Second-wave feminism peaked at the height of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a period equally synonymous with rebellion, revolutionary creation, and cultural revival. From musical protest to outspoken installations, art was a hub for political revolution. As second wave feminists continued to fight for equal social and political rights, expressive art was at the forefront of the movement. Considered to be a “first generation feminist artist,” Judy Chicago cemented her place as an integral social voice in feminism during this time. On her 81st birthday, CR takes a look at the uninhibited creator’s cultural influence and her impact on generations of socially motivated artists to follow.
Born Judith Sylvia Cohen into a Jewish family in Chicago 1939, none of her legal last names ever stuck. In the ’60s, the artist was given the nickname Judy Chicago by a friend, due to her noticeably thick Chicagoan accent. Although she was known at the time by Judy Gerowitz, the surname of her late first husband, she preferred the ambiguity of “Chicago” to her presiding last name, and wanted to make the switch official. However, Chicago was dismayed at the legal process, wherein she was not allowed to change her name without a signature of consent from her then-husband, Lloyd Hamrol. The event inspired elements of her 1970 show at Cal State University Fullerton, where a banner was erected that read the following statement: “Judy Gerowitz hereby divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and chooses her own name, Judy Chicago.” Judy had owned the surname Chicago, and the public announcement at her gallery show made it officially stick.
Beginning in 1970, Chicago entered the fight for female-oriented academic spaces, specifically within the male-dominated world of art. After receiving a Master of Fine Arts from UCLA in 1964, where she felt she lacked the opportunity to express her experience as a woman in her work, Chicago sought to change the status quo. California State University, Fresno (then Fresno State College) hired the creative in a full-time teaching position, and this led to the launch of the first ever Feminist Art Program.
Chicago taught 15 students in the fall of 1970. The all-female class was instructed at an off-campus location, so as to avoid the social pressures of the campus art space, which was almost entirely male-dominated in the ’70s. The program went beyond simply growing and practicing technique. While the students developed art skills, they also participated in reading groups and held frequent open discussions about their artistic influences in addition to their experiences as female artists in the ever-changing social climate. This group was one of the first ever to uplift the voices of female artists in a woman-dominated academic space, and it served as the blueprint for Chicago’s next big feminist project.
“Womanhouse” came a year later, when Chicago began teaching at the California Institute of the Arts. The giant art installation was conceptualized by Chicago and co-creator Miriam Schapiro, who founded the Feminist Arts Program at CalArts alongside Chicago. “Womanhouse,” an installation piece designed within a deserted Hollywood mansion, was an exploration of traditional femininity through the collective experiences of Chicago’s students. With over 25 participating artists working to re-design 21 rooms into spaces that interpreted this theme, the mansion was transformed into an arthouse, with sculptures, socially motivated decor, and dedicated performances.
Creating “Womanhouse” was a cathartic interaction with feminine traditions, reworking them into a space that was reframed and re-cultivated by women. Overt displays of feminism were still rare in the early ’70s, and the unapologetic presence of Chicago’s art collective sparked many a conversation and controversy. However, the revolutionary legacy of “Womanhouse,” which stemmed from its outspoken and controversial nature, lies in its inception as the first-ever feminist arts project to receive national attention.
Chicago’s best-known art piece is “The Dinner Party,” an installation now permanently housed at the Brooklyn Museum, based around the goal of “[ending] the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record.” When Chicago resigned from her CalArts teaching job in 1974, she was determined to embark on a new journey of creative expression, setting out to continue spreading her message of feminism through artwork. The direct inspiration for the piece? An actual university dinner party that Chicago attended in earlier that year.“The men at the table were all professors,” she said of the experience, “and the women all had doctorates but weren’t professors. The women had all the talent, and they sat there silent while the men held forth.” Thus, “The Dinner Party” was born amidst Chicago’s desire to create a metaphorical “place at the table” for the inspiring women of history.
Working with traditionally female-associated crafts such as China painting, embroidery, and weaving, Chicago designed an individualized table setting for 39 influential women. Over 400 people, mostly women, assisted the artist with the needlework, sculptures, and other elements of the piece. From Georgia O’Keefe to Sojourner Truth to Sappho, the women’s place settings, each marked with embroidered placemats and uniquely designed painted China plates and silverware, lined a massive triangular table, a shape traditionally associated symbol of femininity. The names of 999 other significant women were represented on tile work that was laid on the ground of the piece.
“The Dinner Party” also presented a then-controversial symbol: imagery of female genitalia. Chicago’s unapologetic renderings were a step in the normalization and celebration of this style of intimate artwork, which was often considered to be tasteless and offensive at the time. The vaginal imagery in “The Dinner Party” was not overt, but rather poetically and expressively woven into subtle explorations of her female subjects, their lives, and their accomplishments. O’Keefe’s seat at the table blurred lines between the reproductive organs and blooming flowers, alluding to the artist’s famous paintings depicting flora and fauna.
The infusing of vaginal imagery into artwork came from Chicago’s concept of “central core imagery,” which is an idea that Chicago developed alongside her colleagues in the late ’60s as a form of reclaiming femininity and autonomy by claiming the female body and reproductive organs for themselves. Through artistic representation, Chicago depicted the female body in what was described as a “new visual language,” reclaiming society’s rejection of the woman. Not only did her artwork survive the controversy and stand the test of time, but her then-controversial imagery helped pave the way for artists to dive deeper into more evocative, explorational forms.
Although “The Dinner Party” stands as Chicago’s most famous work to date, the artist has created many other dynamic and inspiring art installations. From the “Birth Project,” a collection of childbirth imagery to celebrate motherhood, to the “Holocaust Project,” in which Chicago delved into her own Jewish identity to explore masculine power and powerlessness within the context of the Holocaust, Chicago has been unafraid to express her worldview through art on a large and powerful scale.
Taking steps into other artistic mediums, Chicago brought her feminism to the fashion world through her collaboration with Maria Grazia Chiuri, crafting the backdrop for the Christian Dior Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2020 collection. Thematic influence from “The Dinner Party” and past art installations were repurposed for the fashion display, titled “The Feminine Divine.” Consisting of the womb-like architectural structure in which the runway took place and its interior, the impressive work fully enveloped the show. In addition to a table set with spiral and shell motifs taken from Chiuri’s goddess-themed collection, towering textile banners hung from the ceiling. Each one raised a question, including the provocative, “what if women ruled the world?”
From female divinity to fearlessly depicting the feminine experience, Chicago stands out as an artist who paved the way for women artists to come. She was a consistently dedicated voice, working diligently to carve out spaces for female expression and creation, in a time when these feminine voices were silenced on a large scale. Her imagery and style of expression was also artistically influential, opening doors for certain forms of female artistic celebration that were deemed problematic by society. Judy Chicago broke down barriers for female artists, spearheading a new style of shameless expression and exploration of femininity. A quote from Chicago herself exemplifies the very message at the root of her artistic journey: “I am trying to make art that relates to the deepest and most mythic concerns of human kind and I believe that, at this moment of history, feminism is humanism.”END
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createdAt:Tue, 14 Jul 2020 20:04:46 +0000