Feminist, Political Artist Judy Chicago Is Thriving When Feminism and Political Art Aren’t

Ms. Chicago also reinvented the process of this ancient technique for her own purposes. Tapestries were traditionally woven from the back, so the weaver never saw the design. In Ms. Chicago’s update of the process, the artist’s patterns are attached to the piece so that the weaver can see each section as she completes it, giving her the rightful “agency” previously denied, she explained. There is also her offbeat subject matter, which ranges from the striking details of Creation,(part of “The Birth Project” shown at the Hebrew Union College Museum last year ) to the pigs hung for meatpacking in The Fall (from herThe Holocaust Project: From Darkness to Light). Powerheadache depicts a male head grimacing in much the way Bernie Madoff must have when his Ponzi scheme toppled.

Ms. Chicago, whose name is virtually synonymous with feminist art, acknowledges that there has been some progress toward equity in the art world (and in general) since she began her work. But she’s also aware that to many of the current generation of women, feminism is considered an F-word, a label to be avoided.

She continues on a crusade to change that. “Women’s history and women’s art needs to become part of our cultural and intellectual heritage,” Ms. Chicago declared. “If we all learn that, then women will learn pride in the history of women–and they will want to claim their history as feminists, instead of disassociating themselves,” she said. “The degree to which young people are unaware of the history of the feminist art movement is an indication of the failure of our institutions to keep up with changes in consciousness. The key is institutional change.” The artist added:  “When I was working on The Dinner Party, I believed the story of erasure that I had uncovered and was attempting to recount was in the past. As we see the battles in Congress over reproductive rights, it becomes clear that erasure is still a danger.”

That erasure of women is clear from the continuing lack of available literature on women and their historical place in art. “You want to know the figures on publications about women 10 years ago? One point seven percent. Today it is 2.5 percent.” To help combat the deplorable literacy level when it comes to women’s history, Ms. Chicago developed “The Dinner Party Curriculum,” a program for classes K-12. (It, like the titular artwork, references female pioneers from Sappho to Saint Bridget to Sacagawea to Georgia O’Keeffe as a teaching tool.) She also recently co-published, with art historian Frances Borzello, Frida Kahlo, Face to Face, which, she said, “provided a vehicle of exploration of a lot of ideas beyond Kahlo herself–such as that women aren’t one-trick ponies. She did a lot more than just self-portraiture.”

As for the artist herself, and her best-known piece: “My abiding hope,” said Ms. Chicago, “is that before I die, The Dinner Party will be seen as one work in a huge body of work.”

But Ms. Chicago is the first to acknowledge that her seminal (no pun intended) work has “opened up many aesthetic paths,” including the tapestries (which evolved from the embroidered table runners of The Dinner Party) and glass (used in making the plates), the medium she has been exploring since 2003.

Ms. Chicago’s next big project is perhaps a good fit. As part of a multi-institutional $14 million Getty Trust art initiative called “Standard Pacific Time” that will premiere in Los Angeles in the fall, the artist will create a smoke-and-fireworks extravaganza, Atmospheres. It comes as no surprise that Ms. Chicago has a license to use pyrotechnics.