Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” 1974-1979 is the powerful, iconic, room-sized, multi-media monument of feminist art. Permanently enshrined in a triangular room in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, it consists of a three-sided triangle banquet table with 39 elaborate place settings, each representing a prominant woman from history and art, such as the baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi; the Egyptian ruler Hatshepsut; and the Shoshone explorer Sacagawea. It stands on a tiled floor inscribed with the names of 999 other women.
This work is a complex body of knowledge both in terms of the crafts she employed to make it (china painting on porcelain, embroidery, etc.) as well as in the exhaustive research she did on some 3,000 women across history. Chicago spent more than five years in its creation and intended for this work to go on a national tour after its San Francisco debut. Instead, the piece received humiliating reviews, which caused her to place the work into storage.
Born Judith Cohen in Chicago, she went by the name Judy Gerowitz in the 1960s, using the surname of her first husband, who died in 1963 when she was 23 years old. She publicly announced her name change to ‘Chicago’ in 1970. A militant American feminist and lifelong advocate of women’s art, she left Chicago in 1957 and has been based in Los Angeles ever since.
Chicago went to U.C.L.A. to study art but was unhappy with the earth tone color palette her instructor and classmates were using. She liked “ivory and turquoise and pink and lavender. They hated my colors – just hated them.” So this made her move away from color for a while. She experimented with color studies in dozens and dozens of drawings. Her book of colors is now in the Getty Research Institute. “I wanted to build a color vocabulary built on emotive associations.”
Teaching at Fresno State College in 1970, she created a course of study for women called the Feminist Art Program (FAP). The next year she and the painter Miriam Shapiro relocated the program to California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). There they created Womanhouse, an institution for collaborations, installations, and performances in an abandoned house near the campus.
In 1973, Chicago along with two CalArts teachers, Sheila Levant de Bretteville and Arlene Raven, quit CalArts and founded the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW), an independent art school for women. They rented a workshop space in a vacant building near MacArthur Park, calling it the Woman’s Building. Eventually the FSW would relocate to the section of downtown Los Angeles, now known as the Arts District.
Chicago had a serious art career in Los Angeles, making works that were examples of Finish/Fetish, Light and Space, and earth works. She learned how to spray paint car hoods, and she learned how to work with fireworks. She would have her work exhibited in major shows, but then nothing would happen for her careerwise because of her marginal status as a woman artist.
She acknowledges that she did have the support of individual male dealers, curators, and artists, but “What I didn’t have, and saw my male peers having, is systemic support, where their careers would be moved along. For me it would be: I finally get some attention and it would have no implications. The work doesn’t get sold, it doesn’t catapult my career.” Yet, in spite of this, she never stopped making her art.
Chicago has consistently crossed genres of art: painting, sculpture, tapestries, installations, and fireworks. She made environmental sculptures called “Atmospheres,” setting off flares and colored smoke in the desert, mountains, and on the beach, where she blurred the landscape by modifying it instead of obliterating it.
Chicago has had shows at the Brooklyn Museum, Salon 94 in New York, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. This last venue showcased her “Judy Chicago – The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction,” a series of nearly 40 works of painted porcelain and glass and two large bronze sculptures.
The De Young Museum in San Francisco gave her a first career retrospective. Her work was shown at Jeffrey Deitch’s Los Angeles gallery, “Judy Chicago: Los Angeles.” This exhibit for the first time reunited all of her early California works.