Body of Knowledge
As you step off the escalator on the fifth floor of Tate Modern, you come face to face with a time line of twentieth century art. And there, written high on the wall under the heading Feminism, is the name Judy Chicago, one of a select group of five women the Tate sees as responsible for art’s swerve into previously untravelled territory.
The most famous of the works that earned her that writing on the wall is The Dinner Party, 1979 , a huge triangular installation 48 feet long on each side with 39 place settings celebrating 39 noted women and with a further 999 names inscribed on the porcelain floor providing a historic context for the women represented at the table. Sitting at home in Islington in 1980, I received an excited phone call from my husband in San Francisco reporting that an extraordinarily long queue was waiting to get in to see this work by a woman which was creating a stir as big as its size.
The story of how that work came into being reveals much about her approach to art. Chicago has never been a shy retiring flower: pugnacity and outspokenness sit alongside the sensitivity and thoughtfulness so necessary to an artist. This contradictory combination of characteristics worked to her advantage in the southern California of the 1960s when she started her professional life as part of the group of Finish Fetish artists , a west coast version of Mimimalism inspired by the slick surfaces of industrial materials. Typically, Chicago out-guyed the guys in the group, learning to spray paint in order to produce the rounded sculptural shapes which attracted her first reviews. But by 1970,she had begun to question the male bias of the art world.
The 1960s was the decade of the incubation of feminism with its consciousness raising , its personal is the political, its examination of the way men held the power in the institutions within which women operated . Chicago picked this mood up on the California wind and turned it into art. By 1970 she found her voice, her specifically female voice, with the first in a series of firework-based Atmospheres, investigating the technicalities as she had with the car spraying, in an attempt to produce a less masculine kind of art, which the result – clouds of coloured smoke – achieved. Appalled by the absence of information on women artists, she began a self guided study tour of art history and instituted the first feminist art programme at California State University , Fresno, where she and her students undertook an investigation into whether women could bring a new kind of subject matter into art. She brought her pioneering programme to California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts). The result was Womanhouse ,1972, in which Chicago and her team-teacher Miriam Schapiro encouraged their students to fill the rooms of an empty mansion with art that expressed their female concerns.. Chicago’s piece, Menstruation Bathroom, was an all white installation enlivened by the bloody red of what is commercially known as sanpro . (catalogue no. 00) There were performances, too. Chicago wrote the Cock and Cunt play in which two black-clad women parodied a conventional male-female relationship in a space furnished with a bed and a sink of dirty dishes. It ended in violence, a subject she later investigated in Ablutions (catalogue no. 00 ) , a performance with a sound track of women describing rape. Chicago’s interest in female biology as something to shout about with pride can be seen with hindsight to have been there from the start. Those curvy Finish Fetish shapes from the 1960s are evidence of an urge that was longing to express itself, even though at the time she was trying to be one of the boys.
Chicago made The Dinner Party with the ideas of feminism buzzing in her head. Between 1974 and 1979, it took over her life. She set out to celebrate women. Not women in the way they were traditionally seen by male artists as models and mistresses but women as they saw themselves, as they felt about their position in society, as they voiced their own ideas and as they chose their own heroines. She symbolised the achievements of famous women of history with ceramic plates placed on runners embroidered with important aspects of their lives. The most controversial feature was the motif of the plates : the butterfly-vagina shapes that disconcerted many viewers, shapes that both symbolised the women and explained the denigration of their achievements. The work took hundreds of helpers to complete. Chicago’s designs and sculptural vision were carried out by china painters , traditionally considered low grade female craft work and gleefully elevated to art by Chicago ; by ceramicists who had to solve the problems of producing the elaborately modelled and painted china plates; and by embroiderers working in styles to suit the subjects of the place settings.
After its initial show in San Francisco, it set out on what amounted to a world tour ,visiting six countries and reaching London in 1984 when Germaine Greer spoke at the opening. Tens of thousands of overwhelmed women found themselves moved, fascinated and validated. However, the critical reception was harsher.
By 1980, feminist theories were becoming more complex. Questions about the role of class, sexual orientation and ethnicity in affecting the position of women shook the earlier certainty that equality could be achieved through visibility and a soapbox. The Dinner Party got caught in the crossfire of the various feminist factions that had developed in academia. The loudest were known as the anti essentialists who were against any suggestion that female achievements were connected to female biology. As someone whose art apparently equated women with their reproductive organs, Chicago fell from critical favour. For a period, it seemed that the huge work that had made her reputation risked crushing its creator beneath its weight. However level-headedness prevailed, and by 1990, Chicago’s vaginal symbolism was recognised as just that, a symbol for one half of the human race which had been used in assorted ways by other feminist artists of the time. In Germany in 1968, VALIE EXPORT performed her notorious Action Pants: Genital Panic in which she cut the crotch from her trousers and wandered round a cinema audience in order to emphasise the difference between real women and the polished female perfection on the screen. In America in 1975, a naked Carolee Schneemann read from a scroll, ‘Cezanne, she was a painter’, pulled out of her vagina. In 1996, Amelia Jones edited a book called Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist Art History. Her measured reassessment of the work , its context, the criticism it received and its influence gave Chicago back the status she deserved. With its installation in 2007 as the centrepiece of the Elizabeth A Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, The Dinner Party could be understood in context as the extraordinary achievement it was . Chicago now finds herself in the pedestal-position of having introduced subjects that can still cause an outcry four decades further on. In the last decade , a variety of exhibitions and publications have looked at aspects of Chicago’s output; this show of her works on paper , a modest survey of her career, is the first in Britain.
In 1980, shaken by some of the criticism, but bolstered by the thousands of messages from women affected by The Dinner Party, Chicago decided to dedicate the next five years to finding visual forms for childbirth, a fundamental female experience rarely represented in art and all the more appealing to her for this reason. One of her earliest actions was to watch a friend give birth, drawing furiously to catch the moment. She was shocked and overwhelmed by the pain and majesty of the event, which she described as a moment of creation, feelings which she translated into her designs for the works in this series. As with The Dinner Party, Chicago did not work alone although, again as with The Dinner Party, she was the instigator and captain of the enterprise. The images she created were carried out in needle and thread, that most domestic of female skills, selected, she says , to soften a tough subject matter with few art historical precedents. As the first completed works emerged, Chicago became aware of the expressive power of needlework and adapted her designs to take advantage of the workers’ skills. This mutual respect and willingness to learn is typical of the artist, who says that all her work has been a process of discovery. Seeing a group of Birth Project works in New York in the late eighties, I was struck by how the stitching ratched up the power of the designs to suggest the vibration , distortion and self obsession which are part of the experience .
With the Birth Project, aspects of Chicago’s practice became much clearer. Not for her the one-off work . A theme was what attracted her. And not for her the comfortable use of materials already mastered. From the early sculptures which had pushed her to an auto painting school to get the sleek and shiny surface she was after to the fascination with firework technology, from the dozens of experimental plates that did not survive the kiln to the collaboration with an Aubusson workshop to turn her designs to tapestry, Chicago has thrown herself into the technical side of art making. Easy way out is not a concept she understands. Nor is lack of professionalism. One of the bewildering things she learned when making The Dinner Party and the Birth Project was that many of the china painters and embroiderers were not able to take criticism, to work to order, to produce work on time. The problem was that while Chicago was working within an age old workshop set up, with a lead artist and assistants, the assistants in her particular case were mostly amateurs who operated in a climate of gentility and who expected praise and politeness for their contributions. Judy , a professional to her fingertips, found this bewildering . Her book, The Birth Project, shows her constantly learning , not just about the process of making the art but about the lives of the people who were helping her make it. Some women began but did not finish: ‘ But of course I was working primarily with people who were not professionals. Most of the needleworkers stitched in their idle hours, fitting their work in and around the demands of their lives. I do the opposite – squeezing my personal life and needs into the little crevices left over in my workdays.’
After a decade and a half of organising, commanding, encouraging, learning ,fund raising and making art, she took a break. Not from art but from art that relied on involving teams of other people. In 1987 , with her new husband the photographer Donald Woodman, she embarked on a new journey, the Holocaust Project, undeterred as always that it was a subject most artists skirted nervously . I use the word ‘journey’ with intent. Not only did she go on an actual journey to the concentration camps but she went on a journey of self education. It ended up being more work than ever, as she relates in her book of the same name: ‘Although I’ve done other major projects before, none involved the amount of travel, research, logistics, planning or intensely focussed work .’ As she tried to order her feelings about the holocaust, her mind raced past the received ideas: Chicago’s holocaust became a visual expression of her hatred of oppression, not just of the victims, but of all oppression – a metaphor, in other words . The climax of the resulting stained glass piece, one monumental tapestry and sixteen painting-photography combinations was a vast tripartite work of stained glass , Rainbow Shabat, 1992, which in her words ‘offers a vision of a different world through an image of the Friday night Shabbat service as an international sharing across race, gender, class and species’. Cruelty to animals (one of her beloved cats was the model for the embracing dog and cat beneath the table) , racial oppression and the rich exploitation of the poor in capitalism, all came into her imagery .
The Holocaust imagery reveals something fundamental about Chicago and that is her desire to change perceptions. Since her realisation at the end of the 1960s that the gender which makes up half of humanity was under- represented and under- respected, she had made art that tried to put this right by adding worth to women’s achievements and points of view. Now she visualised her dream of fighting oppression . Her interest in themes imbued with morality continued into the 1990s with her needlework designs for Resolutions : A Stitch in Time , a reworking for our age of old adages and proverbs. An underlying aim of the set of mixed media works from the 1990s titled Thinking About Trees, is to point out the interdependence of humanity and the world of nature. A series of expressive glass hands started a decade ago and made as always with the help of experts in the field , displays her fundamental humanism. Hands have always fascinated her: a large hand holds a welcoming cup in Accident Drawing No.4 ( catalogue no.00). Every page of Kitty City, a book she wrote in 2005 about the life she and Donald shared with their six cats, while visually more gentle than many of her works, is indelibly marked with a moral plea for respect for animals.
A recurring element of Chicago’s career has been the strong reactions she arouses. The confrontational quality of her imagery can be difficult to cope with. Anyone who chooses to present the public with bloody tampons, graphic praise of sexual love and visualisations of brutality, is bound to alienate some viewers. I suspect she might have had an easier time, and her art easier to categorise, if she had stuck to the traditional fine art media she was trained in instead of exploring the craft-based ceramics, textiles, fireworks, spray paint and glass that have attracted her.
Chicago is an artist of intention. Not only does she want to get her ideas across to those who look , she wants the public to be affected by what she shows them. In terms of style I suspect she uses a strong line and smooth surface to convince and move the viewer. Chicago lost interest in oil paint when she spraypainted the Finish Fetish works of the 1960s.
She found the resulting fusion of colour and surface so appealing that it became a signature. Except for PowerPlay, her 1982 exploration of masculinity, her public works display no artistic fingerprint in the form of brushstroke or thick impasto. Instead the colours are smoothly applied and either clearly delineated from each other or seamlessly graduated from dark to light, making her surfaces as opaque as an expressionless face or in the case of the sculptured Dinner Party plates, uneasily glistening. At least , that is how they seem at first glance. A second look shows that they avoid a poster-like flatness because the texture conventionally expected from brushstrokes or thick oil paint has emigrated into the actual body of her works. The sculptured motifs and vibrant colours help raise the plates off their base; the assorted stitches and fabrics add rich textures to her designs for textiles and needlework; the complex media mixtures give density to her prints; the glass adds depth and light, typified by the glass reworking of her disturbing Female Rejection Drawing of 1974 .
Meaning matters to Chicago, an intent so artistically out of style these days that it is decried as unsophisticated . However, despite her commitment to a just society, she is uncomfortable being described as a political artist, nervous perhaps that it might seem to diminish the artistic input of her work. Nonetheless, she constantly chooses themes that concern her passionately and the directness of her expression, in the Holocaust Project in particular, has something of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera about it , another who painted out of conviction. The difference , I think, is that while Rivera’s commitment was to communism, the view of life that Chicago presents in her art is more moral than political . What I see in Chicago is a desire to fly above the partisanship of politics to alight in a higher place where justice is the victor.
By making it difficult to see beyond the feminist persona, her success with The Dinner Party, symbolised by her elevation to Tate Modern’s wall, has skewed responses to the work that followed . Primed to expect a particular attitude and content, viewers have often overlooked the way she approaches every new subject from scratch , transforming her curiosity into conclusions and her conclusions into the forms of art best suited to express them. Even with The Dinner Party, that most feminist of works, what you are faced with is not feminist rage but an inspiring assembly of important women buried by history. What you get in the Birth Project is not a sentimental view of motherhood but a volcanic presentation of the massive labours of half the human race. But it is her celebration of sexual union in her illustrations to a translation of the Song of Songs, 1999 which stresses mutual passion , and her prints illustrating Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus 2004, which truly reveal the inadequacy of the ‘raging feminist ‘ tag . Gender for Chicago has never been merely a matter of waving the flag for women. Far from automatically forgiving towards women and hostile to men, she has constantly investigated the construction of gender . In fact, it was while working on the Birth Project that she became absorbed by thoughts about how men became men. PowerPlay, the series that resulted, expresses her view of masculinity as a process of annihilating impulses of pity, tears and tenderness. And while her feminism is a given, it is not her uppermost concern in the Holocaust Project , in her glass hands and heads, or in the New Mexico landscapes that she sees as threatened by human green and thoughtlessness.
Chicago’s creative drive takes many forms. Recent shows have concentrated on her early abstract work, on her glass sculptures and on her designs for textiles: exhibitions at Toronto’s Textile Museum of Canada in 2010 and New York’s Museum of Arts and Design in 2011 surprised her with how many and how consistently she had produced them over her career. But while an artist first and foremost, there are other Judy Chicagos. Her educator identity permeates all her art as she strives to picture what she wants to tell us , but it takes a more literal form as well. The drive to teach which surfaced at the start of the 1970s with the investigations she made with her California students into the existence, or otherwise ,of a female aesthetic emerged again in 2005 with a curriculum for kindergarten through high school students based on The Dinner Party .
A fluent and prolific writer, she has produced two autobiographies and a shelf of books about her art. Feminist art historians in the 1970s had demonstrated the importance of the written record to the survival of artistic reputations and Chicago learned from this, consistently publishing accounts of her projects which offer insights into their development and delivery. She credits her decision to write to her meeting with the writer Anais Nin in the early 1970s, although what strikes me is that Chicago had begun to write before that. In fact, it was the elegant 70 year old Nin who contacted Chicago after reading an article she had written about the difficulty of making female art. Armed with a morality and work ethic learned from her union organiser father and artistic mother, the young Chicago was unprepared for the importance that her sexuality and gender had assumed in both her personal and professional life. The worldly and notorious Nin, with her openly confessional style of writing in which she talked as intimately about bed as she did about breakfast , helped legitimise this for the young artist . Chicago took Nin’s advice to write her way through her confusions and questions and in 1975 , aged 35, published her first autobiography Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist, for which Nin wrote the introduction. The sequel, Beyond the Flower: The Autobiography of a Feminist Artist appeared in 1996. An offshoot of this talent is her way with the spoken word. Internet videos of interviews and speeches reveal the charismatic , glamorous Chicago, dark-lipsticked and red haired, ruefully and rhetorically asking her audience about her early feminist work, ‘ Did I ever think about how I might think about it when I was older? No!’
It can sometimes seem that since The Dinner Party, the characteristics which define a Judy Chicago work of art—the insistent expression of a moral conviction , the frequent choice of materials that lie closer to craft than art, an apparent lack of interest in the artistic fashions of the day — misfit her for the contemporary fine art scene. And yet were you to fly over the landscape of art history , you would see many points of intersection between Chicago’s art and the wider artworld. This is particularly true at the start of her career. The Finish Fetish works of the 1960s fit neatly into how contemporary art was understood at that particular time and place and earned her a place in a movement which has entered art history. The Dinner Party fixed her into it for ever. Though she did not fully realise this at the time, those provocative works of the 1970s , made proudly out of a female view of life , were part of an emerging international movement that would later be celebrated as Feminist Art, a movement whose themes continue to be explored today as the works by women artists scattered through this show attest .
Even the later works which appear to follow their own imperative to wrestle with the subjects which are of interest to Chicago, have links to the artistic trends of their day . The incorporation of writing into images is a mark of contemporary art – think of Gilbert and George ‘s graffiti on their huge bodily function works of the 1990s. Words and images have existed in a symbiotic relationship in Chicago’s art since she surrounded her centralised abstract female images with passionate words of explanation in the early seventies. Her autobiographical drawings are stabbed with words like sex or need and sentences and sometimes paragraphs illuminate many of her finished works. Her explorations of sexuality are part of the smashing of artistic taboos typical of the last three decades: think of Jeff Koons and his wife making love in the Made in Heaven series of twenty years ago or Marc Quinn’s 2010 transgender portrait sculptures. As for the self-revelatory drawings , they belong to a long art historical tradition, their fluency and intimacy shared with the erotic sketches of Klimt and Schiele and their passion allied to the watercolours rushed out by Charlotte Salamon as the Nazis drew ever closer.
This is the first show in the UK to offer a glimpse of the variety of Chicago’s output. Gallery size has decreed that the works are mainly limited to those on paper but because of her practice of accompanying the major projects with prints and drawings and her habit of reworking and revisiting themes and images , they give a good sense of her artistic output and achievements. Although the prints and drawings in this show can by their nature only hint at the huge projects that lie behind them, they are equally typical of her output . Chicago is a prolific artist who makes these smaller works to enable collectors to own a piece of her major projects to finance the next big idea that bubbles away in her brain, or, wearing her artistic smock, to explore her ideas, to try out new on favourite motifs or – for she is an artist, after all — just for the pleasure of working small and at speed. At the Ben Uri, the limits of space and the desire for coherence means that there are no works from the Holocaust series , none from Resolutions, no examples of her work in glass and only two needlework pieces . Instead a decision was made to focus on work concerned with autobiography and the body , interests that have remained constant throughout her career and which are fully represented in her works on paper. What emerges is a previously hidden and intimate portrait of Judy Chicago.
To those familiar only with her major public works of art , her personal drawings are a revelation. Chicago has filled more than fifty sketchbooks over her career. The Accident Drawings give her account of being run over by a truck only weeks into her third marriage to Donald Woodman. The cat sketchbook chronicles her fascination with her six pets and , with her self portrait, (catalogue no.00) suggests her affinity with these animals, an affinity she is convinced she shares with many other women artists. Autobiography of a Year , which is about herself, her feelings and her relationship and made at a time of stress away from the studio , seems almost to come from the hand of another artist . Although not quite as spontaneous as it appears – she reworked at times to make a clearer point – its immediacy , sketchiness and occasionally shocking images offer the viewer a chance to respond to her art in ways her more finished works forbid. With this series, the viewer can indulge the conventional artistic pleasures of appreciating a tentative mark, enjoying the speed of execution, allowing themselves to be moved by the emotive colour choices of orange for anxiety, grey for gloom. As for message, they have none except for the private feelings of their maker. You might even say they free the viewer from the lecture hall.
Her choice to go for the vehement statement in her public work is what defines her, but the knowledge of this sketchier private art gives an insight into what lies behind the finished pieces. These days, an uncomplicated causal link between the work and the artist’s life – the view that Van Gogh’s madness shows in his agitated art , as if that explains his talent – is deeply unfashionable outside the field of biography because it denies the transforming role of the artist’s skill. But these private drawings reveal something about this artist who wants to teach, to change perceptions, to make a point as strongly as she can but who bases this need on the strength of her own particular private passions. It has become a cliché to say that drawings bring you closer to the artist, but it is hard to deny in Chicago’s case.
Despite the art historical analysis, there remains something uncontainable about Chicago’s art. Never knowing when to stop, upsetting as many as she thrills, refusing , or perhaps unable, to dilute her imagery for anyone , I have long thought that she belongs as much to fiction as to fact. With so extreme and extraordinary a drive to see if women could make an art from their own point of view,that she can seem like a character dreamed up by a novelist to personify the beliefs and events of the seventies, a character who plays by the rules until one day she realises the rules are not fair and comes out fighting on the side of feminism. Literally. In 1970, she is photographed with short hair and short shorts resting back on the ropes of a boxing ring . (catalogue no. 00) That same year, she divests herself of her married surname , a mark, she says, of her subservience to patriarchy, and announces that henceforth she is to be known as Judy Chicago, the city of her birth. The photograph is run as an advertisment in Artforum for her forthcoming exhibition at the Jack Glenn Gallery in Los Angeles ; the name-change announcement faces the visitor as she enters . In 2010, as feisty as ever, she makes a self portrait standing naked and splashes the words Ageing Woman/ Artist /Jew beneath it. (catalogue no.00) Surely Judy Chicago could only be a figment of a writer’s imagination, a creation invented to sum up a time, an attitude and a movement. The art is here to show that fact is stranger than fiction.
Essay written for Judy Chicago, book accompanying the exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery, London, published by Lund Humphries, 2012