Judy Chicago at the De Young Museum
Like many women of her generation, Judy Chicago had to fight for her rights and for minimal attention to men who were far less talented. And every now and then – starting perhaps with that famous 1970 photograph of her in the corner of a boxing ring, gloved – she played with her own reputation as a fighter.
His exhibition at the de Young Museum, presented as his first retrospective, is conflicting in another way. Upon entering, you encounter powerful images that the artist, 82, recently took in an attempt to imagine his own death. On the opposite wall are grim images she made of endangered animals, from sea turtles to elephants, along with her precise descriptions of how people inadvertently or intentionally kill them. Most of the images are small but fascinating, done with baked glass paint on black glass that also reflects your own image. Welcome to the end of the world, and you are involved.
Chicago did this series, The end: a meditation on death and extinction, from 2012 to 2018, and in a brilliant gesture from Chicago and curator Claudia Schmuckli, the exhibit unfolds in reverse chronological order from there, moving on to her 1990s work on the Holocaust, leading to his 1980s Birth project then culminating in the work of the 1960s and 1970s which made her a central figure in post-minimalism and the feminist art movement. (Also nifty, since Chicago is famous for its use of color: painting the entryway in Benjamin Moore’s Exotic Purple.)
Turning the script back chronologically forces us to confront Chicago’s work of the past decades, which art critics were quick to dismiss and fans of his early feminist work might not even know. A common complaint is that the most recent job seems too raw or emotional. But isn’t this often a timely way to fire women? And some say its imagery borders on cartoonish. That’s right, but there are a lot of important black portraits being made today, not to mention the history of the Mexican and Chicano wall movements, which broadly share Chicago’s underlying goal of accessibility and readability.
I still find parts of the Holocaust Project (1985-93) frustrating and even a little too clever, like the double-sided format of the 1993 Four questions paintings where you see different images depending on where you stand. But the more you look at recent Chicago work, the more you begin to cleanse the jungle of prejudice that surrounds it. And The end in particular, who winks and compares himself to Käthe Kollwitz in her deep excavation of grief, is among her most honest and provocative image creations.
It also makes a great pairing with another star in the series, Birth project (1980-85). For this work, Chicago developed stylized images of women in labor, a very rare subject in art at the time, with particular emphasis on the painful and powerful moments of the baby’s coronation. The works in this gallery offer creation myths of different orders: the universe giving birth to the Earth, the Earth giving birth to various forms of life and women in labor, in the midst of energy fields that resemble versions more complete of Keith Haring’s graphic notches and undulations. The most spectacular is the Prismacolor drawing on 32-foot-long paper called In the beginning (1982), which brings into play different stories of genesis by associating undulating feminine images and short incantatory texts in the expressive and curly writing of Chicago, all on a black background pointing towards the original void.
I especially liked how this gallery brings together many long-standing themes in Chicago art, from what she calls “core” female imagery (think labial or vaginal openings, the genre flowering which puts her in visual dialogue with Georgia O’Keeffe) to her integration of writing into the creation of images. More, Birth project, for which she has worked with over 150 artisans, is a prime example of the artist’s adoption of different media, including those marginalized as “crafts”. This one piece contains sample ink drawings, Prismacolor sketches on paper, sprayed and sewn fabric, modified Aubusson tapestry, crochet, needlework and embroidery, as well as small figurines of ceramic “goddess” that she made in homage to prehistoric sculptures.
Oil on canvas is not present here: a medium of little interest to an artist who has long set out to merge color and form and challenge the traditional and patriarchal version of art history.
A place at the table
Some of his most important works in this direction are exhibited in the following gallery, dedicated to the creation of Dinner, the historic feminist installation that gave 39 historically significant women a seat at the table with painted porcelain plates she made in their honor. Unable to borrow the work itself, now permanently housed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, de Young instead shows several sketches for it, a number of early porcelain painted porcelain test plates (including interesting variations on the Virginia Woolf plaque) and a video tour of the work in situ.
Schmuckli’s wall labels in this section are remarkably straightforward, both crediting the project of combating “the systemic erasure of women’s achievements from the historical record” and criticizing it for perpetuating the erasure of women of color. She describes the bizarre treatment of the only black woman at the table, Sojourner Truth, who, as Alice Walker pointed out, is portrayed on a three-faced plate instead of the usual Chicago sexual imagery, and leaves Chicago behind. briefly address the problem. (Schmuckli relays that Chicago didn’t want to eroticize a black woman.) It’s one of the most surprising moments on the show. Instead of avoiding controversy by excluding a work or banning criticism, the curator struck up a conversation about race and sexuality.
The show’s final piece, dominated by early Chicago minimalist works of the 1960s and 1970s, is brilliant and beautiful. It includes four examples of his acrylic on acrylic candy color Pasadena lifeguards paintings from 1969 and 1970, his maxi colorful minimalist sculpture Rainbow Pickett (1965, recreated in 2021), and his vibrant, some would say garish paintings on car hoods from the same year. Inspired by Southern California’s macho Finish Fetish movement, Chicago attended auto body school and learned spray painting techniques to make car hoods. But they were decried at the time as too feminine in color and form. Here, the show comes at the generative moment when Chicago begins to visibly reject and reform the conventions of male-dominated art history.
The only thing that seems to me missing from the series is its messier, more performance-oriented feminism of the 1970s, like its Menstruation bathroom and the hilarious, sing-song Cock and pussy play, which helped make Womanhouse, the pop-up Los Angeles exhibition-performance space of 1972, so memorable. The inclusion of two photographs from 1971 and Johanna Demetrakas’ video on Womanhouse, which is shown on a small screen with subtitles and without sound, is not enough to capture the radicality of this intense collaboration, of this alternative education. and this awareness that Chicago helped usher in through the feminist art program she founded in Fresno, the one she led at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) with Miriam Schapiro (who gave birth in Womanhouse), and the Woman’s Building that she later helped establish.
The omission is not entirely surprising. In trying to organize an accessible exhibition, it is natural for a curator to focus more on the large, refined works of art of a subject than on his experimental and often ephemeral contributions to a group environment. The stamps are hardly archival. And museums everywhere assume that making art is more important than making artists. But the creation of Womanhouse in particular was so important that Gloria Steinem said she could divide her life before and after seeing her. Is it time for a recess?
• Jori Finkel regularly contributes to The arts journal and the New York Times
• Judy Chicago: In the making, De Young Museum, San Francisco, until January 9, 2022. Curator: Claudia Schmuckli, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco