Judy Chicago in Her Own Words

An interview with the artist on California, feminism, and her return to San Francisco.

earth birth, from the series birth project, 1983, by judy chicago
© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo BY Donald Woodman

We reached Chicago in Belen, the small town south of Albuquerque where she’s lived since the early 1990s. “Although I began coming to New Mexico in the early 1980s, it was to paint,” says Chicago. “I never imagined that I would end up living here. But there is definitely a connection between California and New Mexico…in terms of the light, the color, and the psychic space.” We asked Chicago about the importance of California to her work and what drives her art.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.

Thanks to you and your work, California can stake a claim as the birthplace of feminist art. Why did you choose to work in Los Angeles and Fresno when you did, rather than New York or Chicago?
I feel strongly that my artistic roots are in California. I went to UCLA for both my BA and MA and emerged from graduate school in the 1960s, when the Southern California art scene was in its infancy.

Although the L.A. art scene was singularly inhospitable to women, there was a spirit of self-invention that definitely affected me. I could never have imagined inventing a feminist art practice or starting my feminist art-education programs in New York, as the shadow of Europe and tradition was too strong there. Even so, I had to go to Fresno for a year to be away from the L.A. art scene and have time to think and dream and plan.

Do you think California is still central to the developing history of feminist art?
My original goal was for feminist art to become global, which has happened. It is thrilling to me to see women artists all over the world expressing themselves openly as women, which was impossible when I was young. At the same time, there are still women artists who are doing what I did when I was a young artist—that is, donning “male drag” in their work.

Does it feel meaningful to have your first major museum retrospective opening in San Francisco when The Dinner Party—arguably your best-known work—also debuted there? Why is San Francisco the place that recognized your art early—and still does?
Although I have not had much traditional support from the art world, there were always individuals who supported me, like Henry T. Hopkins, who was the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where The Dinner Party premiered. Although he was ahead of me in school, he also went to UCLA. He was very progressive in his thinking, and after he hosted an event for me when my first autobiography, Through the Flower, was published, he realized that there was a large audience for art that explored women’s experiences.

The negative response of the art world taught him about how deeply sexism pervaded it and was one reason he also renewed The Dinner Party at the Hammer Museum when he was the director there. The show he did there, curated by Amelia Jones, Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist Art History, started a slow critical turnaround that is culminating in what is happening now. But there is still considerable resistance to my work at an institutional level, which explains the fact that I am still not in the collections of a lot of major museums, like MOMA, the Met, the National Gallery, and many others.

Can you suggest any artists working in the West now, particularly on the West Coast, whom you admire and follow and might recommend that readers look into?
Rose B. Simpson, Andrea Bowers, Judy Baca, Betye Saar, Daniel Joseph Martinez, Ed Bereal, and countless others who have pursued their own visions.

You have had a busy summer, with the publication of your third autobiography, The Flowering, in July and your de Young retrospective and participation in New Time in August. What drives you, and how do you still do so much?
There was never a plan to publish my autobiography one month before the opening of the de Young show. That was the result of the pandemic, which pushed off the retrospective. But it is interesting because it will allow people to see the range of my art practice and read my “story.” As to what drives me, my goal has always been to make a contribution, a goal that has never changed. As to doing so much, as my husband’s therapist often says, we are too old for our life, so we just do the best we can.•

Bridget Quinn is a writer, critic, and art historian living in San Francisco.
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