Chicago Gazette #14

May 26, 2023

(Left) Judy Chicago, Forever de Young, 2021, fireworks performance, San Francisco, CA, staged by Pyro Spectaculars by Souza; Sponsored by Jordan D. Schnitzer in memory of his late mother Arlene Schnitzer (1929-2020) (Right) Installation view of Driving the World to Destruction, Pissing on Nature and In the Shadow of the Handgun in the exhibition Judy Chicago: A Retrospective at the de Young Museum, 2021. © Judy Chicago/Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York; Photo ©Donald Woodman/ARS NY

I shall always be grateful to Claudia Schmuckli and the de Young Museum for doing my first retrospective in 2021, which brought the body of my art out of the marginalization to which it had been consigned by the art world; also, for the opportunity to create Forever de Young, a Smoke Sculpture that I and my pyro colleagues (particularly my wonderful photographer husband, Donald Woodman, and the incomparable Chris Souza of Pyro Spectaculars) were able to create, thanks to the support of Jordan Schnitzer.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974–79; Ceramic, porcelain, textile; 576 × 576 in. (1463 × 1463 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10 © Judy Chicago/Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York; Photo ©Donald Woodman/ARS NY

Based on the comments we received, it seems that the fourteen minute performance brought joy to the thousands of people who filled the Tea Garden along with the multi-thousands around the world who viewed it online. Such an overwhelming response demonstrates the potential power of art, which I first witnessed in relation to my most well-known work, The Dinner Party, (now permanently housed at the Brooklyn Museum).

As most of my readers know, The Dinner Party premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1979, where it was a huge success, attracting an audience of over 100,000 viewers during its three month exhibition. The museum bookstore sold so much that it bought a new, computerized cash register (a novelty then), they nicknamed “Judy”. Originally conceived to travel, The Dinner Party soon became “the piece that everyone wanted to see and nobody wanted to show” because the scheduled museum tour collapsed in the face of intense art world criticism. As I often say, The Dinner Party went into storage and the artist went into shock.

Long lines in front of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for the inaugural exhibition opening of The Dinner Party, San Francisco, California, 1979. Photo courtesy of Through the Flower Archive

Not so Diane Gelon, the administrator of the studio; she went into action, organizing an unprecedented, worldwide, grassroots-fueled exhibition tour. Women and men from all over came together to raise money, create ad hoc organizations, and create and staff temporary exhibitions that – over a ten year tour – brought The Dinner Party to a viewing audience of over one million people. For years, I received letters from people who stated that seeing the piece changed their lives. And its ongoing popularity is attested to now by the many folks who travel from far away to see it in its permanent installation.  

When I first began to discover the rich and unknown history of women’s cultural production over centuries, I set out to tell that story and more importantly, to overcome the erasure that had befallen too many of the 1038 women represented in The Dinner Party, which brings me to the subject of this text: my inability to fully accomplish this. Yes, I have witnessed (for example) the visionary abbess, Hildegarde of Bingen and the great composer, Ethel Smyth (both represented on The Dinner Party at a time when neither was known), finally get their due. However, one of the stellar women on the table has still not been recognized for her enormous contribution to the creation of modern feminism; the fourteenth century Italian born French writer, Christine de Pisan, presumably, the first woman in Western Civilization to earn a living as a writer.

Judy Chicago, Christine de Pisan place setting from The Dinner Party, 1979, © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York

I have come to understand this as a result of the upcoming exhibition of my work at the New Museum in New York, which will open in October of this year. The curator, Massimiliano Gioni, set out to both survey and contextualize my work in the history of women’s creation through a “show within a show” called the City of Ladies, which brings together almost 80 works of art along with craft, books and artifacts created by women dating back to Hildegarde of Bingen. I have known about these women since I created The Dinner Party and when people ask (as so many do) how I survived the decades of hostility, erasure and/or marginalization of my work, the answer is that I knew this history and drew upon it in multiple ways.

I spent two years studying china painting and its glorious history in order to create The Dinner Party plates . Along the way, I discovered that – given that I can (to this day) – neither sew nor stitch – I have an unaccountable ability to design for needle and textile arts. As a result, I studied needlework history in order to broaden the scope of my designs and in doing so, learned about its variety and beauty thanks to an historic dedication to craft. I also drew upon my study of women’s art (for example, Georgia O’Keeffe, Barbara Hepworth, Lee Bontecou, and more recently, Agnes Pelton and Hilma af Klint) to reinforce my own tendencies of constructing my images from the center out and to accept my inclination towards high-key and luminous color.

My study of china painting (so that I could adapt it to my imagery) is chronicled in the Butterfly Test Plates (1973-1974) which will be in the New Museum show. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York

When I was searching for antecedents to my own determination to create an openly female-centered art in the early 1970’s, I was mentored by the diarist Anaïs Nin. At that time, I was researching women’s literature and reading the entire bodies of work by the great 19th and 20th century female authors as well as all of Anaïs’ work, which chronicles her slow, painful journey to emerge from the stifling constraints of the construct of womanhood. At that time, Anaïs and I discussed if there was anything that could be described as a female perspective in the arts. I will never forget her reply that nourished me for decades. She said that women’s psyche was like a light beam that could penetrate to the core of existence, which brought to mind Virginia Woolf’s book, To the Lighthouse.

(Left) Anaïs Nin and Judy Chicago at the Women’s Building, a feminist arts and education center in Los Angeles, 1972. (Right) Judy Chicago, Virginia Woolf plate and runner from The Dinner Party, 1979. Photos courtesy of Through the Flower Archives

Unfortunately, a great deal of women’s work and the variety of their points of view remain either unknown or evaluated according to the standards of patriarchal history, which has erroneously been cited as an universal history. It is not. It is a PARTIAL and INCOMPLETE history and whatever doesn’t fit within its narrow parameters has been overlooked, underestimated, or erased. This brings me back to Christine de Pisan and her “Book of the City of Ladies,” which was the inspiration for the title of Massimiliano’s “show within a show.” Sadly, few people even recognize her name, even in France; a fact that both shocks and enrages me.

Christine de Pisan, The Treasure of the City of Ladies, 1405, translated for Penguin Classics, 1985.

Allow me to tell you about her book, which was a response to a famous, popular, and extremely misogynist publication, Le Romance de la Rose. When I first discovered it, I was still doing research for the thirty-nine women represented on The Dinner Party table. At that time, “The Book of the City of Ladies” had not even been translated into modern English. All I could find were descriptions of what was an undertaking that preceded my own work by many centuries. Christine described feeling despondent over the widespread Renaissance notion that women were inferior. Suddenly, three figures appeared before her: Reason, Justice and Virtue. They instructed her to counter these negative ideas by chronicling the historic contributions of 500 important women. Sadly, we had to re-research those very same women, thereby demonstrating the cycle of repetition that condemns women to an endless reinvention of the same wheel (a most recent example would be the overturning of Roe v. Wade).

Earlier, I mentioned my goal of overcoming the erasure of so much of women’s cultural production, be it the work that I have already mentioned or the fact that ceramics was introduced into the U.S. in the 19th century by two women, Maria Longworth-Nichols and Mary Louise McLaughlin through Rookwood Pottery; that the first known abstractions were created by women like Hilma af Klint and a group of female friends who dubbed themselves “The Five”; or that women like Isadora Duncan pioneered modern dance and Julia Margaret Cameron opened the pathway to modern photography. But all of this information remains overlooked by a patriarchal history that obscures rather than honors our female antecedents.

(Left) Maria Longworth-Nichols, Aladdin Vase, earthenware, 1880–83. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Right) Ethel Smyth, The March of Women, 1911. Collection of the British Library. Photos courtesy the institutions.

The fact that most young people are not familiar with this information is a testament to the power of patriarchal history to maintain a partial and biased historic picture – inside the arts and out. It is my fervent hope that my exhibition within the context that Massimiliano and his team are providing will demonstrate an alternative paradigm; one that will begin to right a centuries old injustice and in so doing, bring this immense and rich heritage into the light of day. Perhaps it might even – finally – help achieve my goal of permanently overcoming its erasure.

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5 responses to “Chicago Gazette #14”

  1. Lisa Bailey says:

    I would love to see The Dinner Party in person. I tried some years back, but the museum was closed due to renovations. However, I’m thrilled that I got to meet Judy Chicago a couple years ago at Art Basel here in Miami.

  2. Rebecca Wood says:

    Thank you for your perseverance. Your hope is shared!

  3. Melinda Louise says:

    I helped out — along with other women we brought down to L.A. with us from UC Santa Barbara — at the studio over about a year’s time. What an incredible time. I took my mom to the opening in San Francisco. It was so moving to finally see it all together. Such an incredible time in my life I’ll always be grateful and privileged to have experienced. Thank you Judy! ❤️

  4. Victoria Park Anderson says:

    Thank you for your resilience and your feminist art

  5. Elisa C Dávila Dávila says:

    Yo empezé a interesarme en el trabajo de Christian de Pizan cuando conocí la obra de Judy Chicago “The DINNER PARTY” en una clase de historia del arte apenas en 2013.
    Realmente me impactó el maravilloso trabajo de rescate de la historia y pensamiento de tan valiosas mujeres que al menos para mí, eran totalmente desconocidas.

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