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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Judy Chicago

Santa Fe,
USA

As an artist, author, feminist, educator and intellectual in the vanguard of the now worldwide Feminist Art movement, Judy Chicago has been a leader and model for an art that seeks to effect social change. The opening in March 2007 of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum marks a key chapter in her career. Not only a milestone for the artist, the opening of this permanent housing for her foundational work, The Dinner Party (1975-79), is a major step in the institutionalization of Feminist Art as a contemporary art movement.

Over the past forty years, she has worked in an unusually wide range of media, including ephemeral pyrotechnic and atmospheric displays, live performances, painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, and both individual works of art and mixed media installations drawing on crafts such as china-painting, ceramics, needlework, tapestry and glass. In Los Angeles during the 1960s, she combined the chromatic luminosity and technical polish of the L.A. “finish fetish” movement with spare, minimalist forms. In the early 1970s, she pioneered Feminist Art and art education through unique programs for women at California State University-Fresno and later the California Institute of the Arts.

This work led her to The Dinner Party, a mixed media tribute to the cultural achievements of women in history, created with assistance from hundreds of volunteers during the late 1970s. She next brought a critical feminist gaze to the Birth Project (1980-85); Powerplay (1982-87); the Holocaust Project (1985-93); and Resolutions: A Stitch in Time (1995-2000). Her most recent body of work, Chicago in Glass, makes use of hand imagery to explore issues of human vulnerability and mortality and the choices we make between relationship building on the one hand and rejection or aggression on the other.

Chicago’s books, including her tenth, an expanded text on The Dinner Party (Merrell, 2007), have brought her art and ideas to readers around the world. She is the recipient of numerous grants, awards and honorary degrees. Her work is frequently exhibited and is in many distinguished collections, including those of the British Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Getty Trust, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A retrospective of her career was presented at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 2002-2003.

Feminist Artist Statement

I was a young woman in the seventies, a time so full of hope. Many of us shared the belief that we as women could help to transform the world, not only for women but for everyone. As an artist, I believed that I could contribute to this transformation through art. I believed that art has the power to transcend differences, to help us see the world through other people’s eyes, and thereby help to create a sense of empathy with those who would otherwise be entirely unknown to us.

I have continued to create art with this goal in mind, and I have seen many positive changes, many of them brought about by the women’s movement. At the same time, feminism has been turned into a dirty word. Several generations of young women—along with many of their male peers—have been persuaded that two centuries of effort by countless women and some men which brought previously unheard of rights and opportunities to these same young women was not something to be proud of, but rather to disown.

Why do I insist upon being called a Feminist artist now, in the 21st century, when many pundits insist we live in a post-feminist world? My definition of such a world involves a toppling of the hierarchy of white male dominance. Since neither our male-dominated world nor the art museums that carry its visual messages have changed enough, I see no reason to abandon the feminism which is one of the few alternative philosophies around. Also, as my underlying feminist philosophy shapes my art, I remain a Feminist artist. It is also important to note that Feminist art is an ongoing, contemporary art movement. It is practiced today by women artists—and some men—all over the globe. It is stylistically diverse yet always focused on the authentic, distinctive, personal content of each artist, a personal content mediated by culture, geography, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and all the many attributes of human individuality.

Do I still hope that Feminist Art can make a difference in the world? My answer is yes. I continue to believe that we need an art that can help us see the world through other people’s eyes and thereby lead us to a future where the world will be made at least a little more whole.

<p>The Dinner Party</p>

The Dinner Party

The Dinner Party elevates achievement by women in Western culture to a heroic scale traditionally reserved inequitably for men. A massive ceremonial banquet in multi-media art, laid on a triangular table measuring 48 feet on each side, The Dinner Party combines the glory of sacramental tradition with the intimate detail of a social gathering. Thirty-nine guests of honor, mythical and historic women whose accomplishments were largely erased from male-dominated histories, are represented by individually symbolic, china-painted porcelain plates and intricately needleworked table runners.
Each plate is essentially an independent work of art and features an image based on Chicago’s vulvar and butterfly iconography, a symbolic representation of the female core intended by the artist as an affirmation of empowered female agency. The plates reside atop elaborate runners decorated with historically significant details associated with the women honored. The first name of each woman begins with an illuminated letter magnificently incorporating a small symbol or motif that references the subject’s importance. The table itself is set upon the enormous Heritage Floor comprised of over two thousand hand-cast, gilded and lustered tiles, inscribed with the names of 999 other women of importance. The Dinner Party dominated art headlines during its early history and, though enormously popular with the more than a million viewers who saw it in a dozen cities worldwide, it bore the brunt of hostile opposition from some quarters of the art world who saw it as an assault on modernist traditions and from the political right who felt threatened by its feminist agenda. Perhaps emblematic of how much things have changed, today it is thought of as, in the words of renowned critic Arthur C. Danto, “one of the major artistic monuments of the second half of the 20th century.” It has influenced the lives and work of thousands of people and has become the iconic example of how art can change the world, the expanded role for the artist in society and women’s freedom of expression. Roberta Smith in The New York Times said that it has become “almost as much a part of American culture as Norman Rockwell, Walt Disney, W.RA. murals and the AIDS quilt.”

The Dinner Party was conceived by Chicago and executed by 400 artisans from around the world, working under her supervision from 1974 to 1979. She intentionally chose mediums traditionally associated with women—such as weaving, china painting, ceramics and needlework—that enhanced the impact of the installation’s powerful rejection of female marginalization and erasure.

The Dinner Party

The Dinner Party elevates achievement by women in Western culture to a heroic scale traditionally reserved inequitably for men. A massive ceremonial banquet in multi-media art, laid on a triangular table measuring 48 feet on each side, The Dinner Party combines the glory of sacramental tradition with the intimate detail of a social gathering. Thirty-nine guests of honor, mythical and historic women whose accomplishments were largely erased from male-dominated histories, are represented by individually symbolic, china-painted porcelain plates and intricately needleworked table runners.
Each plate is essentially an independent work of art and features an image based on Chicago’s vulvar and butterfly iconography, a symbolic representation of the female core intended by the artist as an affirmation of empowered female agency. The plates reside atop elaborate runners decorated with historically significant details associated with the women honored. The first name of each woman begins with an illuminated letter magnificently incorporating a small symbol or motif that references the subject’s importance. The table itself is set upon the enormous Heritage Floor comprised of over two thousand hand-cast, gilded and lustered tiles, inscribed with the names of 999 other women of importance. The Dinner Party dominated art headlines during its early history and, though enormously popular with the more than a million viewers who saw it in a dozen cities worldwide, it bore the brunt of hostile opposition from some quarters of the art world who saw it as an assault on modernist traditions and from the political right who felt threatened by its feminist agenda. Perhaps emblematic of how much things have changed, today it is thought of as, in the words of renowned critic Arthur C. Danto, “one of the major artistic monuments of the second half of the 20th century.” It has influenced the lives and work of thousands of people and has become the iconic example of how art can change the world, the expanded role for the artist in society and women’s freedom of expression. Roberta Smith in The New York Times said that it has become “almost as much a part of American culture as Norman Rockwell, Walt Disney, W.RA. murals and the AIDS quilt.”

The Dinner Party was conceived by Chicago and executed by 400 artisans from around the world, working under her supervision from 1974 to 1979. She intentionally chose mediums traditionally associated with women—such as weaving, china painting, ceramics and needlework—that enhanced the impact of the installation’s powerful rejection of female marginalization and erasure.

Earth Birth

During the early 1980s, Judy Chicago worked on the “Birth Project,” a series of images she designed for execution by a network of skilled needleworkers spread across the U.S. These needleworkers were volunteers who had either stayed in contact with Judy Chicago following their work on images to give expression to an important aspect of female experience too rarely depicted in fine art while linking these individual birth experiences to ancient, archetypal, female-centered myths of creation. The designs for several images in the series, most notably executed in a variety of needlework mediums over a several year period. The work depicted here is “Earth Birth “(1983), a sprayed acrylic on fabric painting by Judy Chicago with quilting by Jacquelyn Moore. “Earth Birth” is also available as a 1985 serigraph by the artist and as one of five serigraphs in a suite called Eve Images from the “Birth Project.”

Power Headache

Power Headache (1984) is from the Powerplay series of drawings, paintings, sculptures, weavings, cast paper reliefs, and work in bronze that Judy Chicago created as an examination of the gender construct of masculinity from a female point of view. Describing her motivation for the series in her 1996 autobiography, she wrote: “Over the years I had listened to women share their fears, rage, and frustration about how men acted both in private and in the world. Yet I knew that I didn’t want to keep perpetuating the use of the female body as the repository of so many emotions; it seemed as if everything—love, dread, longing, loathing, desire, and terror—was projected onto the female by both male and female artists, albeit with often differing perspectives. I wondered what feelings the male body might be made to express. Also, I wanted to understand why men acted so violently.” Along with several other images from the series, Power Headache was later translated into tapestry by Chicago’s long-time collaborator, Audrey Cowan. The work pictured here is the original oil on canvas painting.

Rainbow Shabbat (detail, center panel)

“Rainbow Shabbat” (1992) is the concluding image in “the Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light,” a traveling exhibition that Chicago created in collaboration with her husband, the photographer Donald Woodman. Their eight-year collaboration on this project began in 1985 as a journey through Europe and the Middle East to explore the meaning of the Holocaust in a contemporary context. It was a journey of self-discovery through which Chicago came to understand the strength of her Jewish identity and its influence on her ideas about the artist’s role and the need to create art that aims to transform the world. It was also a journey into darkness that was, needless to say, immensely disturbing on many levels. The result was an exhibition that combined painting and photography, with additional work in tapestry and glass by selected artisans. To conclude the exhibition, Chicago wanted an image of hope, a vision for a future in which people are joined together across differences in age, gender, race, faith and culture to live in harmony with one another and the natural world. She chose to represent this vision in a large stained glass installation, “Rainbow Shabbat: A Vision for the Future,” because in her words, “Light is Life.” The idea for the Rainbow Shabbat as an image and message of hope came to Chicago during a memorable Shabbat dinner at the home of friends during a visit she and Woodman made to Israel. As she later wrote: “There were twelve people there: men and women from four different countries, of different ages, and mostly strangers. We all went around the table and told stories, and everyone listened for hours. For me the evening brought up not just feelings about my childhood but also the incredibly warm moments Donald and I had shared with Jews around the world. Being welcomed into Jewish homes during our travels gave us a profound sense of a global community and provided me with an idea for the last image of the project, an image of optimism and hope.”

Chicago chose to depict the Shabbat service with the heads of everyone turned toward the woman—as they would be during her blessing over the candles—while her husband raises his Kiddush cup and sings his wife’s praises. As Chicago intended, this compresses the actual sequence of Shabbat events but stays true to its spirit. It also celebrates both the Jewish and the female experience, suggesting that both offer the potential for human transformation. In addition to the central window, there are two side panels incorporating a prayer in English and Yiddish, based on a poem by a survivor from Theresienstadt: Heal those broken souls who have no peace and lead us all from darkness into light.

It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn

“It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn” was produced in 1999 as one part of “Resolutions: A Stitch In Time,” an exhibition created by Judy Chicago with assistance from highly accomplished needleworkers. The nineteen images and one sculpture in “Resolutions” employ a wide variety of techniques, including embroidery, applique, quilting, beading, macrame, smocking, needlework and petitpoint. These are combined with Judy Chicago’s painting to push the boundaries between art and craft—between high art and hobby techniques. “It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn” is the only work in the series in which painting is predominant; nonetheless, as Edward Lucie-Smith has described the piece, the embroidery in the bottom right-hand corner (depicting the flora and fauna of an enduring Garden of Eden) is an important element of the work as “it adds those touches of brilliance and definition that give force to its optimistic message.” Indeed, the two halves of the diptych are a compelling contrast between distressing images of inhumanity and destruction that can nearly overwhelm and images of a brighter future that offer hope and encouragement. As with all the images in “Resolutions,” the contrasting images in this piece underscore Chicago’s belief that we can heal one another and our world by mutual adherence to a set of life-affirming ethical principles.

Snake Arm

Since 2000, Chicago has focused her creative energies in the medium of glass. “Snake Arm” (2006) is one in a series of glass pieces that premiered in November-December 2006 in the “Chicago in Glass” exhibition at Lewallen Contemporary, Santa Fe, New Mexico. The series travels in September 2007 to the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery near Toronto for a two-month exhibition. Many of the works in the exhibition focus on the expressive potential of the human hand. Through images realized in glass and in preparatory drawings, hands express a variety of emotions and states of mind as well as symbolizing human vulnerability and mortality. A recurrent motif is the use of contrasting hand gestures to illustrate the choices we make between reaching out and pushing away, between relationship building and rejection or aggression. “Snake Arm” (2006) combines a raised fist, iconic symbol of power and revolution, with an encircling snake, archetypal symbol of the feminine, of the creator-goddess, of fertility and of medicine; it is an image that in a different way depicts a healthy balancing or fusion of power and creativity. Chicago’s recent work in glass has been created in collaboration with Lhotsky glass foundry in the Czech Republic and Dobbins Studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Rainbow Pickett

Judy Chicago began her career in Los Angeles as an artist in the Minimalist sub-genre known as the Los Angeles-based “Finish Fetish” movement. “Rainbow Pickett”(1965/2004) is one of several room-sized or nearly room-sized sculptural installations she created for her first solo gallery show, held at the Rolf Nelson Gallery in Los Angeles in January 1966. Gail Levin’s biography of the artist (“Becoming Judy Chicago,” Harmony Books, 2007) describes the work as “a series of six volumnar trapezoids of different lengths and colors, made from monochrome-painted canvas stretched over plywood frames. The six trapezoids leaned against a wall at forty-five-degree angles in decreasing order of size.” As noted by Levin, the piece was named for 1960s soul singer Wilson Pickett, but the reference has frequently been lost through misspellings of its name as The original Rainbow Pickett was shown in New York in 1966 as part of the foundational Minimalist exhibition, “Primary Structures,” at the Jewish Museum; the influential critic Clement Greenberg described it then as one of the best works in the exhibition. It was later destroyed by the artist along with other large sculptures because of its storage costs. It was reconstructed in 2004 for LAMOCA’s retrospective exhibition, “A Minimal Future? Art as Object, 1958-1968,” and became the hallmark image for this exhibition.

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