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Artist Judy Chicago to speak in D.C. at her exhibit March 2

Judy Chicago, "Pasadena Lifesavers Red #5", 1970. Sprayed acrylic lacquer on acrylic. She went to auto-body school to learn spray painting and airbrushing.
Judy Chicago, "Pasadena Lifesavers Red #5", 1970. Sprayed acrylic lacquer on acrylic. She went to auto-body school to learn spray painting and airbrushing.
National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), Washington, D.C. Gift of Elyse and Stanley Grinstein. © Judy Chicago.

Pioneering feminist artist Judy Chicago, creator of "The Dinner Party", will speak at her 75th birthday party and exhibit, "Judy Chicago: Circa '75" on March 2 at Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA).

The revolutionary artist, who once declared "I'm not into kvetching, I'm into changing the world," was a key founder of the 1970s Feminist Art Movement. She'll discuss that and far more, and sign her latest of 14 books, on Sunday.

The stunning but small tribute exhibit honors Chicago's legacy as an artist and social activist. It has 13 paintings, drawings, sculptures and mixed media works she created in the 1970s.

Two of the works were for her famed multimedia installation "The Dinner Party" (1974-1979).

"(T)he most monumental work of the 1970s feminist art movement has been praised, damned, celebrated, and denounced since it debut in 1979," writes art historian and author Jane F. Gerhard in her book "The Dinner Party" (University of Georgia Press). The book is "mainly an account of the intersection of 'The Dinner Party' with that amorphous thing we call American feminism."

The phenomenal artwork is a symbolic history of 39 key women in Western civilization, from ancient goddesses to modern artists and writers, plus 999 names of other important women.

Chicago's extensive use of female anatomy, which she terms "core imagery", was extremely controversial and sensational back then, and even today some find it a bit startling.

"The Dinner Party" is represented in the NMWA exhibit by Chicago's test plate for Virginia Woolf, a labial husk with surrounding something like corn kernels, and a preliminary model of Emily Dickinson's plate, a vulva surrounded by layers of pinkish lace, like a Dresden doll.

Chicago wrote on the Woolf work, "Poor Virginia. She was a flower of delicacy, a genius, a shaking leaf -- she tottered on the brink of sanity...a true female voice which, like a beacon, beckons us."

Chicago wrote a stanza from Dickinson on the poet's plate: "I took my Power in my Hand— And went against the World— 'Twas not so much as David—had— But I—was twice as bold."

The quote is so apt also for Chicago, and especially for "The Dinner Party", which has gone from controversy to canonization.

"The Dinner Party" is the epitome of feminist art ("seminal" has no female equivalent, certainly not "hysterical"), the massive work is regarded as a milestone of 20th century art.

"The New York Times" has described it as "...almost as much a part of American culture as Norman Rockwell, Walt Disney, the WPA murals and the AIDS quilts."

Woolf and Dickinson are represented again in the Chicago exhibit by preparatory drawings for her "Great Ladies" series (1972-1973).

Chicago has written that these Great Ladies "represent themselves, aspects of myself, and various ways in which women have accommodated themselves to the constraints of their circumstances."

Her exquisite six-drawing series, "Compressed women who yearned to be butterflies" (1973-1974), is as heart-wrenching as it is beautiful. It was never made, due to a disagreement with the print shop "run by a controlling man... with "a small man's ego."

She writes these comments, and also "Aborted" or "DEAD" or "killed by male supremacy" across the various drawings that pay homage to heroines real or fictional, whose lives were crushed by patriarchal society.

Lily Bart, in Edith Wharton's "House of Mirth", Chicago writes on the image, "killed herself in despair because there were no options left for her in the structure of male society. That frightens me."

On her image for Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), an early German Expressionist, Chicago wrote "...I become very angry because her work is never included (in Expressionism exhibits) while that of lesser male artists is. I wonder if the same thing will happen to me."

Each drawing is an incomplete circular form with wavy or straight brilliantly-colored lines like butterfly wings.

Another work in the NMWA show is from her "Pasadena Lifesavers" (1969–70) series of 15 five-feet-by-five-feet paintings. Each features four circular or hexagonal-shaped luminous forms airbrushed onto shiny acrylic sheets. She attended auto-body school to learn airbrushing and spray painting.

The three groups of "Pasadena Lifesavers" represent "my 'masculine' side, my 'feminine' receptive side, and the hiding of myself that I was still doing," Chicago wrote in her autobiography "Through the Flower: my struggle as a woman artist", first published in 1975, and updated many times.

Born Judy Cohen in Chicago in 1939, she changed her original last name and her married name, Gerowitz, in 1971. The artist declared she "'hereby divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and freely chooses her own name Judy Chicago'".

The name change also announced a radical change in her artmaking, that led her to create a feminist art practice.

"My work is all about...ensuring that women’s achievements become a permanent part of our cultural history," Chicago has noted.

Her mentor, famed writer Anaïs Nin, said in the introduction to "Through the Flower": "She shows the way; she shows the tools and the personal integrity and persistence required."

Chicago, who is also a highly respected educator, lecturer, and author, realized at age 23 "that I must build my life on the basis of my own identity, my own work, my own needs, and the only way I could do that was through my art."

Hear this icon of feminism and 20th-21st-century art at NMWA on March 2 at 5 P.M. It'll be a dialogue with Gerhard, followed by a birthday party where both authors will sign their new books. Chicago's is "Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education" (Monacelli Press), and Gerhard's is "The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism" (University of Georgia Press).

Other events honoring Chicago's 75th birthday and legacy are being held by:

  • Penn State University begins its year-long celebrations on Jan. 21 with "Surveying Judy Chicago: Five Decades" exhibit at its Palmer Museum of Art. Chicago will be the keynote speaker April 5 at a free symposium. Penn State houses the Judy Chicago Art Education Collection, one of the most important private collections of archival materials on feminist art education.

At the Brooklyn Museum, "at the start of the new millennium Chicago found herself welcomed into the museum world that had long scorned 'The Dinner Party'," wrote Gerhard.

The permanent installation fulfilled Chicago's goal, expressed in 1975 in her personal journal, to make a work of such importance that it "will enter the cultural pool and never be erased from history."

For more info: "Judy Chicago: Circa '75", National Museum of Women in the Arts,, 1250 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-783-5000 or 800-222-7270. Exhibit on view Jan. 17-Apr. 13. Artist Conversation: Judy Chicago and Jane Gerhard in Dialogue and 75th-birthday celebration, March 2. (Chicago's actual birthday is July 20). The National Museum of Women in the Arts is the world's only museum devoted exclusively to recognizing women's creative achievements. Judy Chicago, "The Dinner Party", three triangular banquet tables measuring about 144-square-feet, is a permanent installation at the Brooklyn Museum's Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

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