Judy Chicago (born 1939) was an American artist and activist best known for large-scale collaborative installation artworks—The Dinner Party and The Birth Project—both based on feminist themes and The Holocaust Project—based on the atrocities committed by the Nazi Party during World War II.
Judy Chicago was born Judith Cohen in Chicago, July 20, 1939. She assumed the surname of her hometown in 1969 to assert her independence from the patrilineal convention which gives a woman the surname of a father or husband. The daughter of political activists, her father was a union organizer, and her mother was a professional in a time when women working outside of the home were rare. Chicago studied at the Art Institute of California and later at the University of California at Los Angeles. Married three times, the artist lived and worked in Benicia, California.
Judy Chicago first gained recognition in the 1960s as Judith Gerowitz and did large, highly crafted sculptures of simple geometric forms that could be termed "minimalist." Eschewing the more traditional sculptural media of bronze and stone, Chicago worked in a variety of materials: painting on porcelain, airbrush painting on automobile hoods, and using fireworks to make drawings in the air. From the early 1970s her work focused on feminist themes, often using the motif of a flower or butterfly to symbolize a woman's sexuality and incorporating conversational language written directly on the artwork. Her work was always noted for its high level of technical finish. In addition to her artwork, Chicago taught college art classes, established the first feminist art programs and galleries, and very notably started Womenspace, an all-female art collective.
Controversy at the Dinner Party
Chicago is best known for three ambitious projects— The Dinner Party, completed in 1979, The Birth Project, completed in 1985, and The Holocaust Project, completed in 1993. The first two works summarized her stance as a feminist artist and her conviction that women have been left out of the telling of history. These projects were collaborations in which Chicago worked with teams of women artists and craftspeople in materials traditionally associated with women: quilting, needlework, china painting, and tapestry.
The Dinner Party took two years of work with a crew of 400 people. It was a three-sided table forming a triangle along which were 39 place settings with plate, goblet, and embroidered cloth. Each setting symbolized an illustrious woman from history or mythology ranging from a primordial goddess to the American painter Georgia O'Keefe. On the floor inside the triangular table were the names of 999 more women. Each place setting contained symbols of the woman, often derived from a flower-motif suggesting a vagina. The artwork opened at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1979 and toured the United States, also being shown at the Brooklyn Museum. The Dinner Party met controversy and mixed critical response wherever it went, being variously described as visionary and Utopian or as obscene and overly didactic. Several museums withdrew offers to show the work in spite of record attendance rates, and Chicago drew criticism for perceived careerism and exploitation of her numerous volunteers.
Explorations into Birth and Death
Chicago's next major work was The Birth Project. Intended to celebrate the act of giving birth, which she observed is rarely treated in Western art while being common in the art of other cultures, it also drew controversy from male-based mainstream culture. Unlike The Dinner Party, this project was two-dimensional and consisted of approximately 100 needlework designs that summarized the birthing process as culled from interviews she conducted with women from around the country regarding their experiences giving birth. Chicago made this artwork, like The Dinner Party, a collaboration that challenged the idea of the artist as an isolated, individual creator. Begun in 1982, the needlework designs were executed by women from the United States, Canada, and New Zealand.
Chicago has also produced, with her third husband, Donald Woodman, a project confronting the horror of Nazi inflicted genocide during World War II. The Holocaust Project is described by Chicago as being her personal record of trying to understand this awful epoch of recent history. A multimedia piece consisting of painting, photography, needlework, silk-screen, tapestry, and stained glass, Chicago and Woodman spent over two years researching and visiting key sites of the Holocaust in Europe. 1993 saw the completion of this ambitious and rather uncomfortable project.
Late Nineties, Continued Shock
Into the nineties Chicago still incited controversy and outrage with her works. A 1990 attempt to find a permanent home for The Dinner Party at the University of the District of Columbia, was thwarted when she encountered much of the same opposition as before. A later exhibition in 1996 of The Dinner Party at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art at UCLA drew further criticism. As David Josel it wrote in Art in America, "ongoing theoretical and artistic disputes, not to mention the hostility of mainstream critics to an openly feminist project, conspired to engulf (the exhibition) in an often mean-spirited buzz of disapproval."
Despite the controversy surrounding them, these projects were immensely popular, but usually with audiences that do not regularly follow the arts. This populist appeal coincided with a general resurgence of feminist activity in the 1970s. Chicago's work was part of the movement within art circles to open up opportunities for women artists and to reinstate prominent artists such as Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) and Artemesia Gentileschi (1590-1642) who had been written out of art history. In addition, museums organized retrospective exhibitions for contemporary artists Alice Neel and Louise Bourgeois.
Beyond the feminist aspects of Chicago's work, it also ran parallel with several aesthetic tendencies of the visual art of the 1960s. Artists in general were experimenting with all kinds of materials, challenging the conventional expectations of a work of art. Artists such as Claes Oldenburg and Robert Morris began to work with fabric and cloth. Sculpture could be soft, amorphous, and impermanent. Chicago's projects were collaborative and involved hundreds of people, like the wrapping projects of artist Christo, and went against the prevailing myth of the artist as an alienated loner. Judy Chicago's work called into question distinctions between high art (painting and sculpture) and crafts, between art made for its own sake and engaged activist art in the service of political ideas. It generated a great deal of critical discussion, and she had both ardent admirers and strident detractors.
Further Reading on Judy Chicago
Chicago wrote an autobiography, Through the Flower, My Struggles as a Woman Artist (1982), which chronicled her emergence as an artist and her involvement with the women's movement in the early 1970s. A sequel, Beyond the Flower was later written (1996). She had a retrospective exhibition in 1984 at the ACA galleries in New York accompanied by a catalog, Judy Chicago, the Second Decade (1984), which is the most complete record of her work up to that point. Chicago has also published books detailing her more recent works including The Birth Project (1985) and The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light (1993). Her joint exhibition with other female artists such as Yoko Ono and Mary Kelly is documented in Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago's Dinner Party in Feminist Art History (1996). Articles about The Dinner Party appeared in Newsweek Magazine (April 2, 1979), Ms. (June 1, 1979), and Art in America (April 1980). Newsweek also carried an article about The Birth Project (October 31, 1983), as did Art in America (November 1984). Later articles include pieces in The New Statesman and Society (March 25, 1994), New York Times Book Review (March 24, 1996), and Art in America (January 1997). A profile of Chicago is included in Eleanor Munro's Originals: American Women Artists (1979). For more information about women artists in history, see Anne Sutherland Harris' Women Artists 1550-1950 (1976).