At de Young, Judy Chicago finally gets the retrospective she wanted


Controversy can define and elevate an artist’s career, propelling them into decades of successful existence. Exhibit A: Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp and Tracey Emin. But controversy can also overwhelm an artist’s career, reducing the artist’s other work to true asterisks as people focus on the art that pushed the artist into the public eye. Exhibit A: Andres Serrano, whose 1987 photograph titled piss christ generated considerable controversy for its depiction of a crucifix in urine – and it is still the work most closely associated with it.

Where does Judy Chicago fit into this spectrum? Dinner made the name of Chicago when it debuted in 1979 – and rightly so. Now on permanent display at Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Dinner is a massive triangular banquet table that houses 39 women from history, including Sojourner Truth, Virginia Woolf, Susan B. Anthony, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

At each decor is a porcelain plate which, with the exception of the decor of Truth and that of composer Ethel Smyth, features intricate butterfly shapes that resemble the vulva. Chicago did the job of uplifting the achievements of women at a time when the art world (and the world in general) devalued the contributions of women, and Dinner comes across as a work of art – but not without criticism, including from some women who say Dinner leans too strongly towards white women and that his depiction of the Truth Plate, which shows three faces, treats the truth differently from most other plates, as if it is impossible to imagine the truth the same way as Dinner ‘s other women.

The de Young Museum’s new exhibit, “Judy Chicago: A Retrospective,” mentions this controversial aspect of Chicago’s career in the gallery dedicated to Dinner. But the gallery itself splits into several other galleries that show the full arc of Chicago’s career and essentially bring Chicago out of the shadows. Dinner have long thrown on his art. “Judy Chicago: A Retrospective” is the artist’s first retrospective, which is hard to believe because Chicago, who is 82, has been a prominent figure in the art world for over 40 years. Why did it take so long?

For Chicago, the answers relate to the same issue she raised with Dinner in 1979: Outspoken women artists have been cataloged or fired for decades. And as Chicago told reporters at de Young’s media preview last week, so many people – including many current art curators, she hinted – still don’t consider her. that compared to Dinner.

“I’m sure for anyone who knows about my career, I’ve had a long, hard fight,” Chicago said at a desk inside a de Young gallery on the first floor. “My work and my values ​​are definitely at odds with the mainstream art industry – an industry that prioritizes form over content and measures art not by its meaning but rather by how much money it sells for – especially at auctions, where women’s work is notoriously worth much less than men’s.


Chicago, who wears her hair in multiple colors, is known for her forceful speech and steadfast demeanor, but at the start of her speech, she almost burst into tears as she contemplated an exhibit that explains everything she’s worked for. Chicago is a pioneer of feminist art, and her vocal battles to increase the representation of women in museums – and to redefine what women could do as art – helped lay the groundwork for new generations of artists and new generations of curators like Claudia Schmuckli de Young. who think Chicago has yet to receive the attention it deserves.

In 1970, Chicago founded the first feminist arts education program in the United States at present-day California State University, Fresno. In 1972, she co-founded Womanhouse, a Los Angeles space that became the first to exhibit feminist art. It was two years after Chicago changed her last name from her late husband’s name (Gerowitz) and reduced the return to the last name she received at birth (Cohen) – an action she took made public in a big announcement in Art Forum, where she wrote: “Judy Gerowitz gets rid of all the names imposed on her by male social domination and freely chooses her own name: Judy Chicago.

“For me it was important to show Judy as a very lively artist – and one who has never stopped doing work that takes a deep interest in current issues and concerns,” said Schmuckli, curator in charge of museums of fine art. -arts of San Francisco. of contemporary art and programming, which joined museums in 2016 and hugged Chicago at the lectern. “This moment is long overdue.”

“Judy Chicago: A Retrospective” does not begin with Chicago’s earliest works, but with some of her later: glass plates with baked-on paint and scriptures that showcase near-extinction species and highlight imaginary scenes from Chicago as she struggles with her final moments on Earth. These works, according to Chicago, testify to her view that women’s justice is linked to “a global justice that embraces all living creatures.”

Among the first works in the exhibition are the Chicago abstract motifs from the late 1960s and early 1970s that seemingly have nothing to do with justice or feminism or whatever Chicago is known for. Pasadena Lifesavers Red Series # 4, 1969-1970, for example, shows four octagonal shapes with multiple colors. But Chicago says they represent female sexuality in ways that men, at the time, couldn’t see.

Art & Activism

In 1972, Chicago is more explicit with two photographic lithographs exhibited at de Young: Gun smoke shows the hand of a man with his gun inserted into the mouth of a pained-looking woman, while Red flag shows a woman’s hand removing a bloody tampon from her vagina amid a darkness of shadows and pubic hair. Counter works that take the perspective of a male gaze, Red flag and Gun smoke still have the capacity to shock, with Gun smoke adding the specter of violence while pulling its title from a hit TV series about the American West.

This pattern of violence – male violence that connects in Chicago’s eyes to society’s treatment of women, animal species, the environment, and other areas – is what emerges when you see the entirety of the production. of Chicago, as with its striking Holocaust-related works of art. The fall, from 1993, is a car-length tapestry that chronicles the Holocaust and what Chicago sees as its European antecedents, including industrialization and its push towards mechanistic and dehumanizing efficiencies.

Yet in the midst of Chicago’s harsh subject is a work like that of 1992 Rainbow Shabbat, a giant stained-glass window that brings together people of many ethnicities and faiths around a table, that is to say that Chicago uses an anchor similar to Dinner, but this time with people whose arms are entwined. Also at de Young: a series of works of art from the 1980s that depict women and childbirth, as with The Creation and In the beginning, whose swirls and patterns represent primordial scenes from the origins of life with women at the center. These are some of Chicago’s best works – a series that she says touched on a topic the art world was unaware of, consciously or unconsciously.

Bright, bright colors permeate Chicago art, but there is very little lightness in the subject matter, whether it is his first work or his last. At the press premiere, Chicago recognized her propensity for seriousness, and her belief that art can activate people’s perspectives to change society, were factors in what she called her “Marginalization by the art world”, stating: “Even though my gender has definitely contributed in the face of this situation, I think the most important question has been my vision of what art can be and do.

Chicago is certainly not the only visual artist – or artist of any genre, including music – who has had to navigate between their militant instincts and their creative instincts. Nina Simone has also handled this all her life. Chicago managed her career the only way she knew how, she says: defiantly. And a noise that still did not dissipate even as she crossed the threshold to become an octogenarian. At the press premiere, she recalled being in San Francisco 40 years ago when Dinner came to SFMOMA under its then director, Henny Hopkins.

“Forty years ago,” she said, “I was here for the opening of Dinner and at that time Henry Hopkins, who was the director of the San Francisco Museum of Art, said to me, “Judy, this is the highlight of your career. And I said, ‘Henry, I’m just getting started.’ “

Yet in the 1990s Chicago declared that “the worst moment of my career was when Dinner was in storage and facing an uncertain future. And I must have read articles that said I couldn’t draw. I started drawing when I was three years old. I started taking art lessons when I was five years old. For me, living and drawing were almost synonymous.

The glass plates that open “Judy Chicago: A Retrospective” are essentially drawings. And these are vintage Chicago: they are explicit and straightforward works that ask the viewer to think carefully before moving on. In other words, they are just as visually conflicting as the Dinner.

That’s why, as Schmuckli watched Chicago from the lectern, she said, “You always get a kick in the ass.”

Chicago smiled, but fell silent as some people cheered – a rare moment when Chicago didn’t have to say anything.

Judy Chicago: a retrospective
Until January 9 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr. (Golden Gate Park), SF $ 13- $ 28, 415-750.3600,


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