Judy Chicago’s “Herstory” Makes Space for Women Artists, Before and After

 

New Museum of Contemporary Art
 
After Six Decades, the Artist Gets Her Due

After Six Decades, the Artist Gets Her Due

© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS). Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

Judy Chicago, What if Women Ruled the World? From “The Female Divine,” 2020.

Judy Chicago, “Herstory” vibrantly expands and reignites a much-needed conversation around the artist’s work and her career of six decades.

 

After six decades in the art world, Judy Chicago is finally getting her due. Her exhibition “Herstory,” currently on view at the New Museum, is the artist’s first comprehensive survey exhibition in New York.

Organized by the New Museum's ambitious curatorial team including Artistic Director Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, Margot Norton (who is also Chief Curator at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Archive in California), and Assistant Curator Madeline Weisburg, the show, which has been extended through March 3, 2024, is a survey of Chicago’s work throughout various stages of her career. Ranging from the 1960s to a present day ongoing conversational project, the show looks at the role of feminism through the eyes of female and gender non-conforming artists who have largely gone under-recognized throughout the years. Intimately exploring Chicago’s oeuvre, the New Museum also houses an exhibition within an exhibition titled, “The City of Ladies” and features eighty artists ranging from the late Renaissance’s Artemisia Gentileschi, to Sojourner Truth, Dora Maar, and Leonora Carrington

“We came to the idea of the ‘show within the show,’ this temporary ‘personal museum’ which Judy called 'The City of Ladies,'" Gioni told Art & Object. "It was a demonstration of her commitment to women's history and also a demonstration of the work she has done for decades to expand and enrich the art historical canon.”

Judy Chicago, “Herstory” vibrantly expands and reignites a much-needed conversation around the artist’s work and her career of six decades. Her permanent installation at the Brooklyn Museum, The Dinner Party (1974-79), has left a qualifying mark on many New Yorkers and tourists alike over the years, and has kept her name fresh on the lips of those who visit. What the New Museum has done is build on that installation, expanding her New York presence by revealing not only the specific process that led to the ceramic ‘portraits’ of The Dinner Party but also shining a light on the elaborate metaphorical movement of her practice.

Photo: Donald Woodman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Judy Chicago, Car Hood, 1964. 

Working in various mediums, Chicago has never limited herself aesthetically but rather seems to choose the best material for a particular project or area of interest. This ranges from painting, video, sculpture, conversations, fabric weaving, and drawing. “Herstory” includes a series of Plate Line Drawings, ink and pen on paper that functioned as studies and now documents of The Dinner Party. Her work is striking from every angle and confronts issues of womanhood head-on.

“Working on the show with Judy was an absolute pleasure and really one of the most exciting and interesting experiences in my work and life as curator," Gioni told A&O about this landmark exhibition. "It doesn’t happen often to be working with an artist who has been part of, and has radically shaped the history of art for six decades: at this point, Chicago is a national treasure, a true living legend and being able to learn firsthand about her experience of art and history since the 1960s is an absolute honor.” He continued saying, “…she has made space for other women artists and for their histories (or their "herstories", as the title suggest) to exist, emerge and be preserved.”

Some of the earliest works in the show, Car Hood and Bigamy (both 1964) are sculptural; boldly colored, and graphic in their shapes. Car Hood, is what it sounds like, sprayed automotive lacquer on a car hood, while Bigamy has a similar palette, but is ceramic. In both cases the shapes represent a bisection of the female reproductive system and commemorate her interests in birthing. Chicago has looked at the female body, including her own, and the trajectory of how women’s bodies have been historically represented in art. In her BirthProject (1980-1985), one of her most well-known series, Chicago created dozens of images about birth and creation that she then had stitched by 150 needleworkers around the country, turning needlework—a format traditionally associated with female craft and housework—on its head. Several examples from the series, including Birth Trinity: Needlepoint 1, from the Birth Project, 1983, are on the third floor of the exhibition.

installation view
New Museum of Contemporary Art

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni

New Museum of Contemporary Art
New Museum of Contemporary Art

Judy Chicago, Immolation , 1972 (printed 2018). Archival pigment print. 36 x 36 in. (91.44 x 91.44 cm). Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation.

New Museum of Contemporary Art
New Museum of Contemporary Art

Cover of Womanhouse catalogue, 1972. Edited by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro; designed by Sheila de Bretteville. Courtesy Through the Flower Archives.

New Museum of Contemporary Art
New Museum of Contemporary Art

Judy Chicago, Did You Know Your Mother Had A Sacred Heart?, 1976. China paint and pen work on porcelain, embroidery on silk on teak wood base, panels: 17 3/4 x 17 3/4 in (45.1 cm x 45.1 cm) each; base: 56 x 40 x 20 in (142.2 x 101.6 x 50.8 cm). © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Gift of Mary Ross Taylor, M.84.89a-e

Installation view
New Museum of Contemporary Art

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni

Installation view
New Museum of Contemporary Art

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni

Installation view
New Museum of Contemporary Art

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni

Installation view
New Museum of Contemporary Art

Installation view of Judy Chicago: Herstory featuring The Three Faces of Man, 1985.

 

installation view
New Museum of Contemporary Art

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni

 

installation view
New Museum of Contemporary Art

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni. 

installation view
New Museum of Contemporary Art

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni. Featuring "City of Ladies."

installation view
New Museum of Contemporary Art

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni

installation view
Photo: Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the New Museum of Contemporary Art

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum.

installation view
Photo: Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the New Museum of Contemporary Art

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum.

installation view
Photo: Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the New Museum of Contemporary Art

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum.

installation view
Photo: Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the New Museum of Contemporary Art

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum. Featuring "City of Ladies."

installation view
Photo: Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the New Museum of Contemporary Art

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum. Featuring "City of Ladies."

installation view
Photo: Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the New Museum of Contemporary Art

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum.

Presented with the “City of Ladies” is a series of tapestries called The Feminine Divine (2020) or the “What if Women Ruled the World?” tapestries that Chicago originally created for DIOR. These velvet-backed tapestries are each embroidered with follow-up questions that offer potential answers such as Would God Be Female? Would Old Women Be Revered? and Would There Be Violence?

While physically in the exhibition, the tapestries are also the heart of a digital project by Chicago and Nadya Tolokonnikova (one of the founding members of Pussy Riot) and sponsored by DMINTI and Danae.io that asks people around the world to provide their own answers to those questions. If you head to the 7th floor of the New Museum, you can see the digital quilt that DMINTI has put together featuring answers to these questions as well as a video booth where you can record your answer to participate in an “ever evolving quilt” that has been answered by people all over the world (there is also a portal on the DMINTI site that allows people to participate online).

In a recent conversation at the New Museum, Gioni asked Chicago if art has a gender, noting that art writer and critic Lucy Lippard wrote an entire book on the subject—From The Center, Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (published by E.P. Dutton & Co., inc, 1976). Chicago responded that from early in her career, “I didn’t think of myself as a woman, but as an artist. As soon as I walked out that studio door, I was hit with gender issues.” She continued, “My gender was hitting me in the face constantly. That is why I decided after the first decade of my practice that I am going to deal with gender, historically philosophically, metaphysically…I spent fifteen years exploring the construct of femininity and then one day I woke up and thought, women aren’t the problem. This was the mid-80s before there were queer theories or the masculinity studies.”

Photo: Donald Woodman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Judy Chicago, Birth Trinity: Needlepoint 1, from the Birth Project, 1983. 

The exhibition delves deeply into all of these processes of thought and while most of the work on view is presented through the lens of challenging and representing the feminine. One of the galleries, filled with works from her PowerPlay series, offers something different: large-scale (huge actually) paintings of nondescript but highly muscular male forms engaging in violent behavior. The PowerPlay series (1982-87), which turns a critical eye towards the negative ways in which men have exerted power, directly provokes and questions the construct of masculinity. At the time, women were still largely excluded from the patriarchal canon of art history. With titles such as, Crippled by the Need to Control/Blind Individuality (1983), which depicts a man ruthlessly pulling on a woman’s hair during a sexual act, and Pissing on Nature (1984), showing a nude man urinating in a landscape en plein air, Chicago places the cis-male form as a dominant force, but also one that she had full control over within the frame of the canvas.

Metaphorically dusting off the many books of feminist theory, this exhibition takes a sharp look at the past, through years of visual and written didactics. Both curators and artist worked to make something that not only is a direct channel through the realm of female liberation, but promotes the power of the artist as being post-gender. In the exhibition within “Herstory,” works on loan greatly illustrate the female-identifying artists who have been active for centuries, but still underrepresented by their male counterparts .“The City of Ladies” is a resource and also methodology that I haven’t seen utilized in a New York institution prior. The show within a show, employs the artwork of others as a way to further constitute the importance of Chicago’s plight, one that while time-specific, is still relevant today.

About the Author

Katy Diamond Hamer

Katy Diamond Hamer is an art writer with a focus on contemporary art and culture. Writing reviews, profiles, interviews and previews, she started the online platform Eyes Towards the Dove in 2007 and was first published in print in 2011 with Flash Art International. Interview highlights include Robert Storr, Helmut Lang, Courtney Love, and Takashi Murakami. Taking a cue from art writers such as Jerry Saltz and movements such as Arte Povera (Italy, 1962-1972), Hamer believes that the language used to describe contemporary art should be both accessible to a large audience as well as informed regarding art historical references. Clients include Almine Rech, Hauser & Wirth, Grand Life, The Creative Independent, Art & Object, Artnet, Cool Hunting, BOMB, Cultured Magazine, Galerie Magazine, Flash Art International, W Magazine, New York Magazine (Vulture), The Brooklyn Rail and others.  Hamer is an Adjunct Faculty member at New York University, Steinhardt School of Education, and Sotheby's Institute of Art. Previously she taught Continuing Education at the New York School of Interior Design.

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