Judy Chicago didn’t want to define feminism, even though I’d asked her nicely.
“It’s a 200-year-old term. All you have to do is look in the dictionary,” she said. “And besides, there are multiple forms of feminism, especially now.”
The artist was sitting in her studio in Belen, a couple of weeks before the grand opening of her Through the Flower Art Space on Saturday, July 20, and Sunday, July 21. The unassuming one-story building is located kitty-corner from her studio in the renovated Belen Hotel, where Chicago has lived with her husband, the photographer Donald Woodman, since 1996. The museum opening, which includes tours and a multicolored pyrotechnic display of smoke art, falls on the weekend of Chicago’s 80th birthday.
Chicago is petite and artsy-looking with curly purple hair, snow-white bangs, and purple lips lined in black. She walks quickly in purple athletic shoes along the familiar path between the art space, the hotel, and Pete’s Café, a haunt just around the corner.
“They make the best chile rellenos on Earth,” she said.
Chicago’s life in Belen, a city of about 7,000 that’s 30 miles south of Albuquerque, is both separate from and connected to her life as an international art star — a role she’s played since 1979, when her best-known installation, The Dinner Party, opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
‘A long, hard battle’
Maybe you don’t remember it: The Dinner Party is a large ceremonial banquet table that’s set with 39 plates commemorating important women from history, including Sacagawea, Sojourner Truth, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Georgia O’Keeffe. (The names of 999 additional women are lettered in gold on a white tile floor beneath the table.) Much of the imagery on the plates is decidedly labial or vulvar, putting women’s genitalia front and center for the viewer.
Since its first public display, the piece has attracted a great deal of attention, both positive and negative. Some critics laud it for its emphasis on women’s achievements, while others take issue with its intimate imagery. It’s vulgar, they say. Others think it reduces women to their sex organs. The Dinner Party is on permanent exhibition at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.
Similar mixed reactions greeted The Birth Project in 1985, a collection of nearly 100 painting and needlework pieces (executed by artists contracted by Chicago) that celebrates the birth process — across cultures, in all its glory and pain. A portion of The Birth Project is currently on display at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos. Recent reviews indicate that these two older works still have the power to get people talking — even if what they say isn’t always flattering. Some current critics view the imagery and themes as exclusionary of trans and nonbinary gender identification.
“If you know anything about my career, you know that I’ve had a long, hard battle,” Chicago said, laughing.
Though she has developed — and possibly cultivated — a reputation for being prickly, in person she’s quick with commentary if she doesn’t like something, and yet she seems inherently joyful. Because she doesn’t tend to include men in her artwork, and instead centers on women’s lives and experiences, some people assume that she hates the opposite sex. But neither her work nor her attitude reflect such an outlook. “Right, I hate men. That’s why I’ve been married to Donald for 33 years.” She rolled her eyes. “If I were a man-hater, my life would probably have been easier.”
Talking to Judy Chicago, it becomes clear that the essence of her feminism slices sharply through waves and trends that separate generations and the evolving nuances of our political ideologies. She is a woman who is not going to capitulate just because you want her to. She may be aging, but she’s not going gently into that good night.
“I set out to make a contribution to art history,” she said. “Being liked had nothing to do with it.”
Getting her due
Chicago was born Judy Cohen in 1939 on the north side of Chicago to liberal parents who were involved in Marxist causes and social activism. At five years old, she was taking the bus alone to kids’ classes at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago. She was something of a prodigy. At Through the Flower Art Space, a photograph of her childhood apartment building hangs next to an image of a painting she made of it when she was nine. It does not look like a child’s work, nor does the abstract landscape she painted when she was four years old.
“My nursery school teacher was the one who told my mother I was talented,” she said.
She left for California when she was 17 and was unable to return to the Midwest once she got a taste of more temperate weather. She first met Lucy R. Lippard in New York in 1959. Lippard was working in the library at the Museum of Modern Art at the time; she went on to become one of the country’s foremost art critics and curators (and a resident of Galisteo, New Mexico).
“The Dinner Party is a major brilliant work and it certainly blew minds, still does,” Lippard said. “Maybe she wasn’t always working for ‘shock value,’ but she sure as hell achieved it. She’s always been very brave despite endless opposition from the mainstream, and from some feminists.” Lippard recalled a day in the 1970s when Chicago took her portfolio to SoHo galleries and was turned away. “By then she was well-known, but they treated her with great disrespect and she came back in tears. I hope they are paying attention now,” Lippard said of the long-ago tastemakers. “Sometimes it seems like I’ve spent my life defending Judy against those who were constantly attacking her.”
Chicago has finally gotten her due from the establishment — at least in the decades since feminist consciousness first flowered in the art world. Several archives and documentations of her life and work exist in museum and academic settings, and an exhibition of new work opens Sept. 19 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction explores mortality and environmental destruction.
Through the Flower Art Space is poised to become an anchor in what Belen’s mayor, Jerah Cordova, community leaders, and a cadre of local artists hope becomes a revitalized arts corridor along Becker Avenue, blocks away from the southernmost stop on the Rail Runner commuter train. At the noon hour on a sunny Monday in early July, not much was happening on the street, although a television crew was scouting a location in an empty grocery store and the sound of train horns was a near-constant presence. A few galleries have opened recently, as has a tasting room for Jaramillo Vineyards, which is bottling Judy Chicago wine in honor of the art space. (The bottles are adorned with Chicago-designed labels.) Behind the closed doors of the art space and Chicago’s studio, a handful of assistants, archivists, and interns were gearing up for the imminent opening, as were numerous construction workers and community volunteers.
But, as with most things Chicago gets passionate about, renovating and opening the art space didn’t come without a battle.
In the summer of 2018, Cordova and Belen city councilor Ronnie Torres proposed the art space to Chicago and Woodman as a partnership with the city. Chicago asked the city to pay for one part-time museum employee, to the tune of $13,000 a year. When other city councilors got wind of the plan, opposition ensued. The conflict, which Chicago refers to as the Belen Brouhaha, made national news.
“I don’t want protesters with pitchforks and torches,” city councilor David Carter told the New York Times. “Some of the art might upset the masses once they start looking up some of this stuff.”
Chicago considers such a perspective uninformed at best and hateful at worst. She and Woodman withdrew the offer to partner with the city — a financial loss for a small community with a floundering business economy. Half the proceeds from admission and gift shop sales would have gone to Belen’s coffers. What came next heartened the pragmatic artist. “Well, there was this unexpected outpouring of support,” she said.
Cordova donated a year of his annual $10,000 salary to the cause, and a party organized at a local banquet hall generated another $30,000. The money was used to renovate the building based on designs by Woodman. The modern facility offers space not only for rotating exhibitions, but also for a computer resource center; an art library; a shop selling Chicago’s many books, as well as specially designed silk scarves, T-shirts, and skateboard decks; and a permanent timeline of Chicago’s and Woodman’s work, together and apart, and their lives in New Mexico.
The couple lived in Santa Fe in the 1980s. Their first collaborative project was called My Accident, about the time Chicago was hit by a pickup truck while jogging on Upper Canyon Road. Later, they collaborated on The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light, which opened in 1993 at the Spertus Museum of Judaica in Chicago. These works are just two examples from the artist’s career that tend to get overshadowed by The Dinner Party and The Birth Project. Through the Flower Art Space will go a long way toward expanding the public’s knowledge and understanding of Chicago’s entire output, which includes glasswork, sculpture, painting, and smoke art, as well as other collaborative installations.
Cordova said that had he tried to educate the community about Chicago before taking the partnership idea to the city council, the controversy in Valencia County might have been avoided. “I think there were a lot of misunderstandings initially about what the proposal involved, and sometimes with the way these things roll out, there isn’t enough information available soon enough to be sure the public is fully informed,” he said. “I completely understand how some would have had questions and a negative reaction. What we’ve seen since is growing support from the community.”
While helping to hang the timeline exhibition at the art space, Woodman shrugged off the controversy, couched as it was in so much misunderstanding. He’s heard such wild things about his wife that he wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to what has been most incorrect. “The answer to most perceptions of Judy is that they’re not true. For me, she’s easy to work with. We share a common idea of what aesthetic perfection is.”
That word again
In a June 2019 review of The Birth Project at the Harwood Museum of Art for THE Magazine, critic Matthew Irwin identifies himself as a “cis-gendered, penis-possessing human” and then takes Chicago’s work to task for what he calls structural and ideological shortcomings. Without providing evidence to support his opinion, he accuses her both of flattening world creation mythologies and cultivating white feminist fantasies about saving women of color in undeveloped countries.
Chicago’s studio assistant, Apolo Gomez, read portions of the review to her when it came out. Both were taken aback by Irwin’s repeated references to what he saw as images of “torn vaginas” in the work. Chicago thinks that maybe he was talking about episiotomies, a surgical incision to the perineum and the posterior vaginal wall that is sometimes performed during birth to enlarge the opening so the baby can pass through.
“I burst out laughing. Apolo and I posted on Instagram about it. How cool is it that I’m almost 80 and I can still get white cis men to foam at the mouth about my work?”
Chicago will engage negative criticism, but she’s been through too many shifts in feminist and art world discourse to get riled. “Young people always think their generation discovered everything. We raise women in a state of trained ignorance about what women before them thought, taught, and created. It’s an institutional failure.”
Then she returns to a familiar subject.
“You asked for the definition of feminism. If you want to know my definition, it’s evolved. When it started, it was focused entirely on gender for 20 years, until Donald and I went on our journey about the Holocaust. That helped me see gender and women’s oppression as part of a much greater global system of injustice.” She formed her hands into a pyramid, a shape that recurs in her work, as do flower stamens and petals. She said that a tiny portion of white men and white women exist at the top of the pyramid. “For me, feminism is the toppling of the entire paradigm, and replacing it with equality and justice on the planet for everyone. And that’s how my work has evolved, too.” ◀