Judy Chicago (finally) gets her due in Young retrospective


The de Young Museum Judy Chicago: a retrospective opens with what appears to be a death mask. It is the artist cast in bronze from the waist, the head on a pillow, flowers in the hands and a fabric pulled up to the chest. Like Han Solo, but peaceful. Mortality relief, as the play is called, and its zoological analogue Extinction relief are part of the artist’s recent (vivid) meditation on death and extinction, a project called The end. In an accompanying series of small luminous paintings on black glass, she imagines the ways in which she could die – an inevitable eventuality – alongside animal populations decimated by human activity and contempt.

It’s a grim start for an exhibition that triumphantly celebrates Chicago’s six-decade career. Judy Chicago: a retrospective first presents the artist’s most recent work, then traces a backward path through seven bodies of work, including his most famous work, Dinner. It’s a tactic that could be disorienting if Chicago’s level of rigor or artistry had varied. This is not the case. From his active and contemporary practice to his minimalist sculptures and paintings from the 60s and 70s, Judy Chicago: a retrospective proves that Chicago has always done at the highest level.

Installation view of “Collected”, 2015 and “Poached”, 2015-16 of “The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction”. (Photo by Gary Sexton; courtesy San Francisco Art Museums)

In each body of work (“body” here doing double duty as one of the artist’s first fixations), Chicago adopts a new method of production. For Holocaust Project (1985-93), they are sculptures in tinted glass and cast glass; for Power play (1982-87), they are monumental figurative paintings on linen canvas; for Birth project (1980-1985), embroidery and tapestry. Chicago’s desire to sketch, test and simply to learn while honing one’s own skills and the final appearance of a work of art is played out in notebooks throughout the exhibition. Some projects last up to eight years.

In a series of test plates painted with pictures of butterflies and the pretty Chicago script, she writes about learning to paint on porcelain in the early 1970s. “I realized I had to extract it from its historical context and make it a more flexible technique, “the plaque reads. This same sentence could apply to all of his work. She lays claim to the “feminine arts” (pottery, needlework) and, through repetition and meticulous detail, makes their value obvious. She adopts the “masculine arts” (sculpture, large-scale painting) and renders them in rainbow-hued pastels, emphasizing the toxic and destructive qualities of traditional masculinity.

Five painted plates in a display case.
View of the installation of the “Butterfly Test Plates”, 1973-1974 at the De Young Museum. (Photo by Gary Sexton; courtesy San Francisco Art Museums)

There is an ease in Chicago’s virtuoso medium-to-medium leaps that might mask the hard, long, slow work at the heart of each project, but exhibition curator Claudia Schmuckli and assistant curator Janna Keegan oversee the process. foreground. This work is most evident in de Young’s presentation of Dinner, Chicago’s most famous play. It is necessarily made up of test boards, banner boards and paper studies – the real one. Having dinner lives at the Brooklyn Museum.

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