Judy Chicago
Feminist Installation Artist, Creator of "The Dinner Party".
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The Dinner Party (1979)
Installation by Judy Chicago.
Elizabeth A. Sackler Center
for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum.
An iconic work of American art
of the late 20th century.

Judy Chicago (b.1939)

Contents

Biography
Early Life and Training
Feminism and Feminist Art
The Dinner Party Installation (1979)
Later Years
Books
20th Century Feminist Artists

For more late 20th century movements,
please see: Postmodernist Art (from 1970).

For the top museums and art venues,
see: Best Galleries of Contemporary Art.

For the world's most important festivals,
see: Best Contemporary Art Festivals.



Detail from The Dinner Party
showing the "Hypatia" place setting.
Note: Hypatia (360-415) was a female
Greek scholar and head of the
prestigious neoplatonic School
of Philosophy at Alexandria.

WORLD'S FINEST PAINTING
For the best contemporary works
by female painters, please see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Biography

One of America's top contemporary artists, Judy Chicago was one of the principal pioneers of Feminist art in the 1970s, a trend of contemporary art that grew out of the Women's Liberation movement in America and Britain, during the late-1960s. Judy Chicago was an active and influential feminist artist who sought to change cultural attitudes and transform stereotypes, to give women greater equality. In the short term, she sought to increase the opportunities available to women them within the American art system, and to reinterpret the history of art from a more feminist perspective. She is best known for her collaborative installation art designed to enlarge women's historical profile and enhance their representation in the visual arts. Her most famous work is The Dinner Party (1979, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum, New York), which celebrates the achievements of real and legendary women throughout history, while at the same time championing the "feminine" crafts of needlework, embroidery and ceramic art, counterbalancing this with "male" crafts like metalwork and welding. In 1970 Judy Chicago taught the first course on women's art held in America - her students included Dori Atlantis, Suzanne Lacy, Cay Lang, Karen LeCocq, Jan Lester, Judy Schaefer, Henrietta Sparkman, Faith Wilding, Nancy Youdelman, Cheryl Zurilgen - and then in 1971 co-founded the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of Arts with Miriam Schapiro as well as the installation and performance venue, "Womanhouse". She is also known for her Holocaust art, namely her installation "The Holocaust Project."

Note: In addition to Judy Chicago, other modern artists who became pioneers of Feminist ideas included: Miriam Schapiro (1923-2015) a leading figure in the Pattern and Decoration art movement; video-artist Doris Totten Chase (1923-2008); painter/printmaker Nancy Spero (1926-2009); "maintenance artist" Mierle Laderman Ukeles (b.1939); and the performance artist Carolee Schneemann (b.1939). Postmodernist artists closely associated with Feminist art include the video artist Martha Rosler (b.1943); graphic artist Barbara Kruger (b.1945); video and installation artist Dara Birnbaum (b.1946); performance artist Marina Abramovic (b.1946) famous for her high-risk body art; installation artist Maureen Connor (b.1947); and the graphic designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville (b.1940).

 

 

Early Life and Training

Born Judy Cohen in the city of Chicago, from which she took her adopted name, she grew up in an intellectual Jewish home and began drawing at the age of three. At five she was certain she was going to become an artist, and at eight started attending classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1950, when she was eleven, her father died prematurely from peritonitis, but his active support for the American Communist Party, and progressive views on women and worker's rights would have a significant effect on Judy's outlook and philosophy. As it was, she continued with her classes throughout her teens, before taking a Masters Degree in Fine Arts from UCLA. Despite tragically losing her young husband Jerry Gerowitz in a car crash in 1961, she completed her Masters in 1964, after which she broadened her training by taking courses in spray-painting at a car-repair school, and in wood carving and other sculptural techniques. Meantime her art - after a brief nod in the direction of early-60s minimalism - became more expressive and personal, and began to include explicit depictions of the female organs.

Feminism and Feminist Art

As the decade progressed she became increasingly interested in the Feminist movement, and started to incorporate more feminist themes in her art. It was the beginning of her lifelong quest as a feminist artist to acknowledge the achievements of female figures (in history and in the arts) and to celebrate the unique feelings and experiences of women, while at the same time campaigning for courses on Feminist art and greater opportunities to exhibit with museums like MOMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In 1969, she remarried, but this time instead of taking her husband's name, she adopted the surname Chicago - as a personal statement of independence.

In 1970, Chicago, along with fellow artist Miriam Schapiro, pioneered a radical new approach in feminist education when she launched and taught the first women-only art course (known as the Feminist Art Program) at Fresno State College, an experiment she repeated the following year at the California Institute of Arts in Valencia. The course focused on boosting awareness of feminism and female identity, as expressed in various different types of art, such as conceptual art, and performance art, as well as legitimizing feminine crafts such as embroidery and needlework. Out of this educational experiment emerged "Womanhouse", an arts venue set up by Chicago and her students to provide a space for teaching, discussion, exhibition and performance. In 1973 Womanhouse relocated to the Feminist Studio workshop - founded by Chicago, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, and art scholar Arlene Raven - in an entirely separate venue in Los Angeles. In due course, Womanhouse metamorphosed into the "Woman's Building" - which rapidly became a key center in the female arts community in Los Angeles, and a major symbol of the 1970s feminist movement.

Note: In addition to her work as an arts teacher and feminist activist during the early 1970s, Chicago (like Georgia O'Keeffe before her) started creating works with floral imagery, in line with her belief that flowers are the symbol of femininity and the female core and that women are defined and united by their sexual organs. In the eyes of art critics, this stress on biology - "when all is said and done, being a woman means having a vagina" - is Chicago's blind spot. Today, for instance, Feminist ideology has progressed considerably from the simpler notions of the 1970s.

The Dinner Party (1974-79)

In 1974, Chicago began making her monumental installation - "The Dinner Party" - a forthright homage to feminist history. It consists of a triangular banqueting table, complete with thirty-nine place-settings - each adorned with embroidered linen, a chalice, silverware, and a porcelain plate embellished with vulva-motifs. The installation's white floor (called the Heritage Floor) is made of triangular porcelain tiles, each inscribed with the names of an additional 999 eminent women. The constituents of the work - itself a collaborative effort involving over 100 female contributors - were tangible examples of the traditional types of decorative art created mainly by women. "The Dinner Party" opened to the public in March 1979 at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) - rapidly garnering a sheaf of bad reviews. Described as "kitsch," and "obscene" by Hilton Kramer (1928-2012), chief art critic for The New York Times, the installation was dismantled and stored away, ignored by other museums and institutions throughout America. In 2007, some thirty years later, it was transported across the country and reinstalled in at the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art in Brooklyn, New York. It stands above all as a symbol of the early Feminist art movement, which is rated by some art historians as one of the most important contemporary art movements of the second half of the 20th century.

Later Years

In her later years, she has continued to create art and promote her feminist concerns, although her outlook broadened somewhat. During the 1980s she became concerned with the lack of birth imagery in visual art ("Birth Project" installation 1980-85), after which she produced a series of large-scale paintings on the theme of masculinity ("Powerplay" 1983-86). Then, in collaboration with the photographer Donald Woodman (later husband number three), she spent eight years (1985-93) amassing Holocaust imagery for her acclaimed installation, entitled "The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light". A multimedia work, it included stained glass art, metalwork and photography as well as tapestry art and acrylic painting. Since then, her activities have embraced such diverse skills as glass-blowing, needlework, pyrotechnics and teaching. However, she is best known for the defining Feminist art she created in the 1970s.

Books

Chicago is the author of several major books documenting the feminist artworks of herself and other female artists. They include: The Birth Project (Doubleday, 1985); Beyond the Flower: The Autobiography of a Feminist Artist (Penguin, 1997); Women and Art: Contested Territory (with Edward Lucie-Smith) (Watson-Guptill, 1999); Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist (Authors Choice Press, 2006); Frida Kahlo: Face to Face. (Prestel USA, 2010); and Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education (The Monacelli Press, 2014).

Other 20th Century Feminist Artists

For biographies of women artists involved in the Feminism movement who are not cited above, please see the following:

Louise Nevelson (1899-1988)
Russian-American assemblage artist.

Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)
Mexican muralist, wife of Rivera, noted for her self-portraits.

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)
French experimental sculptor best-known for her spider sculptures.

• Barbara Kruger (b.1945)
Feminist graphic artist noted for slogans like "I Shop Therefore I am".

Nan Goldin (b.1953)
Noted for her photographs of minorities, such as "Misty and Jimmy" (1980).

Cindy Sherman (b.1954)
Famous for her surrealist "Untitled Film Stills" (1977-80) and other photos.

Tracey Emin (b.1963)
Feminist installation artist best-known for My Bed (1998, Saatchi Collection).

Jenny Saville (b.1970)
Noted for her postmodernist paintings of female nudes.

 

• For more details of feminist arts and crafts, see: Homepage.


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