Judy Chicago: A Retrospective presents the nearly 60-year production of an art star famous for her radical 1970s feminist pedagogy and practice. The de Young Museum’s display of art and documents from seven major projects Chicago made between 1965 and 2019 reveals a far broader legacy than we knew, more deserving of fame and more relevant now than ever. Her astonishing formal inventions and the range of social and environmental justice issues she has addressed emerged from and expanded well beyond the artist’s second-wave feminism. Projects on view at the de Young tackle many subjects marginalized by the art world until recently. They include toxic masculinity, genocide, climate change, and global species extinction: the costs of Western modernity and patriarchy.
Masked and socially distanced, I viewed the show with a mindset troubled by the pandemic and today’s pressing social and environmental problems. I could never have been more receptive to this show than now. Grappling with the very concerns presented throughout the retrospective,
I was struck by the currency of Chicago’s lifework and recognized the passionate purpose behind every piece. That singularity of purpose and faith in the power of art to effect change is the throughline connecting Chicago’s choices, all of which form her great arsenal of persuasion.
To emphasize the coherence of Chicago’s legacy and focus viewer attention equally on each of the seven projects presented, Curator Claudia Schmuckli, in consultation with the artist, organized the show in reverse historical order. Thus, the retrospective begins with The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2015 -2019) and ends with the artist’s minimalism and pyrotechnic environmental sculptures of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This disorienting chronology frustrates efforts to track the development of Chicago’s art. But it works insofar as it foregrounds daunting post-feminist projects like The End, Holocaust Project and PowerPlay. It also encourages an a-historical perspective, suggesting that the artist’s 60-year oeuvre emerged all at once, rather than sequentially, from her feminist-inspired passion for social justice.
Conceptually, the exhibition design mirrors Chicago’s famous “central-core” images of female creative desire and power – represented by round, pulsating Op-ish shapes that dominate abstract compositions of the late 1960s and 1970s. These include Pasadena Lifesavers (1969-70), Through the Flower (1973), Rejection Drawings (1974), as well as the more organic centralized shapes seen in Compressed Women Who Yearned to be Butterflies (1973-74), and most famously, in the flower-vulvae of The Dinner Party plates (1974-79).
The Birth Project (1980-1985), on view in the central and most spectacular galleries, extends this creative-center symbolism to epic works of narrative figuration that reimagine the Genesis myth. Gorgeous tapestries, needlepoints, embroideries, appliqués, and mixed media works depict all creation emanating
from the gravid maternal womb. In The Crowning 4 (1984), a magnificent needlepoint crafted by Frannie Yablonsky, male and female creative forces unite in a radiating orb at the center of the mother’s body, splayed open in childbirth. In other birth renderings, the uterus, vagina, and vulva merge as body-splitting gashes. Similarly, earthquake fissures and torrential floods tear through the center of the Mother Creator in monumental pictures like Birth Trinity: Needlepoint 1 (1983), The Creation tapestry (1984), woven by Audrey Cowan, and Chicago’s 32-foot prismacolor mural, In the Beginning (1982).
Embroidered banners from Chicago’s 2020 Paris Dior Pavilion, titled The Female Divine, hang outside the de Young giftshop. They ask the same questions that inspired the Birth Project four decades earlier: “What If Women Ruled the World?” “Would Men and Women be Equal?” “Would God Be Female?” “Would There Be Violence?” “Would the Earth Be Protected”? In 2021, when we can see Western modernity’s foundational myths crumbling before our eyes, Chicago’s questions point to possible futures.
Around 1985, Chicago initiated her expanded drive for social and environmental justice beyond women’s liberation. “Most people on the planet,” the artist asserted in a recent interview, “aren’t powerful white guys; most people on the planet are vulnerable, unprivileged by race, ethnicity, religion, where they live. And that’s more like the female experience.”
In PowerPlay (1982-1987), Chicago applied her critical perspective to the social construction of toxic masculinity. In the large gallery in which it appears, viewers are surrounded and dwarfed by repellant paintings of men. One of them, Driving the World to Destruction (1985), shows every tight muscle of the naked series protagonist – the avatar of a type – precisely outlined and shaded with automotive spray paint. The man’s hard body appears skinless, all raw muscle and ferocious intent. He speeds toward the Earth as flames rise and engulf him. Some works in PowerPlay show empathy for such men, conditioned from boyhood to perform rituals of conventional manliness. Doublehead With Gold Tear/Help Me (1986), for example, shows the face of one such individual distorted by emotional desperation. With the words “Hold Me” sandwiched between his teeth, his one eye fixes the viewer while a stream of gold tears rolls from the other.
While PowerPlay is intentionally appalling, the Holocaust Project: From Darkness to Light (1985-1993) is wrenching. Both of these ambitious undertakings examine the foundations of Western civilization with the intention of locating the source of its misogyny and racism. The latter effort is the product of eight years of research by Chicago and her photographer husband, Donald Woodman, both of whom are Jewish. Its centerpiece, The Fall (1993), a mural-sized tapestry woven by Audrey Cowan, depicts the
battle of the sexes on one side and a Nazi crematorium on the other. A circular symbol of reason derived from Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man stands between the two violent scenes. Chicago’s version of it shows one of the man’s extended arms holding a bloody sword. In contrast to the darkness of The Fall, the Rainbow Shabbat (1992), a luminous stained-glass panel installation, shows a table where people of all religions, cultures, ages, genders, and races come together, welcomed by a smiling woman.
At the entrance to the retrospective, a theatrically lit epigraph reads: “I have come to understand that justice for women is inevitably connected to the necessity for a global justice that encompasses all living creatures, both human and non-human. Our own fate is inexorably tied to the treatment of other species on the planet.”
Mounted below is a patinated bronze relief of Chicago’s head and torso, rendered as a death mask and a memento mori. Titled Mortality Relief (2016), it shows the artist on her bed with a contented smile, closed eyes and folded hands holding lilies. One of two sculptures from The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2015-2019, it appears near a row of 30 pictures that divide more or less equally between meditations on human mortality and species extinction — a juxtaposition that gives equal value to human and non-human life. Small enough to hold in your hands, each was painstakingly painted by Chicago on black glass and kiln-fired. Their intimate scale, spot-lit in the dark gallery, reflects the artist’s desire that they “go from my hand into other people’s hearts.”
In most of human mortality paintings of The End, Chicago used her aging and wrinkled body to represent this universal human condition. My/Mother’s Body (2015) shows the artist standing naked before a mirror that reflects her mother’s body as it looked near the end of her life. The words “Aging body” and “Sagging flesh” appear handwritten below with a line from Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir about her mother’s death: “The sight of my mother’s nakedness jarred me … I was astonished at my own distress.” Chicago adds, “But of course, I am of an age where my flesh and my looks reflect my mother’s.” Chicago’s willingness to use herself in this way is affecting: As an aging woman, I also have such thoughts, and I imagine they are commonplace, yet I have never seen them represented in an art museum.
Car Hoods (1965/2011), located in the final galleries, rank among Chicago’s outstanding works from the late 1960s. Created in the Finish Fetish mode, the Car Hoods feature hard-edge biomorphic abstractions spray painted onto Chevy Corvair hoods. The forms, suggestive of penises, vaginas, ovaries, testicles and other body parts, infuriated Chicago’s all-male MFA committee at UCLA. Realizing she had to conceal her emerging feminist content to get her degree, she abandoned the Car Hoods. The works on view are 2011 recreations, made for Pacific Standard Time:/Art in L.A. 1945-1980.
The retrospective concludes in a long gallery lined with texts, photographs and video monitors. The latter document Atmospheres, most of which were performances done outdoors with colored smoke. Ephemeral and non-toxic, they were, according to the artist, “an effort to ‘feminize’ the landscape,” a retort to earthworks like Double Negative (1969), Michael Heizer’s massive slash in the Nevada desert. In contrast, a photograph of Chicago’s Purple Atmosphere (1969) shows plumes of purple smoke diffusing into the Santa Barbara sky and shoreline.
Leaving the retrospective overwhelmed by what I’d seen and impressed by the prescient, incisive and critical imagination driving this exhibition, I newly understood Chicago as a prophetic public intellectual.
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“Judy Chicago: A Retrospective” @ de Young Museum through January 9, 2022.
Cover Image: Immolation, from the series Women and Smoke, 1972. Fireworks performance in the California desert.
About the author:
Elaine O’Brien is a professor of modern and contemporary art at Sacramento State University. Dr. O’Brien has lectured regionally, nationally and internationally on topics in global modern and contemporary art. She is the editor of the anthology, Modern Art in Africa, Asia, and Latin America: An Introduction to Global Modernisms, distributed internationally. Her current research is for a book about art produced in Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s in the context of that era’s sociopolitical revolutions and shift from the modern to the postmodern.