In 1970, a twice-married artist in her early 30s who’d been toiling in Southern California for more than a decade, and feeling overlooked by the art establishment on account of her gender, decided it was time to change her name again. This time, she wouldn’t take the name of any man; she would name herself. The change was announced via wall text in one of two shows she had in Orange County that fall and to a broader public via an advertisement in Artforum:
Judy Gerowitz hereby divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and freely chooses her own name: Judy Chicago
Half a century later, Judy Chicago: A Retrospective—the first career-long museum overview of the protean and vastly influential artist—debuted at San Francisco’s de Young Museum on August 28. Chicago’s work has engaged minimalism, feminism, history, religion, and the future of the planet, among other topics, via sculpture, spray paint, drawing, glasswork, needlework, pyrotechnics, and much more. A retrospective has, obviously, been a long time coming, made even longer by more than a year’s delay due to COVID-19. Chicago is now 82, and the world is catching up with her at last, with no time to waste.
By taking the name of her birthplace as her own (paging Leonardo da Vinci) rather than using that of her father or her husband, Judy Chicago seized her own place in the history of art, heralding a new time for herself and for other female artists. Chicago’s pioneering art and activism are two reasons a 2018 New York Times headline dubbed her “the Godmother.” That’s “godmother” in the sense that Chicago helped birth the feminist art movement, but maybe also in the sense of never taking no for an answer. Godmother as the Godfather.
At the time that Chicago changed her name, it was popular for male artists in Los Angeles to create “macho announcements and posters in relation to their shows,” as Chicago writes in her new autobiography, The Flowering, a detailed account spanning childhood and some six decades of art making. In support of her own shows in 1970, the artist suited up at the same gritty L.A. gym where Muhammad Ali had trained, wearing boxing gloves, lace-up boots, satin shorts, and a sweatshirt sporting her new name in black capital letters across her chest. The now-iconic image telegraphed that Chicago was tough and cheeky and knew her own worth. Also implied: ready to fight (and for years afterward, male artists did offer to fight her).
But Chicago was also a woman still constrained by a sexist social fabric, including the laws of her time. In order for her to change her name to the one emblazoned on her boxing duds, her new husband had to sign the legal papers. (He did.) And her quest to ensure that women’s art and women’s history were honored and celebrated was long ridiculed and dismissed. Maybe it was the times, but maybe also the way she took things head-on, more boxer provocateur than honeypot.
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
The de Young retrospective is a kind of homecoming for an artist who for better or worse is defined by her most famous, and infamous, work: The Dinner Party, which debuted in San Francisco in the spring of 1979. It’s a monumental installation of ceramics, embroidery, glass, painting, sewing, and scholarship, all in service of saluting groundbreaking women whose work and names were consumed by history. The Dinner Party creates seats for them at the table of fame and cultural memory, a kind of sacred tribute to women overlooked or erased.
A triangular table of 48 feet per side is lined with 39 elaborate place settings, each honoring a woman of the past—Sappho, Sacagawea, Emily Dickinson. The table is dressed with elaborate needlework runners, shiny chalices and tableware, and, most notoriously, large, sculptural ceramic plates featuring vulva imagery, each a portrait of the guest’s essential self. Even as maximalist art installations go, it’s a lot. And if the sexualized dinner plates were off-putting to some, so was Chicago’s insistence that ceramics, needlepoint, and other media long deemed “craft” (and often associated with women) were eminently worthy of consideration as fine art.
The Dinner Party was shocking, moving, inspiring, and wildly popular. In the three months it showed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1979, the piece saw some 100,000 visitors. After touring to exuberant crowds—and sometimes scathing reviews—it was mostly in storage for decades, until the Brooklyn Museum added it to its permanent collection in 2007. Today, according to Chicago, “it accounts for 20 percent of their audience as viewers come to see it from all over the world.” But while The Dinner Party is by far Chicago’s most recognized work, it is far from career defining.
With the Chicago retrospective, the de Young hopes to broaden the view. “The exhibit wants to shine a light on Judy Chicago, for whom The Dinner Party was only one of many important bodies of work,” says Claudia Schmuckli, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s contemporary art and programming curator-in-charge. Calling the retrospective “a journey of discovery,” she adds, “We hope visitors will be surprised and overwhelmed by the sheer breadth and depth of her practice.”
The show does feature a few preparatory pieces for The Dinner Party, but other artworks demonstrate an astonishing range of styles and media, including minimalist painting and sculpture (in 1966, Chicago’s work was part of the influential Primary Structures show at New York’s Jewish Museum); spray-painted car hoods from the slick “finish fetish” era in Southern California, among them Birth Hood, which was recently acquired by the de Young “precisely because it’s incredibly important to her career,” according to Schmuckli; documentation of site-specific colored smoke pieces; ceramic goddesses; feminist photographs, paintings, drawings, and plates; and multiple media brought to bear on major themes concerning birth, masculine power, Judaism, death, and extinction. In addition to all that, the de Young has commissioned a new colored smoke performance piece, A Bouquet for San Francisco, which, if all goes well with permitting from San Francisco Recreation and Parks, will be enacted in Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse, essentially the de Young’s front yard, on October 16.
What the Chicago retrospective amply reveals is a prescient and prolific artist, one who is, if anything, in the ascendant in her 80s. Witness 2018, when she appeared on Time magazine’s annual “Time 100” list of the world’s 100 most influential people. But no matter how serious, consequential, and timely her other work has been, Chicago will almost certainly be remembered for her pivotal role in developing feminist art, as an instigator and as an instructor. By the time she claimed a new name for herself in 1970, she’d left L.A. to teach at Fresno State College (now Cal State Fresno), where she founded the Feminist Art Program, the first “Feminist art education” anywhere. Chicago’s feminist art and pedagogy have influenced generations of artists since and continue to inspire her work. “One reason for my staunch and abiding commitment to feminism,” she writes, “is that I believe its principles provide valuable tools for empowerment—and not only for women. In my view, feminist values are rooted in an alternative to the prevailing paradigm of power, which is power over others.” Chicago’s most recent series, on view at the de Young, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2015–2019), about her own mortality and the peril facing the whole planet, is also informed by feminism. “We can’t do anything about our own death; we are all going to die,” Chicago says in a conversation with Schmuckli in the show’s catalog. “But we can do something about the horror we are inflicting on other creatures and the unnecessary deaths of other creatures.”
Chicago’s approach to feminism—as a tool for challenging multiple injustices, from racism to ecological destruction—is also vigorously explored in New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), which opened on the same day as Chicago’s retrospective across the bay, also after a year’s delay. This major survey of feminist art since 2000 (with some important “prelude” art and history) includes two works by Chicago alongside 138 works by 75 other artists.
New Time and Judy Chicago weren’t the only exhibitions delayed or derailed by COVID, of course, but female artists globally were hit especially hard. Last year was supposed to have been filled with exhibitions dedicated to female artists across the world, from baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi in London to the 99-year-old Venezuelan-born visionary painter Luchita Hurtado in her adopted hometown, Los Angeles. While the Gentileschi and Chicago exhibitions opened later than expected, others were interrupted or called off. Hurtado’s retrospective had been up for just a month when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art shut down owing to the pandemic; her show at the Museo Tamayo, in Mexico City, was canceled outright.
Hurtado died last August, a few months shy of her 100th birthday. According to BAMPFA director Julie Rodrigues Widholm, Hurtado’s “last site-specific work before she passed” is her most monumental painting, a mural she designed for New Time. It’s both a tribute to Hurtado’s tenacity as an artist and an indictment of the art world that despite the electric, even shamanic force of her paintings, she wasn’t recognized as an important artist until the end of her life.
New Time’s opening section, called “Prelude: Arch of Hysteria,” features Louise Bourgeois’s 1993 sculpture Arched Figure. Bourgeois, who died at 98 in 2010, also found artistic recognition late in life, a pattern that hasn’t changed enough (see Chicago and Hurtado) and one sarcastically underlined by anonymous art activists the Guerrilla Girls in a 1988 poster titled “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist,” which greets visitors as they enter and exit the gallery. Fourth on the tongue-in-cheek list of benefits is “Knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty.”
THE NEED FOR CHANGE
It’s no joke, obviously, and Guerrilla Girls’ pieces sandwich New Time, from the poster’s position at the exhibition’s entryway and exit point to another work in the show’s final section of more recent pieces, “Performance, Film, Video, and Other Spaces”—illustrating, emphatically, that not enough has changed. That reality was made eminently clear by the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and it, along with the collective response of the 2017 Women’s March, inspired former BAMPFA curator Apsara DiQuinzio to connect with like-minded curators, land a $50,000 grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and found the Feminist Art Coalition, a working group of individuals and institutions that helped spur many feminist-oriented shows for 2020, including Judy Chicago and New Time.
That a globally minded show like New Time can draw many important works and artists from the West Coast, even specifically the Bay Area, is a testament to California’s important role in the development of feminist art. Oakland sculptor and conceptual artist Michele Pred, who grew up in Berkeley and Sweden, remembers attending openings at the Berkeley Art Museum with her father, a UC Berkeley professor, as a child. “My father was a die-hard feminist, even in the ’70s, and my father is the one who really instilled it in me,” she says, noting that contributing art to New Time “feels like coming home.” Pred’s work, often explicitly feminist and political, has gained notice outside the rarefied arena of the art world in recent years. Her vintage handbags adorned with electroluminescent wire slogans—“small-scale political billboards,” as Pred calls them, with pithy messages like #resist, me too, pro choice, and equal pay—have shown up on the red carpet at the 2018 Academy Awards, in the hands of Hillary Clinton, and on actor-comedian Amy Schumer’s list for InStyle of 19 things she “Really Loves.”
Though several of Pred’s purses are in BAMPFA’s permanent collection, New Time features her neon wall sculpture Vote Feminist (2020). Such a sentiment might have seemed more timely for the show’s original opening, slated in advance of the 2020 presidential election. Pred disagrees. “We’re still fighting for equal rights and equal justice,” she says. “That’s what ‘vote feminist’ is. Equal rights between Black, brown, and white people continue to be essential. That’s all equal rights. All these different themes continue to be relevant. Unfortunately.”
The New Time work of Berkeley artist and 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Prize recipient Lava Thomas explicitly centers Black feminism and the often invisible labor of Black women. In two life-size drawings from her acclaimed series Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Thomas reclaims the honor and agency of Black women whom history has overlooked and elevates their mug shots, turning them into fine art. “I wanted to transform the mug shot, which is a photograph that’s designed to dehumanize…into commemorative portraiture,” Thomas told the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Local Voices podcast. “My goal was to expand the history of the civil rights movement to include the important contributions of Black women. So that when we think about the history of the civil rights movement, we’re not just valorizing its heroes, but we’re thinking of it in a more expansive way, in a more inclusive way. And in a way that honors Black women.”
Feminisms and feminist art as expansive, inclusive practices are what power the beating heart of New Time, providing its outward strength and its sometimes tender vulnerability. Nicki Green is originally from New England, but she’s lived in San Francisco most of her adult life and teaches at UC Berkeley. Her ceramic sculptures in the show “deepen and explore her intersectional queer, trans, and Jewish identities,” as Claire Frost writes in the exhibition catalog. Like Chicago, who continues to utilize media traditionally relegated to the category of craft, Green works in ceramics not despite its feminine associations but because of them. “To move into a discipline that has broader cultural associations with femininity is affirming of my identity,” she says. “A feminine or ornate or frilly, nonserious craft is inherently affirming my transness back at me.”
For Three States of Gender Alchemy, Green created vessels for transformation that suggest mikvahs, Jewish ritual baths. Painted in the instantly recognizable delftware style of fine indigo images and designs on a white ground, the three pyramidal glazed earthenware vessels feel both delicate and solid, sturdy and sweet. Green’s work is likewise often challenging but also warm. Expressing all the complicated and potent possibilities of transformation, it offers the underlying hope of most, maybe all, feminist art: that change is necessary, and possible.•
Judy Chicago: A Retrospective
- Through Jan. 9, 2022
- de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., San Francisco
New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century
- Through Jan. 30, 2022
- UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St., Berkeley