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Will the real Judy Chicago please stand up?

Judy Chicago Heaven is for White Men Only, 1973.
Judy Chicago Heaven is for White Men Only, 1973.
Photo: © Donald Woodman

The conglomeration of styles on view in Brooklyn Museum’s show of Judy Chicago’s early work in celebration of her 75th birthday suggests that she hasn’t yet found herself. Her wide variety of approaches - from minimalism to feminism, and even Judaism - speaks of attempts to fit into the popular ism of the day. How else to explain, say, her Feminist Rejection Series and her Finish Fetish School work?

Likely, the number of brickbats that her work has been hit with hasn’t helped her journey to the self. She told once how much the negative reviews bothered her: “It hurts. Don’t think it doesn’t. I mean, it hurts pretty bad.”

She took an especially big hit in 1979 for "The Dinner Party," her V-shaped installation of place settings for 39 mythical and historical women, which was generally seen as the visual equivalent of soap box speeches, too literal-minded and heavy-handed. LA Times art critic Christopher Knight called “The Dinner Party” "the worst exhibition I've seen in a Los Angeles museum in many a moon . . . You want to run screaming from the room."

Chicago also was put down for her 1995 mix of photography and painting called "The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light." One reviewer faulted her for the "relentless insinuation of herself into the show See Judy standing, like a beacon in a concentration camp. See Judy spray painting images of victims," all seen as a "tendency to tackle and trivialize great Issues."

But as a descendant of 23 generations of rabbis, Chicago seemed entitled to take the annihilation of European Jewry personally. And given all the negative reviews that have come her way, it’s also understandable that she would see herself as a victim. "After I did the `Holocaust,' she told me, “I thought it was going to change. I mean I kept thinking if I just keep working, and if my work were bigger, better, it would change."

It was a fair assumption. "The Holocaust Project" is larger in meaning than "The Dinner Party." While the earlier work is about the historical suppression of women, this was more inclusive - bringing in the suffering of races and creeds through history.

It’s a stretch, though, when Chicago talks about the Nazi extermination of millions as a feminist issue, saying, “Most scholars have paid virtually no attention to the fact that the architects of the Third Reich were all men." By making a connection between issues of war and women, one may wonder if she was making a connection between her disconnected styles.

Another of Chicago’s points to wonder about is her view that female reviewers give her the most grief, which she explains away by saying it isn’t her art that's weak; it’s the reviewers who are weak:

"It's like I violated a lot of what's been acceptable for women in terms of the scope of my projects and ambition and my desire to have an impact on history. You know, I'm not exactly the most tactful person. I mean, I'm pretty straightforward. Blunt. For women, these are not virtues. So these women consciously or unconsciously express the fact that I've done something wrong.”

In the interest of transparency, I’ve been one of those who have panned her work, especially “The Dinner Party.” I’ve said that celebrating women’s history with dishes and referring to their pubic area is not a great way to celebrate women’s history. When Virginia Woolf said a room of one’s own is necessary for female fulfillment, she didn’t mean a dining room.