Judy Chicago: The Flowering (2021) | featured image

Judy Chicago’s Feminist Art Is Still Flowering

In her autobiography Still Flowering, Judy Chicago also offers a plainspoken, powerful discussion about the growth of feminist art.

The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago
Thames & Hudson
July 2021

In The Flowering, Judy Chicago collects her thoughts and memories from two previous autobiographies and brings her story up to date for readers. A significant aspect of her story is the move of her installation project The Dinner Party from storage to a permanent exhibition space. For an artist who spent decades of her career being disregarded by critics and art establishments because of her gender, the permanent display of The Dinner Party is a tremendous victory.

The details of Chicago’s early years as a graduate student and practicing artist portray a level of misogyny that some readers may find shocking. Her tenacity and determination was a factor in making space for women to be accepted and appreciated as artists. As her expression of her identity and her sexuality as a woman was met with scorn, she grappled with ways to use the artistic language of patriarchal culture to create art, not readily realizing the difficulty of the endeavor.

Chicago stepped outside of imposed gender boundaries not only in her subject but also in her technique. In the 1960s, she attended autobody school to learn how to spray paint, then began the process of being licensed as a pyrotechnician to work with smoke and fireworks in her art projects.

Judy Chicago | A Butterfly for Brooklyn, 2014 Performed at Prospect Park, Long Meadow, Brooklyn, NY and in collaboration with Pyro Spectaculars, Rialto, CA. Fireworks, LEDs, and flares Photograph © Donald Woodman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY | courtesy of Thames & Hudson

The early evolution of the women’s liberation movement helped her feel less isolated, leading to her decision to abandon the surname of her deceased husband and call herself Judy Chicago. She relates that Rolf Nelson, who ran a gallery that showed her work, nicknamed her Judy Chicago not only in honor of her midwestern accent but also because he thought it suited the tough stance and attitude she maintained in a man’s world. 

Judy Chicago | Name-change and exhibition announcement, Artforum, October 1970 Courtesy Through the Flower Archives, Belen, NM | courtesy of Thames & Hudson

Moving into the 1970s, Chicago felt there was no means for her to express the challenges – as well as the power – of a woman’s struggle as an artist. This led her to search for a community of women working across artistic forms to create a common infrastructure. She created the opportunity to build a space for herself and other women by teaching what she called feminist art at Fresno State University.

Chicago’s story of encouraging young women to let themselves have a voice, then translating that into inspiration for their art, is compelling. She identifies the lack of iconography for those young artists as analogous to the frustration among feminist writers who were trying to find – or create – language outside of patriarchal discourse.

Chicago explains her standpoint on feminist art by writing about her students as well as her research. While for many contemporary readers, Frida Kahlo’s work is more familiar than work by her husband, the painter Diego Rivera, Chicago writes about having to undo the idea that Kahlo’s paintings were an emotional response to Rivera’s behavior. Considering Kahlo’s tendency for self-portraiture, it is difficult to imagine a critical structure in which her work was so clearly subverted. Through her work as a teacher, mentor, and artist, Chicago realized that her primary interest was in women’s history, much of which had been lost, ignored, or never recorded.

While tracing the chronology of her own life and career, Chicago also offers a plainspoken, powerful discussion about the growth of feminist art. The lack of access to generations of women artists and writers that preceded her is made urgent by her understanding that the history of art as is commonly understood is predominantly the history of men creating things. She describes her struggle with the dissonance of being praised for work that could be ascribed to a patriarchal form and aesthetic while also having her work ignored or ridiculed when she sought ways to express herself as a woman. She writes that as she was beginning to work on The Dinner Party, she was trying to create a new visual language that would express her experiences as a woman.

Judy Chicago | The Dinner Party, 1979. Mixed media installation
Collection of Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation | courtesy of Thames & Hudson

The Dinner Party was completed through the participation of dozens of artists volunteering their time and skill. Chicago reports that the project, along with many of her other artistic undertakings, was perpetually underfunded. Chicago and Diane Gelon, who began working on the project conducting historical research, eventually established a nonprofit organization to manage the multitude of small donations that flowed in from across the country. In writing about the vast differences between public appreciation and critical reception to The Dinner Party, Chicago works through her devastation over negative reviews by prominent art critics Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes when The Dinner Party was exhibited at Brooklyn Museum in 1980.

The striking imbalance between public adulation and critical scorn is a theme throughout The Flowering as Chicago details the creation of her large-scale art projects. Her seeming arrogance can be off-putting, but knowing how she struggled to have her work seen as art and not craft, to be regarded as an artist, to be publicly recognized for her work, it is not difficult to understand that self-promotion became a necessary habit. More than once, though, she notes that she shrugged off publicity and public recognition because she always knew she would be famous. 

In charting the chronology of the Birth Project (1980-85), which began to take shape while still working on The Dinner Party, Chicago conveys lessons learned about gender equality and feminism that arose during the process. As with The Dinner Party, dozens of women volunteered to do needlework independently. When the women were invited to review their work with Chicago, she learned that many of them had failed to do their best work or complete their projects because of various “second shift” demands on their time.

Judy Chicago | Earth Birth from the Birth Project 1983. 60.75 Å~ 132.25 in. Quilting by Jacquelyn Alexander Courtesy Through the Flower Archives, Belen, NM | courtesy of Thames & Hudson

Chicago was frustrated that based on their gendered constraints, needleworkers could not put their own needs and interests ahead of those of husbands and children. Another struggle related to the size of the work: artists and patrons alike could not understand why Chicago aspired to create monumental artworks. Gender norms dictated that large work was in the domain of male artists and women should contain their creativity in small spaces. 

With the same level of enthusiastic narrative that she writes about The Dinner Party and the Birth Project, Chicago recounts her deep engagement with the artistic representation of masculinity. When she began this study in the early 1980s, theoretical work on masculinity was sparse, leading Chicago to throw herself into research to uncover lesser-known texts and artworks.

This somewhat obsessive process became typical of her working style. Chicago writes about her work as a constant whirlwind of artistic production, writing, travel, and engagement with the many individuals and institutions required for a working artist. Her pride in maintaining this frenetic life is deserved but at times feels like one-upping other artists and perhaps even the reader.

As this is an autobiography, Chicago winds together her personal life and her artistic work, and at times it would be impossible to separate them. After screening Shoah in 1985, Chicago and her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, spent eight years working on the Holocaust Project (1985-93). Chicago uses her writing about the years spent engaged with the Holocaust Project for multiple purposes: in detailing her experience, she is still processing and making sense of the emotional and spiritual impact this work had on both her and Donald. She is also again conveying the messages she communicated in the Holocaust Project: that the scale and scope of genocide should be deemed intolerable but somehow is not, as the common, everyday microaggressions that are used to express power over others are derived from the same place as mass murder.

While always navigating both the critical and public reception to her work, Chicago says she was shocked by the experience of sudden infamy when The Dinner Party became the subject of an emotionally charged debate in Congress in 1990. She had worked with Pat Mathis, a longtime supporter of her work, who was also a trustee of the African American University of the District of Columbia (UDC) to donate The Dinner Party to the university. The arrangement would ensure the perpetual storage and preservation of the artwork, which Chicago describes as a tremendous relief to her.

The Washington Times ran a front-page article erroneously claiming the university was purchasing The Dinner Party, indicating that public funds would be used to invest in “pornographic art” depicting “women’s genitalia on plates”. The happy ending for The Dinner Party is that it remains a permanent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum since its installation in 2007.

Judy Chicago | Rejection Breakthrough Drawing from the Rejection Quintet, 1974 Prismacolor and graphite on paper, 40 Å~ 30 in (101.6 Å~ 76.2 cm) Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art | courtesy of Thames & Hudson

The release of The Flowering coincides with a series of retrospectives and new works celebrating Judy Chicago’s career. Beginning in mid-2021, her work is on exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, and also at the de Young Museum and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. This array of exhibits invites a new visit and a reconsideration of Chicago’s art and influence alike. 

Judy Chicago on a Doublehead bronze at the Shidoni Foundry, Santa Fe, NM,
1986 Photograph © Donald Woodman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY | courtesy of Thames & Hudson