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

On an evening last week at the Museum of Art and Design, Judy Chicago, vivid and flamboyant in a white silk bolero embellished with  black lace, pointed to a boldly graphic tapestry titled Paddle Your Own Boat, and laughed. “People never get that there is humor in my work, but I think this is funny.” The piece depicts a woman manning a canoe, whose progress is being seriously impeded by wailing children, chiding relatives and a huge globe of the world. “I often say about this image that in all my years of working with women, I have never actually seen a situation where somebody set off to paddle a canoe and didn’t get grief from somebody–whether it’s the church, the community or their family.”

Ms. Chicago has had her share of grief. Her infamous 1970s piece The Dinner Party drew standing-room-only crowds at the San Francisco Museum of Art, where it opened in 1979. (It’s an installation of a giant triangular table, including the names of 1,038 female innovators–39 of whom have their own place settings with plates depicting vulvas.) But some critics eviscerated the work, and its museum tour was canceled amid Congressional debate over funding for the institutions that showed it. The Dinner Party itself was banished to storage for nearly three decades.

 “The Dinner Party went into storage and I went into shock,” said Ms. Chicago, a small, passionate fireplug of a woman with short red curls and rose-tinted glasses. “It was the piece everyone wanted to see, and nobody wanted to show.”

This is not a problem Ms. Chicago suffers from much these days. The artist was included in three New York exhibitions last year: at ACA Galleries; at the Hebrew Union College Museum; and in a Jewish Museum show. This month, a show of her tapestries, done in collaboration with weaver Audrey Cowan, opened at the Museum of Art and Design and runs through June 19.

As for The Dinner Party, the piece is now on permanent view at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. That’s a vindication for the artist, considering that it was widely and publicly panned–conservative Congressman Robert Dorman, dubbed it “ceramic 3-D pornography” on the floor of the House of Representatives, and The New York Times pronounced it “very bad art.” (“It reiterates its theme … with insistence and vulgarity,” argued the paper’s Hilton Kramer.) Today, nearly one-third of all the visitors to the museum view her artwork, according to the institution.

At first glance, the tapestries in the MAD show appear to be among the more decorous of Ms. Chicago’s works, which tend more toward painting and sculpture. But, the woven works, along with the black-and-white and color images, “cartoons” and woodcuts Ms. Chicago created as patterns for Ms. Cowan (who first worked with her when she did the stitch work on the Dinner Party Eleanor of Aquitaine table runner), they forcefully weave together many of the artist’s central–and resolutely political–themes.

Ever the radical, she’s subverted pretty much everything about both the medium and its message. She has used the ancient Aubusson high-warp weaving technique, employed to make the famed medieval Unicorn Tapestries, which pregnant women were barred from practicing in the Middle Ages. They were told they might fall off the looms and miscarry, she explained. “Any excuse would do,” Ms. Chicago snorted. “The idea of using Aubusson [named for the city in France] was particularly delicious to me because it originally prohibited women because of their fecundity and capacity for birth.”

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.

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