Gallery  August 27, 2019  Jordan Riefe

At 80, Judy Chicago Reaches her Prime

Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

Judy Chicago, Birth Hood, 1965/2011. Sprayed automatic lacquer on car hood.

Judy Chicago always knew she’d be famous. One day, back in the 1960s at the beginning of her career, she was hanging around with celebrated Ferus Gallery curator Walter Hopps and some of his Cool School artists like Billy Al Bengston who shared studios in Pasadena at the time. Hopps wondered aloud which of them might be the first to appear on the cover of Time magazine. Chicago knew it never crossed his mind that it might be her. Nevertheless, there she was last year on her own custom issue of Time’s ‘2018’s 100 Most Influential People.’ 

Jordan Riefe

Judy Chicago

At the age of 80, Judy Chicago has arrived. Next year, she will have her first-ever retrospective at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. And last year she enjoyed a survey of her work, Judy Chicago: A Reckoning, at Miami’s ICA, coinciding with Art Basel. There, she sat for a popular Q&A with gallerist Jeffrey Deitch who is bringing Judy Chicago: Los Angeles, a wide-ranging look at her early work, to his gallery in Hollywood beginning September 7 through early November. 

“My first decade and a half of practice in Southern California, it was incredibly difficult and challenging cause the art world was so inhospitable to women,” Chicago, (born Cohen) tells Art & Object from her home in Belen, New Mexico. “Still, within that period I built the building blocks of my career, my formal ability, my color systems, the scale I was interested in working, the level of ambition, the level at which I wanted to try and make a contribution. I had a burning desire to make art. I had a lot to say. And I made making art my reward.”

Courtesy Jeffrey Deitch

Judy Chicago, Rainbow Pickett, 1965 (recreated 2004). Latex paint on canvas-covered plywood.

The new show will include paintings, drawings, installations, sculptures, and images of the artist’s environmental and fireworks projects. Included is 1965’s Rainbow Pickett, a sculpture that was part of the influential Primary Structures show at New York’s Jewish Museum that proved pivotal to Chicago’s career. 

Also on hand are three car hoods from 1965 covered in sprayed lacquer; quintessential L.A. works incorporating car culture, a decidedly male pose. At the time, Billy Al Bengston, the Cool School’s most macho practitioner, was a big influence on her.

Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

Judy Chicago, Bigamy Hood, 1965/2011. Sprayed automatic lacquer on car hood.

“He said being an artist is a fulltime job,” Chicago recalls. She remembers bumping into him at the Getty during the opening of 2011’s Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. “I said, Billy Al, I need to thank you. I never did acknowledge that I learned a lot from you. And he said to me, ‘I know, Judy. I was such a male chauvinist, and that's why you did everything you did.’ I said, don't take all the credit!”

Five years later, in 1970 she painted Pasadena Lifesavers, a series of abstract acrylics on Plexiglas. According to her, they represent the discovery that she was “multi-orgasmic,” and she sees them as a turning point in her work in relation to women’s sexuality.

Judy Chicago, Pasadena Lifesavers Blue Series #2,1969-1970. Sprayed acrylic lacquer on acrylic. Collection of Elizabeth A. Sackler.
© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkPhoto © Donald Woodman/ARS, New Yor

Judy Chicago, Pasadena Lifesavers Blue Series #2,1969-1970. Sprayed acrylic lacquer on acrylic. Collection of Elizabeth A. Sackler.

Judy Chicago, Pasadena Lifesavers Yellow Series #2, 1969-1970.
© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkPhoto © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York

Judy Chicago, Pasadena Lifesavers Yellow Series #2, 1969-1970. Sprayed acrylic lacquer on acrylic. Collection of Elizabeth A. Sackler.

Judy Chicago, Pasadena Lifesavers Red Series #2, 1969-1970
© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkPhoto © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York

Judy Chicago, Pasadena Lifesavers Red Series #2, 1969-1970. Sprayed acrylic lacquer on acrylic. Collection of Elizabeth A. Sackler.

“The crafts that I got interested in, needlework and china painting, were associated with women so they had a negative charge that auto body painting and plastic and fiberglass didn’t have,” she says about some of the influences that led her to found the nation’s first women’s only arts program at Fresno State College in the early 1970s. Around that time, she also co-founded Womanhouse with Miriam Schapiro at CalArts. “The idea that techniques are gendered seemed ridiculous to me. I approached plastics or spray painting the same way I approached needlework or china painting.” 

The latter was a key component to her landmark 1979 work, The Dinner Party, an installation of a triangular dinner table with 39 place settings honoring real and imagined women throughout history. The vaginal imagery on each plate scared away curators from major arts institutions, but a grassroots tour was undertaken, stopping at 16 venues in six countries before the piece was placed in storage in 1996. Acquired by the Brooklyn Museum in 2007, it is part of their permanent collection.

“Controversy? What controversy?” Chicago asked NPR’s Susan Stamberg when questioned about the ruckus surrounding the opening of The Dinner Party at SFMOMA. “What happened was not only a shock to me, but it educated (Museum Director) Henry Hopkins about sexism in the artworld. I was 40 when it opened. Henry said to me, ‘Judy, this is the culmination of your career.’ And I said, ‘No, Henry, I’m just getting started.”

Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

Judy Chicago, Flesh Fan, 1971. Sprayed acrylic lacquer on acrylic.

The way Chicago sees it, the culmination of her career will be the upcoming retrospective of 100 works at the de Young Museum in May, 2020, segueing smoothly from the Deitch show along with a major monograph launching in September. With an intro by art writer and sociologist Sarah Thornton, it also includes an interview Chicago did with famed curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, as well as an essay by New Museum Artistic Director Massimiliano Gioni on Chicago’s needlework series, Birth Project.

The artist’s most recent body of work is the focus of an essay by philosopher Martha Nussbaum. The ominously titled, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, developed over six years, opens in September at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Mixed media including china paint on porcelain, painted glass and bronze, combine to confront questions of mortality, extinction, and “the process of empathy.”

Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

Judy Chicago, Flight Hood, 1965/2011. Sprayed automatic lacquer on car hood.

It saddens Chicago that works like the 1980s Birth Project, celebrating the process of birth, are more relevant today when women's’ reproductive rights are again under siege. Also from the 1980s, Power Play, about toxic masculinity, speaks directly to the #metoo movement. Her 1990s Holocaust Project has taken on greater resonance with the spread of White Nationalism resulting in a 57 percent jump in anti-Semitic incidents from 2016 to 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

“What is happening for me is sad, but not a surprise,” she sighs. “What can I say? All of this was clear to me and I expressed it in decades of work. And that work is now becoming clear to a lot of people. My career has exploded in the last couple of years. I just hope I stay healthy and have some more years of surprises ahead of me.”

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters, THR.com, and the Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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