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Chicago at work in her china-painting studio, 1974.
|Born||Judith Sylvia Cohen|
July 20, 1939
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Notable work(s)||The Dinner Party|
Elizabeth A. Sackler
Chicago at work in her china-painting studio, 1974.
|Born||Judith Sylvia Cohen|
July 20, 1939
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Notable work(s)||The Dinner Party|
Elizabeth A. Sackler
Judy Chicago (born Judith Sylvia Cohen; July 20, 1939 in Chicago, Illinois) is an American feminist artist and writer known for her large collaborative art installation pieces which examine the role of women in history and culture. Born in Chicago, Illinois, as Judith Cohen, she changed her name after the death of her father and her first husband, choosing to disconnect from the idea of male dominated naming conventions. By the 1970s, Chicago had coined the term "feminist art" and had founded the first feminist art program in the United States. Chicago's work incorporates stereotypical women's artistic skills, such as needlework, counterbalanced with stereotypical male skills such as welding and pyrotechnics. Chicago's masterpiece is The Dinner Party, which is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.
Judy Chicago was born Judith Sylvia Cohen in 1939, to Arthur and May Cohen, in Chicago, Illinois. Her father came from a twenty-three generation lineage of rabbis, including the Vilna Gaon. Unlike his family predecessors, he would become a labor organizer and a Marxist. Arthur worked nights at a post office and during the day he would take care of Chicago, while May, who was a former dancer, worked as a medical secretary. Arthur's active participation in the American Communist Party, liberal views towards women and support of worker's rights, strongly influenced Chicago's way of thinking and belief system. During the 1950s McCarthyism era, he was investigated, which made it difficult for him to find work and caused the family much turmoil. In 1945, while home alone with her infant brother, Ben, an FBI agent visited the home. The agent began to ask the six-year-old Chicago questions about her father and his friends, but the agent was interrupted upon the return of May to the house. Arthur's health declined, and he died in 1953 from peritonitis. May would not discuss his death with her children and did not allow them to attend the funeral. Chicago did not come to terms with his death until she was an adult; in the early 1960s she was hospitalized for almost a month with a bleeding ulcer attributed to unresolved grief.
May loved the arts, and instilled her passion for them in her children, as evident in Chicago's future as an artist, and brother Ben's eventual career as a potter. At age of three, Chicago began to draw and was sent to the Art Institute of Chicago to attend classes. By the age of 5, Chicago knew that she "never wanted to do anything but make art" and started attending classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. She applied but was denied admission to the Art Institute, and instead attended UCLA on a scholarship.
While at UCLA she became politically active, designing posters for the UCLA chapter NAACP and eventually became its corresponding secretary. In June 1959, she met and fell in love with Jerry Gerowitz. She left school and moved in with him, for the first time having her own studio space. The couple hitch hiked to New York in 1959, just as Chicago's mother and brother moved to Los Angeles to be closer to her. The couple lived in Greenwich Village for a time, before returning in 1960 from Los Angeles to Chicago so she could finish her degree. Chicago married Gerowitz in 1961. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1962 and was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Gerowitz died in a car crash in 1963, devastating Chicago and causing her to suffer from an identity crisis until later that decade. She received her Master of Fine Arts from UCLA in 1964.
While in grad school, Chicago's created a series that was abstract, yet easily recognized as male and female sexual organs. These early works were called Bigamy, and represented the death of her husband. One depicted an abstract penis which was "stopped in flight" before it could unite with a vaginal form. Her professors, who were mainly men, were dismayed over these works. Despite the use of sexual organs in her work, Chicago refrained from using gender politics or identity as themes.
In 1965, Chicago displayed work in her first solo show, at the Rolf Nelson Gallery in Los Angeles; Chicago was one of only four female artists to take part in the show. In 1968, Chicago was asked why she did not participate in the "California Women in the Arts" exhibition at the Lytton Center, to which she answered "I won't show in any group defined at Woman, Jewish, or California. Someday when we all grow up there will be no labels." Chicago began working in ice sculpture, which represented "a metaphor for the preciousness of life," another reference towards her husband's death.
In 1969, the Pasadena Art Museum exhibited a series of Chicago's spherical acrylic plastic dome sculptures and drawings in an "experimental" gallery. Art in America noted that Chicago's work was at the forefront of the conceptual art movement, and the Los Angeles Times described the work as showing no signs of "theoretical New York type art." Chicago would describe her early artwork as minimalist and as her trying to be "one of the boys". Chicago would also experiment with performance art, using fireworks and pyrotechnics to create "atmospheres", which involved flashes of colored smoke being manipulated outdoors. Through this work she attempted to "feminize" and "soften" the landscape.
During this time, Chicago also began exploring her own sexuality in her work. She created the Pasadena Lifesavers, which was a series of abstract paintings that placed acrylic paint on Plexiglas. The works blended colors to create an illusion that the shapes "turn, dissolve, open, close, vibrate, gesture, wiggle," representing her own discovery that "I was multi-orgasmic." Chicago credited Pasadena Lifesavers, as being the major turning point in her work in relation to women's sexuality and representation.
As Chicago made a name for herself as an artist, and came to know herself as a woman, she no longer felt connected to her last name, Cohen. This was due to the late grief of the death of her father and the lost connection to her name through marriage, Judith Gerowitz, after her husband's death. She decided she wanted to change her last name to something independent of being connected to a man by marriage or heritage. During this time, she married sculptor Lloyd Hamrol, in 1965. (They divorced in 1979.) Gallery owner Rolf Nelson nicknamed her "Judy Chicago" because of her strong personality and thick Chicago accent. She decided this would be her new name, and sought to change it legally. Chicago was described as being "appalled" by the fact that she had to have her new husband's signature on the paperwork to change her name legally. To celebrate the name change, she posed for the exhibition invitation dressed like a boxer, wearing a sweatshirt with her new last name on it. She also posted a banner across the gallery at her 1970 solo show at California State University at Fullerton, that read: "Judy Gerowitz hereby divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and chooses her own name, Judy Chicago." An advertisement with the same statement was also placed in Artforum's October 1970 issue.
In 1970, Chicago decided to teach full-time at Fresno State College, hoping to teach women the skills needed to express the female perspective in their work. At Fresno, she planned a class that would consist only of women, and she would teach the fifteen students off campus to escape "the presence and hence, the expectations of men." It was at this time when Chicago would coin the term "feminist art" and the class would be the first feminist art program in the United States. Chicago is considered on of the "first-generation feminist artists," a group that also includes Mary Beth Edelson, Carolee Schneeman, and Rachel Rosenthal. They were part of the Feminist art movement in Europe and the United States in the early 1970s to develop feminist writing and art.
Chicago went on to become a teacher at the California Institute for the Arts, and was a leader for the Feminist Art Program. In 1972, the program created Womanhouse, alongside Miriam Schapiro, which was the first art exhibition space to display a female point of view in art. With Arlene Raven and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Chicago co-founded the Los Angeles Woman's Building in 1973. This housed the Feminist Studio Workshop, described by the founders as “an experimental program in female education in the arts. Our purpose is to develop a new concept of art, a new kind of artist and a new art community built from the lives, feelings, and needs of women.”  During this period, Chicago began creating spray-painted canvas, primarily abstract, with geometric forms on them. These works evolved, using the same medium, to become more centered around the meaning of the "feminine". Chicago was strongly influenced by Gerda Lerner, whose writings convinced her that women who continued to be unaware and ignorant of women's history would continue to struggle independently and collectively.
In 1975, Chicago's first book, Through the Flower, was published; it "chronicled her struggles to find her own identity as a woman artist."
Chicago decided to take Lerner's lesson to heart, and took action to teach women about their history. This action would become Chicago's masterpiece, The Dinner Party, now in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. It took her five years and cost about $250,000 to complete. First, Chicago conceived the project in her Santa Monica studio: a large triangle, which measures 48-feet by 43-feet by 36-feet, consisting of 39 place settings. Each place setting commemorates a historical or mythical female figure, such as artists, goddesses, activists and martyrs. The project came into fruition with the assistance of over 400 people, mainly women, who volunteered to assist in needlework, creating sculptures and other aspects of the process.
From 1980 until 1985, Chicago created The Birth Project. The piece used images of childbirth to celebrate woman's role as mother. The installation reinterpreted the Genesis creation narrative, which focused on the idea that a male god created a male human, Adam, without the involvement of a woman. Chicago described the piece as revealing a "primordial female self hidden among the recesses of my soul...the birthing woman is part of the dawn of creation." 150 needleworkers from the United States, Canada and New Zealand assisted in the project, working on 100 panels, by quilting, macrame, embroidery and other techniques. The size of the piece means it is rarely displayed in its entirety. The majority of the pieces from The Birth Project are held in the collection of the Albuquerque Museum.
It is interesting to note that Chicago was not personally interested motherhood. While she admired the women who chose this path, she did not find it right for herself. As recently as 2012, she has said "There was no way on this earth I could have had children and the career I've had."
After The Birth Project, Chicago returned to independent studio work. She created Powerplay, a series of drawings, weavings, paintings, cast paper and bronze reliefs. Through the series, Chicago replaced the male gaze with a feminist one, exploring the construct of masculinity and how power has affected men.
In the mid-1980s Chicago's interests "shifted beyond 'issues of female identity' to an exploration of masculine power and powerlessness in the context of the Holocaust." Galit Mana argues that this topic is still interpreted through a feminist lens, encapsulated in Chicago's The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light (1985–93) a collaboration with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, whom she married on New Year's Eve 1985. Although Chicago's previous husbands were both Jewish, it wasn't until she met Woodman that she began to explore her own Jewish heritage. Chicago met poet Harvey Mudd, who had written an epic poem about the Holocaust. Chicago was interested in illustrating the poem, but decided to create her own work instead, using her own art, visual and written. Chicago worked alongside her husband to complete the piece, which took eight years to finish. The piece, which documents victims of the Holocaust, was created during a time of personal loss in Chicago's life: the death of her brother Ben, from Lou Gehrig's disease, and the death of her mother from cancer.
To seek inspiration for the project, Chicago and Woodman watched the documentary Shoah, which comprises interviews with Holocaust survivors at concentration camps and other relevant Holocaust sites. They also explored photo archives and written pieces about the Holocaust. They followed this with two and a half months' traveling in Eastern Europe, visiting all the concentration camps and, finally, visiting Israel. This journey led Chicago and Woodman to regard the Holocaust as a global phenomenon and Chicago brought other issues into the work, such as environmentalism, Native American genocide, and the Vietnam War. With these subjects Chicago sought to relate contemporary issues to the moral dilemma behind the Holocaust. This aspect of the work caused controversy within the Jewish community, due to the comparison of the Holocaust to these other historical and contemporary concerns. The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light consists of sixteen large scale works made of a variety of mediums including: tapestry, stained glass, metal work, wood work, photography, painting, and the sewing of Audrey Cowan. The exhibit ends with a piece that displays a Jewish couple at Sabbath. The piece comprises 3000 square feet, providing a full exhibition experience for the viewer. The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light was exhibited for the first time in October 1993 at the Spertus Museum in Chicago. Most of the work from the piece is held at the Holocaust Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Chicago devoted the next six years to creating work that highlighted concentration camp victims' experiences. This included One Must Scream, an image based on two survivors who emerged from the crematorium in Birkenau. "This shift in focus", says Mana, "led Chicago to work on other projects with an emphasis on Jewish tradition" including Voices from the Song of Songs (1997), where Chicago "introduces feminism and female sexuality into her representation of strong biblical female characters.
In 1985, Chicago was remarried, to photographer Donald Woodman. To celebrate the couple's 25th wedding anniversary, Chicago created a “Renewal Ketubah” in 2010.
Chicago's archives are held at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College, and her collection of women's history and culture books are held in the collection of the University of New Mexico. In 1999, Chicago received the UCLA Alumni Professional Achievement Award, and has been awarded honorary degrees from Lehigh University, Smith College, Duke University and Russell Sage College. In 2004, Chicago received a Visionary Woman Award from Moore College of Art & Design. Chicago was named a National Women's History Project honoree for Women's History Month in 2008. Chicago donated her collection of feminist art educational materials to Penn State University in 2011. She lives in New Mexico. In the fall of 2011, Chicago returned to Los Angeles for the opening of the "Concurrents" exhibition at the Getty Museum. For the exhibition, she returned to the Pomona College football field, where in the late 1960s she had held a firework-based installation, and performed the piece again.
There is a renaissance of interest in the United Kingdom in Chicago's work with two solo exhibitions in 2012 in London and another in Liverpool. At the Liverpool exhibition in November 2012, Chicago launched an illustrated monograph, a tribute to Virginia Woolf. She says that while she had previously thought of it as secondary to her art, she now considers her significant body of writing, including nine books and the "Meger" poem (1979), as integral to her artistic practice.
Chicago strives to push herself, exploring new directions for her art; she even attended car-body school to learn to air-brush and has recently began to work in glass. Taking such risks is easier to do when one lives by Chicago's philosophy: "I'm not career driven. Damien Hirst's dots sold, so he made thousands of dots. I would, like, never do that! It wouldn't even occur to me." Chicago's subject matter, however, has broadened from the focus of The Dinner Party. In the words of the artist: "I guess you could say that my eyes were lifted from my vagina."
Chicago trained herself in "macho arts," taking classes in auto body work, boat building, and pyrotechnics. Through auto body work she learned spray painting techniques and the skill to fuse color and surface to any type of media, which would become a signature of her later work. The skills learned through boat building would be used in her sculpture work, and pyrotechnics would be used to create fireworks for performance pieces. These skills allowed Chicago to bring fiberglass and metal into her sculpture, and eventually she would become an apprentice under Mim Silinsky to learn the art of porcelain painting, which would be used to create works in The Dinner Party. Chicago also added the skill of stained glass to her artistic tool belt, which she used for The Holocaust Project. Photography became more present in Chicago's work as her relationship with photographer Donald Woodman developed. Since 2003, Chicago has been working with glass.
Collaboration is a major aspect of Chicago's installation works. The Dinner Party, The Birth Project and The Holocaust Project were all completed as a collaborative process with Chicago and hundreds of volunteer participants. Volunteer artisans skills vary, often connected to "stereotypical" women's arts such as textile arts. Chicago makes a point to acknowledge her assistants as collaborators, a task at which other artists have notably failed.
In 1978, Chicago founded Through the Flower, a non-profit feminist art organization. The organization seeks to educate the public about the importance of art and how it can be used as a tool to emphasize women's achievements. Through the Flower also serves as the maintainer of Chicago's works, having handled the storage of The Dinner Party, before it found a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum. The organization also maintained The Dinner Party Curriculum, which serves as a "living curriculum" for education about feminist art ideas and pedagogy. The online aspect of the curriculum was donated to Penn State University in 2011.