Judy Chicago at 75

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
By Pat Harrison

This is the year of Judy Chicago. In celebration of her 75th birthday, museums and galleries throughout the country are showing her work during 2014. The National Museum of Women in the Arts, in Washington, DC; the Brooklyn Museum; the New Mexico Museum of Art, in Santa Fe; and the Nyehaus gallery, in New York, are among the major venues for shows exploring her long career as an artist.

As the repository of Chicago’s papers—which she began donating in 1996—the Schlesinger Library is celebrating her 75th with an exhibit titled Judy Chicago: Through the Archives, on view until the end of September. The exhibit highlights Chicago’s work as a painter and sculptor, as a founder of the field of feminist art education, and as the creator of large-scale collaborative works such as The Dinner Party, Birth Project, and Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light.

After touring the Schlesinger’s exhibit in early March, Chicago recalled the first time she visited the library. “I was so overwhelmed I burst into tears,” she said, “because we have so few institutions of our own.”

Chicago came to Radcliffe not only to visit the library’s exhibit, but also to hold a public conversation about art education and popular feminism with the historian Jane Gerhard, author of The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism, 1970–2007 (The University of Georgia Press, 2013).

Improving studio art education at the university level is one of Chicago’s passions, as she makes clear in Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education (The Monacelli Press, 2014). She explains her pedagogy—“My own success as a teacher is based upon my ability to help students find their personal voices, an approach that is quite different from the usual university studio class”—and describes her experiences in the 1960s and 1970s at Fresno State College, where she established the first feminist art program, and at California Institute of the Arts. Chicago left academia in 1974 to return full-time to her studio, and for 25 years she focused on making art. From 1999 to 2005, she returned to teaching and often team-taught with her husband, the photographer Donald Woodman.

Nancy F. Cott—the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the library and the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History, who moderated the Radcliffe conversation between Chicago and Gerhard—asked Chicago how she now defines feminist art. In the past, Cott recalled, Chicago had defined it as “all the stages of a woman giving birth to herself.”

“I often say that in the '70s we cast the discourse incorrectly,” Chicago said, “because we cast it entirely around gender. Feminism is more about values.” She gave as an example her husband, who had wanted to work on The Dinner Party in Houston and was told that he couldn’t participate because of his gender. “You don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist,” she said.

In an interview at the Schlesinger Library the day after her presentation, Chicago said that the eight years she and Woodman spent on the Holocaust Project also helped broaden her definition of feminism. “We began to think of the Holocaust as a prism through which one could see the whole global structure of dominance, injustice, and oppression. I began to understand women’s oppression in that larger structure.”

Chicago’s art has evolved in profound ways during her long career. Her early minimalist paintings (such as Rainbow Pickett, 1965/2004) were followed by large installations—including The Dinner Party and the Holocaust Project—that have been succeeded by the smaller glass, ceramic, and bronze pieces that will show in Santa Fe as part of the 75th celebration.

The Dinner Party, which features 39 mythical and historical women, opened in 1979 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and traveled to 16 locations, where more than a million visitors saw it. Although it remains Chicago’s best-known work, The Dinner Party didn’t find its permanent home—in the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art—until 2007. Chicago and others describe the work’s creation and journey in The Dinner Party: Restoring Women to History (The Monacelli Press, 2014).

Her papers found a permanent home long before The Dinner Party did. When Chicago spoke at Harvard’s Institute for Politics in 1996, she attended a dinner where she sat next to Mary Maples Dunn, then the director of the Schlesinger Library. Dunn asked Chicago about her papers, and soon Anne Engelhart, the head of the library’s collections services, was flying to New Mexico to meet the artist and examine her archives. Engelhart looked at the papers, stashed in YouStoreIt containers with no temperature control, and told Chicago that the library would take everything—forever. “I’ve had to train our staff,” Woodman said at the library, “to follow Judy around and rescue stuff out of the trash.”

Chicago and Woodman have lived in a renovated hotel in the small town of Belen, New Mexico, south of Albuquerque, since 1996. After growing up in Chicago and living in California for many years, the artist couldn’t imagine herself in New Mexico. “I never really had a home of my own,” she said, “and Donald felt rooted in New Mexico. Then we found this old railroad hotel, and Donald renovated and restored it for us. We have almost 9,000 square feet, which we could never in a million years afford anyplace else.”

Meanwhile, Chicago’s papers are at home in the Schlesinger Library, where researchers can review an abundance of materials relating to her personal and professional life: correspondence, drafts, photographs, notes, journals, and gallery catalogs.

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