Judy Chicago: the Fight for Gender Equality is Not Over

As a five-decade survey of her work opens at Baltic in Gateshead, the legendary feminist discusses why women artists need to keep pushing for change

BY Ellen Mara De Wachter in Interviews | 25 NOV 19

For five decades now, Judy Chicago has created work that addresses universal experiences including birth, death and the relationships between species, as well as societal questions around systemic imbalances and abuses of power. Using jewel-like colours and techniques ranging from pyrotechnics to porcelain and printmaking, she renders intriguing and expressive imagery that represents aspects of the human condition while helping the viewer reach a deeper understand of its subject matter. Starting in the late 1960s, Chicago’s ‘Atmospheres’ performances, which are captured in photographs, introduced coloured smoke and firework to outdoor locations in a bid to ‘feminize’ the male-dominated land art scene. She is perhaps best known for The Dinner Party (1975–79), a monumental installation made with a large team of studio collaborators, which takes the form of a ceremonial banqueting table honouring more than 1,000 women whose lives and influence on society have been omitted from official histories. The ‘Birth Project’ (1980–85), made in collaboration with more than 150 needle-workers, visualises a subject that, as Chicago points out, ‘has not often been rendered in contemporary art even though [it] certainly constitutes a universal experience’.

In other bodies of work, such as ‘PowerPlay’ (1982–87) and ‘Holocaust Project’ (1985–93), Chicago applied her unique combination of pictorial representation and analysis to the gender construction of masculinity, and to meditate on the extreme horrors of the Holocaust. Her latest project ‘The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction’ (2013–18) connects the prospect of individual mortality with one of the defining issues of our time: mass species extinction. Yet despite having created some of the most iconic works of the past half-century, Chicago is only now receiving her first institutional survey show in the UK, at Baltic, Gateshead.

Judy Chicago, Cartoon for The Fall from the Holocaust Project, 1987, sprayed acrylic and oil on canvas, 1.37 × 5.48 m. Courtesy: the artist, Salon 94, New York and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; photograph: Donald Woodman/ARS, New York © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Ellen Mara De Wachter: Your most recent body of work is called ‘The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction’ (2013–18). Is this a hint that you are going to stop making work?

Judy Chicago: Absolutely not. In fact, I'm working harder than ever on various projects including new Smoke Sculptures. Plus, I’m having my first retrospective, in May 2020, at the De Young Museum in San Francisco and Hans Ulrich Obrist is planning an exhibition of my work at the Serpentine in the summer of 2021.

EMDW: The natural environment, which was the setting for the ‘Atmospheres’ series, is present again in this new work, as is your interest in humans’ relationships with other species. How has your thinking around these themes changed over the past 50 years?

JC: My interest in our relationship with other species and the planet dates back to the late 1960s. As you pointed out, that is when I began my fireworks pieces, which were intended to ‘soften’ and feminize the environment. It wasn’t until a few years ago that this work, which I stopped in 1974 and picked up again in 2012, was put into the context of land art by Philipp Kaiser who wrote the first essay about my fireworks in the new monograph of my work. In the 1970s, I was commissioned to do a poster for Greenpeace, which I based on a Native American legend suggesting that when the creatures of the sea were being threatened, a ‘Rainbow Warrior’ would descend from the sky and protect them. In the 1980s, when my husband [the photographer Donald Woodman] and I were engaged in the ‘Holocaust Project’, my research into human experimentation segued into an interest an animal experiments. In the early 2000s, I spent 5 years engaged in ‘Kitty City’, a series of watercolours that were collected in a book based on the medieval Book of Hours. That project looked at our relationship to other species through an investigation of Donald’s and my daily interactions with our feline family. So moving into the ‘Extinction’ section of ‘The End’ was a natural outgrowth of my concern with our callous treatment of other creatures, which caused me endless grief during the two years it took to create those images.

Judy Chicago, Smoke Bodies from Women and Smoke, 1972, fireworks performance. Courtesy: the artist, Salon 94, New York and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco, photograph: Through the Flower Archives © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


EMDW: You have said that, in the 1960s, you were ‘the only woman in the art world’, and you had to suppress your femininity to get along. How far do you think the art world has really come in terms of gender equality?

JC: To be precise, I was not the ‘only woman in the art world’; rather, I was the only woman taken seriously in the LA art scene of the 1960s and ’70s. There were lots of women but they were marginalized. In terms of progress – a question I am asked all the time – there are many changes in that women, artists of colour and those along the gender spectrum can be themselves in their work, which was impossible when I was young. And that is to be celebrated. At the same time, as the recent Artnet News 10-year study demonstrated, at an institutional level, there has been very little change. Between 2008 and 2018, in the US, only 11% of acquisitions at major museums have been works by women and only 3% have been women artists of colour; a shameful statistic and one that challenges the idea that the changes that have happened are substantive.

EMDW: Education has been a big part of your life since establishing the first feminist art programme at California State University, Fresno, in 1970. So has self-education: you conducted a major historical and cultural study in the historical exclusion of women for The Dinner Party. Does your drive to educate others and yourself continue today?

JC: Actually, I have taught very little during the course of my career. At the same time, I have educated millions of art viewers through my art, which is what I have tried to do because I believe that art can educate, inspire and empower if it focuses on subjects that people care about and does so in ways that people can understand.

Judy Chicago, Heaven is for White men Only, 1973, sprayed acrylic on canvas, 2 × 2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA, Gift of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, photograph: Donald Woodman/ARS, New York © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

EMDW: For more than 50 years, you have sustained a fantastically diverse practice, experimenting with materials and techniques from spray painting to needlework, painting on porcelain, as well as working with small and large groups of collaborators. Do you have a favourite medium or technique, and what has kept you going all this time?

JC: Whatever medium I am working in at the moment becomes my favourite. As to what has kept me going; I have had and still have a burning desire to make art and I believe deeply in the power of art, a power that I have seen demonstrated often over the course of my career. After all, The Dinner Party inspired people to organize their own exhibitions when my piece became the piece that everyone wanted to see and no one wanted to show. Then the ‘Birth Project’ (1980–85) was toured to almost 100 venues during its five-year exhibition tour. And when my exhibition of early work opened at Jeffrey Deitch’s LA gallery, thousands of people came to the opening. That’s the power of art at work.

‘Judy Chicago’ runs at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK, until 19 April 2020. 

Main image: Judy Chicago, The Creation from the Birth Project, 1982, modified Aubusson tapestry, 1.1 × 4.14 m. Courtesy: the artist and Collection of Museum of Arts and Design, New York City, Gift of the Robert and Audrey Cowan Family Trust; photograph: Donald Woodman/ARS, New York© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Ellen Mara De Wachter is based in London, UK.