Sunday, March 12, 2017

Born 1939: Judy Chicago

Judy Chicago contributed several important innovations to the story of art in the second half of the 20th century.

Most importantly, Judy promoted the idea of Feminist Art, which boldly asserts women's issues, women's bodies, and women's values. She frequently used explicit feminist and sexual imagery in her work, however the images were abstracted and streamlined into an attractive design in gorgeous colors. Her insistence on depicting female sex organs, and other centered designs, caused a great deal of her work to be rejected without further consideration, but these designs were her way of asserting a female-dominated world view in contrast to the prevailing male-dominated society.

Judy's second important contribution was collaborative or community art. She created projects in which she employed the talents of many artisans, and gave them all credit, while maintaining her identity as creator of the whole.

Third, Judy created projects that promoted all sorts of crafts normally associated with women—and under-valued because of that—such as embroidery and ceramic.

On top of all this, Judy originated Feminist Art Education. She noticed that women artists had been overlooked and underrated in the story of art, and she devised a curriculum centered around women's achievements in the arts, and developed a program for college students in California. Although Feminist art studies impacted the story of art in the long run, and eventually led to many women artists being re-discovered, her programs have been abandoned.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Judy is her capacity for growth, which enables her to admit when she was wrong. After some years of promoting bold and assertive Feminism, Judy realized, she said later, that she and her friends were operating on a wrong premise.

"When I was young in the 70s, we cast the dialogue entirely around gender. We assumed all women were our friends and all men were our enemies. That was a completely erroneous assumption. It has to do with values, not gender. Some of the best feminists are men."

Background: Judy Cohen was born to a Jewish family in Chicago, one of two children. Although her father Arthur came from a long line of rabbis, he rejected the practice. He worked for the Post Office. Judy credits him with giving her strong support in her pursuit of art and identity. Arthur became a union activist and a Communist; he was hounded out of his job and died in 1953, when Judy was 13.

Judy's mother, May, worked as a medical secretary. She loved the arts and instilled a passion for them in her children.

Judy changed her name from Cohen to Chicago, the town of her birth, in the late 1960s when she turned to feminist content in her art.

Training: Judy had all the proper academic training, West Coast style. She took her first art classes at the age of 5 at the Art Institute in her Chicago, but for college, she went to the University of California in Los Angeles, where she earned both a bachelor's (1962) and a master's (1964).

In the early part of her career, Judy wanted to be like the guys. She cropped her hair, wore boots, and adopted tinted glasses to look tough. She also learned skills that seemed cool to the guys in Los Angeles, namely auto painting and boat building.

Private life: While studying at UCLA, she fell in love with Jerry Gerowitz and married him in 1961. In 1963, Jerry lost his life in a car accident, which left her devastated.

In 1965, she married sculptor Lloyd Hamrol. During the 1970s, Judy became the spearhead of the Feminist movement in art and created projects involving the cooperation of many women. During that period Lloyd was having a series of short affairs with female students, which he later confessed. The irony of her position struck her very hard, and the couple were divorced in 1979.

In 1985, Judy married photographer Donald Woodman, with whom she collaborates on artistic and teaching opportunities. They live in New Mexico, with five cats.


1965-1973: Minimalism

Judy's earliest work was Minimalism: content-free sculptures that featured rigid geometry and refined finishes.

Exploring color through a limited number of geometric phase. Pursuit of the experiential nature of color, transformation, and visual perception.

Judy was part of the "Finish Fetish" movement that favored refined finishes that did not show the human touch. She  pioneered the use of a spray gun for fine arts, both on car hoods and on canvases.

1970-1974: Early Feminist

In the early 1970’s, Judy Chicago concentrated on fusing her abstract iconography with a new-found determination to openly express her experiences as a woman, something that had been impossible when she was in college. During this period, she expanded the central-core imagery that has become emblematic of her work. She created centered, vibrant designs that could as easily be interpreted as mandalas as sex organs.

1974-1979: The Dinner Party

Symbolizing the fact that women don't have much place in history, The Dinner Party is an installation that celebrates women’s history by giving each of 39 important women a place at a triangular table. Each woman is represented by a place setting and a plate of Judy's design. A goblet and cutlery of identical, neutral design are also included.

A unique and defiant aspect of the project was that Judy used traditional women’s crafts such as embroidery, needlepoint, and ceramics which were not respected in the male-dominated art world.

Judy innovated a community process in which the huge project was completed by hundreds of volunteers. Judy created all the designs, but skilled artisans realized them. By demonstrating an openly female point of view, Judy helped to initiate a worldwide Feminist Art movement.

One big part of the project was the research it took to select each woman to be honored and to learn enough about her to determine what symbols would express her essence. The names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold on the white tile floor. A large research team worked on the project.

Artistically, the project is characterized by narrative devices, instant readability, and a clear didactic message. This is quite unconventional; the art world tends to prefer ambiguity, irony, and detachment.

In the early 1970s, while she was working on The Dinner Party,  Judy worked to expand educational opportunities for women artists. She developed the country's first art program for women in 1970–71 at California State University, Fresno, and the following year she teamed with artist Miriam Schapiro to establish the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

From 1980 to 1985: the Birth Project

Observing that there wasn't much art about birth, Judy designed a series of birth and creation images for needlework which were executed under her supervision by 150 skilled needle workers around the country.

1982-1987: PowerPlay

While completing the Birth Project, Judy also focused on individual studio work to create, a series  of artworks that explore how the prevailing definitions of power have affected the world in general, and men in particular. Judy said she was tired of using the female body as a repository of emotions; she wondered what feelings the male body might express, and why men act so violently.

1985-93: Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light

Judy and her husband Donald spent 8 years trying to understand the evil and cruelty just beneath the surface of civilization. It is structured as a journey into the darness of the Holocaust and out into the light of hope. This exhibition combined Judy's painting with Donald's photography and additional work in tapestry and glass by selected artisans.

1994-2000: A Stitch in Time

This exhibition consists of a series of painted and needlework images created by Judy and executed by a group of needleworkers. Judy's intention was to address the breakdown of social values. She reinterprets traditional adages and proverbs.


Periodically, Judy produces a fireworks display, generally featuring a butterfly design.

Examples from Internet

Pure Minimalism, 1965-1973

Rainbow Pickett, 1964
Private collection / Internet

Introduction of imagery based on sex organs

Birth Hood, 1965
Sprayed automotive lacquer on car hood
Collection of the artist / Internet

In the painting below an abstract penis is stopped before it can unite with an abstract vagina.

Bigamy Hood, 1965
Sprayed automotive lacquer on 1965 Corvair car hood

Silver Blue Fan, 1971
From Fresno Fan series
Sprayed acrylic on sheet acrylic, 10 ft. wide

Early Feminism, 1970-1974

Heaven is for White Men Only, 1973
New Orleans / Internet

Through the Flower, 1973
Sprayed acrylic on canvas, 5 ft square
Sackler Collection / Internet

Below: Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the US to receive a medical degree.

Elizabeth in Honor of Elizabeth
from the Great Ladies series

The Dinner Party, 1970s

Here's a link to the Brooklyn Museum's coverage of this work: The Dinner Party

Entry Way Banners

Banner #3
Modified Aubusson tapestry, 5 ft. tall

Ceremonial table representing 39 females who influenced history

Primordial Goddess
Artemisia Gentileschi place setting
Artemisia Gentileschi plate

Below: Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S.

Elizabeth Blackwell place setting
Elizabeth Blackwell plate

Below: Judy chose Georgia O'Keeffe as a foremother of the feminist art movement.

Georgia O'Keeffe plate

Heritage Panels, explaining the contributions of the 999 women on the Heritage Floor.

Acknowledgement Panels, identifying Judy's assistants and collaborators.

The Birth Project, 1980-1985

Mother India, 1985
Painting, applique, embroidery on fabric, about 10 ft. tall

Individual studio work, 1980-1985: PowerPlay

The Three Faces of Man, 1985
From PowerPlay / Exhibited at Indiana University
Photo by Dan L. Smith, from slide

The Holocaust Project, 1992

 "Shabbat" means day of rest and remembrance.

Rainbow Shabbat, 1992

Resolutions: A Stitch in Time, 1994-2000

Home Sweet Home, 2000
From Family
Sprayed acrylic, oil paint, and embroidery on linen
2 ft. tall banner


A Butterfly for Brooklyn, 2014
fireworks, flares, and LED lights
Prospect Park, Brooklyn /

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