyn Museum was the only museum where you could see a diversity of art. At the same time as my show at Brooklyn Museum, the Ai Weiwei show, the Swoon installation, and art in the civil rights movement were going on. That is what’s making the Brooklyn Museum the kind of go-to place now because there’s an enormous hunger for a richer and more diverse narrative. So do I think that it’s all going to change overnight? Absolutely not. It’s a huge battle because there’s an enormous amount of financial and intellectual capital invested in that patriarchal narrative.

Do you think that feminism has evolved since you started working? Where do you see it going?

In the early days of feminism it was about universalizing from the white heterosexual male class experience, but you know, you have to start somewhere. Then, there was a challenge to that and we all learned to open our thinking and to think more complexly in terms of the intersection of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. We learned! Certainly feminism has become global and for each place it takes root it has to find the form that is appropriate. The form of feminism has to reflect the particularities of where it’s sprung from and I think, one of the things I want to see, is more men participating in shaping the dialogue and joining with women to change a system that is really not very good for anybody.

As I say in a book I recently published, Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education, there is still this add-on theory. Take the basic male-centered narrative and add on a few women or people of color, and that’s not sufficient. Feminist studies and gender studies really have to become part of the mainstream curriculum.

The next frontier: men have to change and that’s a big job. Men have to participate in it. It’s going to be a slow process and that’s why at 75 I’m still trying to make as much trouble as I can!

What is your WILD Wish?

For the world to change and to become a place of justice and equity for everybody. For every creature on the planet. Human and non-human.

Immolation from the Women and Smoke Series, 1972Immolation from the Women and Smoke Series, 1972

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text by: Michael Valinsky

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