Life & Culture

The mother of feminist art: Judy Chicago comes to London

The creator of iconic artwork The Dinner Party has a new exhibition in London


In the Beginning from Birth Project

A sense of back to the future pervades the American artist Judy Chicago’s Revelations at Serpentine North, the artist’s largest solo show in a London institution. Throughout a career now entering its sixth decade, the pioneering feminist artist is constantly re- interrogating her own Jewish identity, together with narratives around art history and history.

Chicago is concerned with absences and elisions in the story of art and the story of nations, whether that’s the omission of women artists, the invisibility of women’s lives and role in shaping societies, or the absence of the Holocaust as a subject in later 20th century art.

Descended from 23 generations of rabbis, Chicago can trace her ancestry to the Vilna Gaon in 18th century Lithuania. Her artistic lineage goes back to her great grandfather, a rabbi and Talmudic scholar in Minsk, who carved the priestly blessing hands for his synagogue’s Torah Ark. Chicago’s father Arthur Cohen, a first generation American, was a labour organiser and educator. The artist’s feminist advocacy, commitment to human rights and, increasingly, to environmental and climate concerns, influenced by her father’s involvement in social justice and actively making conditions better for others.

In 1970 the artist famously dropped her family name Cohen, and names from her two marriages, Gerowitz and Hamrol, to become Judy Chicago. (Jerry Gerowitz died in a car crash in1963, she married artist Lloyd Hamrol two years later.) The new name announcement in Artforum publication, in Chicago’s characteristic cursive script, gives an early signal of the importance of text in her work. Reflecting the city-based surnames taken after 19th century European emancipation, the artist said adopting the name of her hometown embodied her “identity as an independent woman who divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance.”

The early ‘70s were a prolific time for Chicago. She founded the first Feminist Art Programme at Fresno State College, California, challenging traditional art school pedagogy and the marginalising of female students. In parallel to working on her most well known piece The Dinner Party, 1974 -1979, Chicago began working on Revelations, a piece referencing medieval illuminated manuscripts. Having been in a drawer for decades, the Serpentine’s artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist describes Revelations as the foundation to Chicago’s practice. Revelations’ five chapters forms the thematic organisation of the show. With its connotations of Passover, The Dinner Party installation materially and symbolically gives women, including heroine Judith and artist Artemisia Gentileschi, a seat at history’s table. Revelations takes a step back even further, offering a radical retelling of mythological creation with goddesses and female figures at the centre.

In 1975, Chicago met a ‘radical nun’ while exhibiting at the College of St Catherine in Saint Paul, Minnesota who helped shape a rewriting of the patriarchal Genesis myth from a woman’s perspective. In Revelations, the artist radically retells human history and the creation of life. When Chicago finished writing Revelations in 1982 she went to Europe for the first time and saw Michelangelo’s painting of human creation on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. ‘It's a great painting except for the fact there's no women except for the Virgin Mary. But I'm looking at it and I see a male God reaches out his finger and creates man – I don't think so! That's not how birth happens.’

Chicago’s focus on representing women’s social and physical experience and redressing the erasure of these experiences in canonical art history, is evident from her earliest work. She says she could draw before she speak, and her draughtsmanship shines through the Prismacolor pencil works forming the first chapter of the exhibition.

In contrast to the absence of emotion in the works of her minimalist, Abstract Expressionist male peers, Chicago started exploring colour’s ability to convey emotion, now a hallmark of her practice. In Grey Fan #4 (1970), composed of gradient- coloured boxes in soft rainbow hues, the shapes appear to open and close, expand and contract, and leap off the paper at the viewer. Connecting her emotional use of colour to her feminist philosophy, Chicago said she portrayed “assertiveness through harsh colours, receptiveness through softer, swirling colour and the state of orgasm through colour that dissolves.”

Sexual frankness is a thread running through Chicago’s work. The Dinner Party, with its ceremonial banquet settings that can be read as vulvas, has been on permanent view at Brooklyn Museum since 2007, and attracts 100,000 visitors annually. At the Serpentine visitors can trace through never seen before documentary footage and archive, the collaborative environment Chicago forged with nearly 400 participants to create this landmark feminist work.

The breadth of the Serpentine show, together with the polymathic, experimental nature of Chicago’s career, bring a spotlight to smaller pieces. In the Broken Butterfly series #3 to #6, (1976) shattered ceramic rectangles, with colourful, simplified natural forms, are shown on a bed of pastel satin in wooden display cases. Brass labels on each case amplify the references to captured, dead butterflies displayed as collectors’ trophies. Drawn to mediums historically undervalued in Western art history and considered to be craft or women’s work, rather than high status fine art, the artist began a two year apprenticeship with china painters so she could incorporate the technique into her work. Broken Butterfly expresses both Chicago’s anxiety about the complexity and labour involved in completing The Dinner Party, and the crushing of women’s aspirations in stages. Broken Butterfly feels akin to the illustrations of visionary artist William Blake.

While researching 18th century author of the Rights of Women Mary Wollstonecraft, who died of childbed fever, for The Dinner Party, Chicago became interested in images of childbirth. In Creation of the World (1984) the artist collaborated with a silk screen maker and embroiderer, to create a tactile representation of birth. In tones of black, yellow and cold, with dense lines resembling a 16th century woodcut, childbirth is represented as a vertically split, woman’s torso. From the fissure emerges all of life: symbolised by insects, fish, tortoises, birds and fantastical flowers. Chicago looked to the pioneer women of history because she “wanted to find role models, wanted to discover how my predecessors had dealt with their oppression as women… I wanted to make art out of the very thing that had made me ‘other’ in male society.”

Chicago foresaw the current environmental crisis 50 years ago. “I knew because it's the inevitable outcome of the destruction of the planet that has taken place under patriarchy.” Her 2013 work Stranded, showing a series of wild animals suffering habitat loss and violence as a consequence of human actions, is a collaboration with Jane Fonda for the ongoing #CreateArtforEarth campaign. The dark backgrounds and limited tones of Stranded make the suffering all the starker.

Another ongoing project is What If Women Ruled the World? Participatory Quilt, started in 2022, with Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova. A work created in 1977, Inflatable Mother Goddess became The Female Divine for Dior’s spring summer show in 2020. Chicago was pleased with the project’s increase of scale from 60’ to 225’, “the only time in my life was something I dreamed of was bigger than I imagined.” The new location was also fitting: “it was behind the Rodin Museum, that paean of masculinity.”

For her 70th birthday Chicago saw Leonard Cohen on his post retirement, post manager fraud tour. The singer thanked the audience for keeping his music alive, and Chicago is similarly appreciative to the audiences outside the mainstream art institutions “who sustained me.”

Judy Chicago Revelations, Serpentine North

May 23– September 1 2024

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