Most people familiar with Judy Chicago likely associate her with a dinner party—The Dinner Party, (1974-79), specifically. The artist’s massive, concept-driven installation features 39 place settings on an ornately decorated triangular table that honors significant women drawn from the annals of history. Made collaboratively with over 400 contributors, it’s sat at the Brooklyn Museum on permanent display since 2007. To this day, the piece weathers criticism for its reductivism and whiteness—among the whopping 1,038 women it commemorates, only two, Sacagawea and Sojourner Truth, are of color—while earning praise for the scale of its feminist vision.
Whatever your feelings about The Dinner Party, you might be struck by the vitality and sheer variety of her work on display at “Judy Chicago: Herstory,” a three-story retrospective of the artist, now 84, on exhibit at New York’s New Museum now through January. The show coincides with the publication of Judy Chicago: The Inside Story, a volume of prints accompanied by interviews and essays by curators and critics offering insight into her evolution as an artist and collaborator. The book confirms an impressive cogency behind Chicago’s interdisciplinary and sprawling output. The “Flesh Garden,” 1971, series, for example, renders grids of acrylic sprayed with soft pastel lacquers that contrast with the paintings’ clean geometries—and with the more muted austerity of male Minimalists like Donald Judd and Frank Stella. The psychedelic painting Through the Flower 2, 1973, also deploys airbrushed gradient color, simultaneously conjuring a blooming flower, a vortex, mountains and sky, and a circle of phalluses. (“I was interested in the dissolving sensation that occurs during orgasm as a metaphor for a larger life experience,” Chicago has said of the painting.) Meanwhile, her series “Birth Hood,” 1965/2011, uses a metal car hood as a canvas for clitoral butterfly imagery, undermining the material’s original machismo, while “The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction,” 2012-18, imagines death on both a personal and global scale with kiln-fired painted glass. “Birth Project” (1980-85), another large-scale collaborative series in the vein of The Dinner Party, explores the myth and power of childbearing using a variety of needlework performed by volunteers. Earth Birth in particular is striking: Quilted by Jacquelyn Moore Alexander and stretching more than 11 feet long, the work depicts a woman in labor using crocheted iridescent black cotton. White wall peeks through from behind; as the tapestry moves, the woman on the tapestry shimmers as if she’s trembling.
The fourth floor of the New Museum is reserved for “The City of Ladies,” a group exhibition of women and queer artists that Chicago curated herself. Their works are displayed underneath giant quilted banners from her 2020 series “The Female Drive,” which she made for a Dior fashion show. The banners ask variations of the question, “What if women ruled the world?” (A wildly plush magenta and floral carpet from that show outfits the floor.) Georgia O’Keefe, Hilma af Klint, Leonora Carrington, Loïs Mailou Jones, and Zora Neale Hurston are among the 80 women whose work is featured here. The pieces are grouped with loose themes; one wall features several women wearing pants. When I visited earlier this month, I asked a museum attendant what tended to draw people’s attention. She led me to Papilla Estelar (Celestial Pablum), 1958, by the Mexican painter Remedios Varo, in which a woman spoon-feeds a sliver of a moon suspended within a birdcage and hand cranks stars into an inky sky. On the same wall, a one-minute silent film, La Fée Aux Choux, 1896, by Alice Guy-Blaché showed a corseted woman dancing with deranged joy and harvesting real-live newborns from giant cabbages.
Rose Courteau: Congratulations on your retrospective and book! How are you feeling at this moment?
Judy Chicago: Thank you! I have long said that I put my faith in art history. I’m finally seeing my decades of struggle and perseverance as a female artist come to fruition. Seeing this exhibition come together has allowed me to realize that one reason that my work has been so marginalized for so long is that the multiple contexts of my work have been unknown to the art world. I feel that my story, along with so many other women artists is finally being told. Still, it’s only the beginning of replacing the patriarchal art historical paradigm that has been presented as universal with a truly diverse art history.
RC: What are some of your earliest—or most formative—memories of beauty?
JC: I’ve always wanted to be an artist. My mother told me that I started to draw before I could talk. At an early age, I took classes at the Chicago Art Institute where I was surrounded by beauty. I remember being moved by the Impressionist paintings and their use of color and light. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that, with the exception of a few works by Mary Cassatt, women were absent.
RC: What’s your relationship to the word “career”? You seemed to express ambivalence toward that word in a 2012 interview with Rachel Cooke. “There was no way on this earth I could have had children and the career I’ve had. But you know what? I don’t care how much I had to give up. This was what I wanted,” you told her. “You have to make choices. You can’t have everything in life.” But then you also said: “I’m not career driven. Damien Hirst’s dots sold, so he made thousands of dots. I would, like, never do that! It wouldn’t even occur to me.”
JC: I think that Hirst comment was taken out of context. What I was really trying to say is that I did not make a career out of making art for the art marketplace. I created art that meant something to me personally and morally. Art to shine the spotlight on the marginalized and make meaningful art to help to change the world. When my husband, photographer Donald Woodman, and I collaborated for eight years on the Holocaust Project: From Darkness Into Light, it never once dawned on us about who would buy our work. this was a project that we had to create as a part of reclaiming our Jewish heritage and to bring to light the atrocities that have plagued history for centuries.
RC: When have you felt the most satisfied—artistically or otherwise?
JC: Each project or piece of art that I have made over the past 60 years means something to me, so it is difficult for me to single out one work. What has brought me the most satisfaction and solace over the years has been my constant time in my studio. It’s there that I’m able to tune out what the art critics have said about me and create art. There is also a sense of satisfaction that I stayed true to my artistic integrity. I have used my art and its subject matters to create awareness to various important issues. I have tried to fill the void of such subjects as women’s history, childbirth, genocide, toxic masculinity, vulnerable populations, and animal and environmental rights. As I watch much of the world roll back, I become fired up to continue to create art that educates and ignites change.
RC: I’m particularly intrigued by “Birth Project.” I find it really lovely, but reading more about the process of making it, as described in an essay by the curator Glenn Adamson, also complicated my feelings about the series. Like The Dinner Party, “Birth Project” was intensely collaborative, and you worked with approximately 150 women volunteers to produce large-scale images of birth, many of them hand-embroidered by homemakers and hobbyists. Adamson writes that these contributors often “commandeered their kitchens and dining rooms as workspaces,” and many “were pressurized by the demands of childcare, and some by the hostility of an unsympathetic husband.” You were dismayed to find that commitments of caregiving often diverted women’s time away from your project, resulting in inconsistent stitching that was a telltale sign of an irregular work schedule by women spread thin. (During this time, you wrote in your diary: “Listening to the women talk about their lives is so depressing. Why have they submitted, given in, divided their lives, fragmented their powers, prevented themselves from demanding what they deserved? Given in, Given in, Given in, Not struggled, Not helped me, Not helped us, GIVEN IN.”) Sometimes you took a piece away from a woman whose work you deemed deficient and gave it to someone else. This raises questions about the relationship between your feminism and your aesthetic sensibilities. Did you consider embracing more of the imperfect work as testimony to the pressures faced by your unpaid female labor?
JC: Rather than describe my collaborators as “unpaid female labor,” they were volunteers who had agency. Over hundreds of people asked to work with me; it was from this group that we selected the 150 needleworkers, none of whom volunteered with money in mind. Like me, we were all volunteers, except I was paid to work in that it was my responsibility to fund, prepare, tour, and store the “Birth Project” work until it could be appreciated, which was relatively recent. Many of these collaborators worked with me for many years. Jackie Moore Alexander, who worked on two pieces on display at the New Museum, was a quilter all of her life. She told me that it wasn’t until her daughter saw her work in a museum that she was able to understood and appreciated it. There are other reasons to work and create art than making money, notably making meaning. Moreover, it was my aesthetic standards that drew these artists and artisans to me, because it allowed them to grow and realize that they had more skills than they had ever dreamed of.
RC: You’ve spoken before about the fortitude and ferocity required to elbow your way into institutions that were so male dominated. The critic Julian Steinhauer recently reviewed your and wrote that your “whole oeuvre feels like a riposte to a society that encourages men to think and work on an epic scale but tells women they must make themselves small.” Your legacy within the contemporary canon, like much of your work, is quite space-taking, and in that sense, The Dinner Party works not only as a revisionist insertion of women—generally, plurally—into the historical canon, but also an assertion of yourself individually as a great woman—since The Dinner Party concerns itself most explicitly with famous, mostly white, women. In that sense, it’s quite complicated.
JC: People seem to forget that when I created The Dinner Party there was no Internet, no women’s studies programs, and very few books written on historical women. The research was painstaking and time consuming. I worked within the constraints of the resources available at the time. I like to think of “The City of Ladies,” the exhibition within an exhibition, as a way to correct that narrative by being able to create a more inclusive collection of art by women. This is only possible because of decades of research by feminist art historians none of which was available to us in the 1970s. Also, all women are still vastly underrepresented in major museum collections. As we are seeing more people of color and more women in leadership roles at art institutions, this is slowly moving in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go. This is why the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. is so important given the huge, still unknown cultural production by women. It is astounding that there is only one institution in the world dedicated to make this history known and preserving it.
RC: How do you think your public image, or your art, differs from your personal sense of yourself?
JC: The two are intertwined. My art is inspired by my struggles, passions, causes, and determination that women’s achievements will not be erased. People often confuse this with the belief that my goal is to create a matriarchal society. What I really want is to see a world of equality and inclusion for all humans.
RC: What are you looking forward to most right now?
JC: Getting back into my studio and finishing my next book, a modern-day illuminated manuscript that will be published by Thames & Hudson in May 2024 titled Revelations. It will make clear the underlying vision of my life’s work.
RC: What are you tired of being asked?
JC: Everyone is always asking me to give advice about one thing or another. I always answer that I have no wish to become the “Dear Abby” of the art world.
In Slow Burn, a monthly column by critic Rose Courteau, Family Style dives into the art of sustainability as both an aesthetic and an artistic practice.