Judy Chicago Talks About Feminism, Art and Life at 75

Surveying Judy Chicago opens Friday night at RedLine Gallery.
Surveying Judy Chicago opens Friday night at RedLine Gallery.
Judy Chicago, Twin Heads

By the 1980s, feminist art pioneer Judy Chicago had secured a seat at the table of art history with her landmark installation, The Dinner Party. The triangular table, 48 feet on each side, was decorated with place-settings for 39 women from myth and history and celebrated another 999.

The project loomed over Chicago's career for over thirty years, shadowing many of her other creative achievements. The upcoming show at RedLine, Surveying Judy Chicago: 1970-2014 aims to shed light into some of the forgotten corners of the prolific artist's career.

In advance of Friday's opening, Westword spoke with Chicago about her life as an artist, her 75th birthday, the state of art education and the legacies of feminist art in the United States.

See also: Harmony Hammond and Tirza True Latimer on Queer Feminist Abstraction

Westword: Talk about what you're going to be doing in Denver?

I'm going to be very busy. There is a big survey show of my work at RedLine that will be opening on the 17th. On the 18th, I'm going to do a book event at Tattered Cover about my recently published book, Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education.

Your time here will be full. Talk about Institutional Time.

You know that I started the first feminist art program in 1970, in Southern California, in Fresno. I took that program to CalArts. Out of CalArts came Womanhouse, which has continued to be the first openly female-centered installation, which is starting to be viewed as one of the most important post-World War II installations in contemporary art. That's what I've been reading lately.

Then I stopped teaching in order to focus solely on studio work. In the 1990s, I started getting letters from women all over the world complaining about what was happening in school for them, about how they were not learning anything about women's history or very little about the history of women's art and nothing at all about the feminist art movement. It really concerned me. I felt like it was demonstrating the type of erasure The Dinner Party and my work was intended to overcome.

In 1999, I went back to teaching, after 25 years, and I did a series of residencies around the country at all level schools. By that point, I was team-teaching with my husband, photographer Donald Woodman, because one of the things I was interested in finding out was whether or not my pedagogical methods of the '70s were still relevant and could they be applied to men.

Out of these experiences and a lot of thinking and observation and research, I wrote Institutional Time, which took me ten years to write, because I felt like there were a lot of very significant problems with studio art education. Since I was in graduate school, there have only been more and more MFAs pumped out into a tiny art distribution system. A lot of the students come out of school with a huge amount of debt. There are so few ways for them to make a living in the arts, much less pay back their student loans. Most of them end up having to get full time jobs.

I'm exceedingly critical of studio art education, as it exists now, and it is definitely continuing to shortchange women, and most art students are women.

It's shocking that in the '90s there was a regression in terms of inclusivity of women in the art world?

Oh yeah, there was definitely a regression. In fact, CalArts, for a very long time, which of course was the first major art school in the world to actually provide a home and a significant budget and resources to address women's needs in terms of studio education, proceeded to erase the whole history of the feminist art program from its legacy.

What did that look like?

In the '90s, some of the young female students who were facing some of the same problems my students had faced in the '70s found the archive in the dumpster.

Wow.

Here they were going to a really high class art school, and just like art schools are stopping teaching drawing and students are having to organize their own drawing classes, these young women had to go in search of all this material themselves as opposed to having it provided for them by the institution they were paying.

Did they rescue it?

Well, they retrieved some of it. Not all of it. One box is all they have left.

That's heartbreaking.

That's what got me so upset. It's exactly how I felt. I was far away from academia during those years. I just assumed that all the changes around consciousness around race and gender and sexual orientation and with the advent of women's studies and ethnic studies and African American studies and Gay and Lesbian studies, I just assumed that all these changes had been made. So it was like a huge shock to me to start getting these letters and to actually go to all these different schools and to see for myself what was going on.

Read on for more from Judy Chicago.

 

Judy Chicago works with multiple materials including paint, glass, ceramics, fabric and bronze.
Judy Chicago works with multiple materials including paint, glass, ceramics, fabric and bronze.
Judy Chicago, Aging Woman Artist Jew

Where does your current studio practice fit within all of this?

You're going to see that at RedLine. For the last ten years, I've been working in glass, mostly cast glass, but I did do some fused and etched, kiln-painted pieces. I've worked in a lot of media, which will be evident at this show at RedLine, including ceramics and bronze. More recently, I've begun to combine glass and bronze and also explore and bring back into my practice bronze and ceramic and paint, of course, and color, which I've always used. The survey show has been expanded to include more recent work so that people in Denver will get the opportunity to see some of that work.

Conceptually, what is the recent work addressing?

Well, the first series was about hands. I was interested in the way one gesture can mean a lot of different things. One of the aspects of glass that is so appealing to me is that you can look through the surface. If you think about my work over the years, a lot of it addresses what lies below the surface or what lies outside the dialog of art or the cultural dialog. And glass makes that quite easy to explore.

So the first series were both cast, fused and etched pieces. There is one complex, multi-panel glass piece in the show called Four Part Temporal Connection that is a very good example of etched and painted glass.

In 2007, I did a series of live-casts of heads. My original intention was to start working on all of them, but I got diverted by one of the heads, which was particularly fascinating to me. I did a whole series called The Toby Heads. That's when I began to bring back ceramics and bring back bronze and started exploring the combination of bronze and glass. I finished those in 2010. For the last 4 years, I've been working on the rest of the heads as both flat, painted images and the cast pieces.

I'm curious how the success of The Dinner Party has impacted your creative process over the decades? What's that been like?

Even though I was grateful for all the attention The Dinner Party brought me, there was also a great deal of struggle involved, not only in creating the piece and exhibiting but in achieving its permanent housing, which was my original goal. That's the good news. I achieved my goal.

But for a very long time, The Dinner Party blocked out all the rest of my work and people were just not familiar with the fact that I had this prodigious production across a whole range of subjects and a whole range of techniques. That began to change in 2010 and 2011.

Pacific Standard Time was a Getty funded initiative involving every institution from Santa Barbara to San Diego documenting and celebrating Southern California art from 1945 to 1980. 20 of those years I was working in LA. And I was really very prominently featured in Pacific Standard Time. I was in eight museum shows. I had three solo shows. I did three events--fireworks and dry ice events--in the Pacific Standard Time performance festival. This began to blast open a big space for people to start looking at the rest of my work.

First, it was my early work that got a lot of attention, and since that time, there have been shows, and particularly, this year, there have been all of these shows all over the country looking at all different aspects of my career.

The survey show that will be at RedLine, this is its fourth venue. And it's one of the first shows to actually look across my career, although it only provides glimpses into the many bodies of art that I did.

I had like 10 years of studio practice prior to The Dinner Party. And after The Dinner Party, I did The Birth Project. That took five years. Then I did PowerPlay, which was an examination of the gender construct of masculinity. That took five years. And then I worked with my husband, photographer Donald Woodman, for eight years on the Holocaust Project. Then I did a project about the future, which combined painting and needlework called Resolutions: A Stitch in Time. And along the way, I produced all these other series of works, smaller, more intimate, more personal. I started working on Jewish themes after I finished the Holocaust Project, which was something I'd never done before. And now I have a decade working in glass. So there is a lot for people to discover. That's one of the reasons I'm so busy is that I have so many shows coming up next year, too, in Europe. It's fabulous actually. Read on for more from Judy Chicago.

 

Judy Chicago has spent over three decades working in New Mexico.
Judy Chicago has spent over three decades working in New Mexico.
Judy Chicago, Four Part Temporal Connection

And are you producing as well?

Yes.

And continuing in glass?

Yes. I'm working on a new series that will be glass paintings. It's going to take a few years. I'm a long way from being done with that.

Amazing. Talk to me about how you have worked through so many different periods. While so many people are looking back over your career, what keeps you going? How do you keep producing?

I just love to make art. I'm not happy unless I'm making art. I'm just not happy if I'm not working in my studio.

And you're in New Mexico now?

Yes. I've been here for a long time. Talk about what New Mexico means to you?

First of all, when I went to L.A., in 1957, long before you were born, to go to school at UCLA, L.A. was not like what L.A. is now. L.A. now is like a parking lot. You can't hardly move around the city. The infrastructure is over-burdened by too many people. The landscape is burning up from drought.

But when I went there, it was very open. It was very beautiful. It was very free. And for someone who grew up in the Midwest, it just changed my life, in the sense that it introduced me to a kind of way of living and being that was much more open than anything I'd experienced. I don't mean intellectually -- intellectually, I was raised in a very open atmosphere in my family and radical, challenging and interesting -- but in terms of the space and the light.

By the time I left L.A. in the early 80s and started coming to New Mexico, L.A. wasn't like what it had been. Of course, the art scene had just exploded. There were many more artists. There were very few artists working when I came out of graduate school. You could live on nothing. And that had changed by the time I left, and it's changed even more in the years I've been away.

In New Mexico, there's only two-million people in the whole state, so it has the same kind of openness; it has the same kind of beauty, gorgeous sky and light. I mean, the light is just heavenly here. And just like in L.A., as it used to be, there is a certain kind of psychic freedom and space that's just not possible when you're in a mainstream art center where it presses down on you and constricts your thinking.

So, you know, I'm addicted to that space and also to cheap space. I mean, we live in a little nondescript town South of Albuquerque. I tell people, if you come to visit us, you'll drive into our town and you'll say, "Why are they living here?" And then you'll come to our building. We have 9000 square feet, which we could never afford in L.A. or New York and probably not even Denver.

When I got out of graduate school in L.A., I and two other artists rented a 5000 square foot space in Pasadena for $75 a month total. We each paid $25 a month. Inconceivable now, right?

A lot of folks in New Mexico talk about solitude in relationship to their creative practice.

Absolutely.

Is that a big part of living there for you?

Absolutely. I have to have a lot of solitude in order to pursue my vision. Absolutely. We're only half an hour from the airport. You also have to travel a lot when you live in New Mexico, because you can't make a living here.

How, over the years, has memory evolved for you? What's your relationship to memory as a concept? Well, that's interesting. When Gail Levin was working on my biography, Becoming Judy Chicago. She used to call me up and say, "Oh Judy, I talked to so and so." She interviewed like 250 people. "Oh, I talked to so and so and they remember all about how you did this and that and went here and there," and I'm like, "Huh?" I mean, half the time I didn't remember the person, much less what we did, but I could have told you exactly what I was working on in the studio, because my art life has always been more real to me, in a way, than my "real life." So, my memory continues to be like that.

Where do see yourself in terms of art history?

One of my goals is that I've wanted to be an artist from the time I was a child and one of my goals was to become part of art history. I didn't notice when I used to go to the Chicago Art Institute and wandered the galleries, I didn't notice that most of the work was by men. That came later. So it was with a great deal of surprise when I was in graduate school in my early professional days that I discovered that some people thought my gender was a barrier to the idea of me becoming a part of art history. I set that as one of my goals, and I've achieved that.

Whatever else one can say, The Dinner Party is now part of the canon and is permanently housed and my work is in various collections. I've spent a lot of time working and protecting my legacy because I know how many women have been erased from history, and I don't want that to happen to me. And so, I've worked really hard on that, on making a contribution and trying to make art with meaning and trying to insure that it would remain part of the historic record.

Surveying Judy Chicago 1970-1914 opens Friday night, with a free reception from 7 to 9, at RedLine, 2350 Arapahoe Street, where it runs through December 27. For more information, go to redlineart.org or call 303-296-4448. On Saturday, she will read from Institutional Time, at The Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue, at 2 p.m..

Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris



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