Body of Knowledge

In Judy Chicago, Lund Humphries, 2012

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.

May 2012

Essay written for Judy Chicago, book accompanying the exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery, London, published by Lund Humphries, 2012