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The Great Mother


The de Young Museum mounts the first retrospective of Judy Chicago.

Judy Chicago, Through the Flower 2, 1973

Judy Chicago, Through the Flower 2, 1973, sprayed acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 in. Collection of Diane Gelon. © Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph © Donald Woodman / ARS

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In Céline Sciamma’s 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Marianne, a woman painter, travels to a manor on a remote island in Brittany to paint the portrait of Héloïse, a young aristocrat. The portrait is to be sent to the Milanese nobleman to whom Héloïse is betrothed.

It is the 1770s, and Marianne has inherited a successful painting practice from her father—a boon for a woman artist of any period. In France in the 18th century, there was a limit on the number of women who could be admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and they were excluded from life drawing classes (Marianne addresses this by noting she paints nudes in secret). But a number of female painters excelled by painting portraits of well-to-do women and still lifes.

In the film’s second act, Marianne, Héloïse, and Sophie, a young servant, have the sprawling manor and its seaside grounds to themselves. Sans chaperone (and male gaze), their world becomes light, as if a heavy curtain has been parted at midday. This levity is somehow sustained amid the painful abortion Sophie undergoes in the home of a local medicine woman. Inspired by Sophie’s procedure, Marianne sketches a scene of childbirth, with Héloïse posing as midwife to Sophie. Even for the present day viewer, the representation of such a scene by an artist—woman or otherwise—feels exceedingly rare.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t based on a true story. Art history has not bestowed on us even a small niche of childbirth scenes (representations of pregnant women are fairly rare as well), despite birth being a universally shared human experience. “If men had babies,” says pioneering feminist artist and educator Judy Chicago, “there would be thousands of images of the crowning.”


Over 200 years after the fictional setting of the film, Chicago was trying to correct this underrepresentation. For The Birth Project (1980–85), Chicago designed over 80 needleworks that take the female experience of childbirth as their theme. The works were executed by more than 130 volunteer needleworkers from the United States, Canada, and New Zealand. The use of needlework, a form of women’s work that has traditionally been ghettoized as craft rather than fine art by critics and historians, reinforced the notion of childbearing and rearing as a female duty. The pieces, which range in size from very small point works to a 20-feet-wide crochet work, were organized into a touring exhibition by Mary Ross Taylor and Through the Flower (a non-profit Feminist art organization founded by Chicago in 1978), and by the end of 1987 had been exhibited in almost 100 shows.

Today, pieces from The Birth Project are in the collections of over 30 institutions. More than a dozen of the works, including the enormous Birth Crochet and the luminous Earth Birth (1983), will be on view in “Judy Chicago: A Retrospective” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (May 9–September 6).
The de Young’s show is, surprisingly, the first retrospective of Chicago’s five decade-long career. It boasts 150 paintings, drawings, ceramic sculptures, prints, and performance-based works and spans her early engagement with the California Light and Space Movement in the 1960s to her most recent work, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, which premiered at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 2019.

Thomas P. Campbell, the director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, says, “Judy Chicago is an artist of exceptional foresight and consequence, who is long overdue for the deep look into her artistic output that this retrospective will provide.”

Chicago is probably best known for two things: her establishment of the first feminist art program in the United States at Cal State Fresno and The Dinner Party, a large scale work executed between 1974 and 1979 and now permanently installed in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. The installation features a triangular table covered in fine white cloth and set with 39 places (13 on each side), each for a historically significant woman such as Sappho, Sacajawea, Susan B. Anthony, Georgia O’Keeffe, or Artemisia Gentileschi (who is also featured in this issue). A triumph of mixed media, the work features ceramics, china-painting, and a host of needle and fiber techniques. Each plate depicts a stylized, richly colored vulva, and the table sits on a porcelain floor comprised of 2,304 hand-cast, gilded, and lustered tiles inscribed with the names of 999 more important women.

When The Dinner Party debuted at SFMOMA in 1979, it became a smash. A hundred thousand visitors came to see it within the first three months of its run, and one million people saw it after it toured 16 different venues in six countries. Though critics derided it for its use of vaginal imagery and craft (Hilton Kramer of the New York Times called it “crass and solemn and single-minded”), it became Chicago’s calling card.

Though the de Young certainly celebrates the legacy of this juggernaut, it emphasizes what precedes and follows The Dinner Party in Chicago’s oeuvre. Chicago began her career creating minimal works that examine color within a limited framework of geometric shapes. Though certainly aligned with the California Light and Space movement, the shapes, palette, and patterning employed by Chicago’s work between 1965 and 1973 set the stage for the vaginal or “core” imagery she used throughout the 1970s.

Though Chicago was included in “Primary Structures,” a seminal 1965 exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, her minimal work was largely forgotten until its inclusion in the 2002 exhibition “A Minimal Feature” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The de Young’s retrospective helps excavate this period further, showcasing several bodies of Chicago’s early work simultaneously. Large-scale sculptural groups like Sunset Squares (1965, recreated in 2018, acrylic on canvas-covered plywood) and Rainbow Pickett (1964, latex paint on canvas colored plywood) show how commanding Chicago was as a minimalist, and how comfortable she was even early in her career with monumental scale.

Her works in paint from this period owe much to her enrollment in auto-body school after she received her master’s from UCLA in 1964. In these classes she learned how to spray paint, a technique that imbued her hard-edge geometric structures with depth and sensuality. Her series Pasadena Lifesavers, from which there are several examples in the retrospective, features orifice-like circles in a jewel-toned, sprayed-on palette. Fresno Fans, a series also well represented in the show, focuses on squares washed with color. The white negative space that Chicago leaves provides a luminosity, as well as a surprising, surreptitious organic effect.

Inspired by the pinups she saw all over auto-body school (where she was the sole woman among 250 male classmates), Chicago decided to paint car hoods with feminist themes. Birth Hood (1956/2011, sprayed automotive lacquer on car hood), a standout of the exhibition, features a stylized portrayal of the female reproductive organs.

By the 1970s, Chicago had become a leading voice in the feminist art movement, and her work became more explicitly about the female body and experience. In 1970, in the lead-up to a solo show, she placed a now-infamous ad in Artforum that read, “Judy Gerowitz hereby divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and freely chooses her own name: Judy Chicago.” The name of the city in which she was born officially replaced the name of her late husband. The decade also brought a series of ceramic fertility goddesses à la the Venus of Willendorf, of which there are several in the show, and a host of engrossing, large-scale sprayed acrylic on canvas paintings like Let it all Hang Out (1973), Heaven is for White Men Only (1973), and the celebrated Through the Flower (1973).

The 1980s brought the aforementioned Birth Project and the Power Play series, which featured Michelangelo-like male nudes dramatically performing masculinity. In Driving the World to Destruction (1985, sprayed acrylic and oil on Belgian linen), a male nude holds a steering wheel that controls an infernal earth. An eight-year-long investigation into her Jewish heritage led to Chicago’s Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light (1985–93), which spilled into the 1990s. Working with her husband, the photographer Donald Woodman, and several other artists, Chicago created a body of work that tackles genocides around the world, systems of power, and humanity. Featured in the retrospective is The Fall, an 18-foot-wide Aubusson tapestry that portrays imagery spanning the Egyptian pharaohs, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and the Nazi concentration camps.

Also featured prominently in the show is Chicago’s latest series, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2012–18). Featuring 30 paintings on black glass, seven china-painted porcelains, and two bronze relief, the series focuses on death, Chicago’s own mortality, and the ongoing extinction of other species. As Chicago’s work has always focused on oppression and systems of control by one group over the other, this series puts into stark focus the role of humans as oppressor of the environment and the other species living in it. Works in this series like Stranded (2016, kiln-fired glass paint on black glass), which features a polar bear perched on a shrunken piece of ice, portray a harsh reality that for some is still taboo.


By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: May 2020

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