Judy Chicago is an artist, author, and educator whose long career has focused on women’s experiences and feminist critique. She speaks here about her upcoming exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “Chicago in L.A.: Judy Chicago’s Early Work 1963-74,” on view from April 4 to September 28, 2014, and her concurrent shows throughout the United States—including those at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City; the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University, University Park, Pennsylvania; the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC; the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, Cambridge; and the New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe. The Monacelli Press has recently released her latest book, Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education, and will publish a study of her key work, The Dinner Party, 1979, on April 8, 2014.
EVEN THOUGH I ALWAYS FELT very grateful that The Dinner Party brought me so much attention, for a really long time I felt that it also blocked out all of my other work. I have a very prodigious production, something that was prominently illustrated in the recent “Pacific Standard Time” exhibition, which also kicked off this renewed interest in the range of my work. From 1963 to 1974, I went through a period of learning about women’s history, studying my predecessors, developing my own iconography. I studied china painting in order to make images more precise than was possible with an airbrush. My original plan was to make a hundred abstract images of historical women on plates—women consumed by history rather than acknowledged by it—titled The Great Ladies. The prevailing attitude back then was that women had no history. When I thought that the plates belonged on a table, that’s when my work on The Dinner Party began.
While I was a student at UCLA, my painting instructors hated my imagery and color sense. It took me a decade to forge my own vision and I can’t tell you how many women I have heard from over the years who have felt literally stranded in school because they weren’t being helped. In fact they were being actively discouraged from their own subject matter, as I had been. CalArts practically erased the history of my feminist art program. One graduate student there, Audrey Chan, decided to convene a symposium in 2007 about the program but could not find the necessary information about it in the school’s records. They wouldn’t provide it to her either. It made me furious because the job of institutions is to transmit culture and pass on the achievements of history so they can be built upon. When they don’t, it’s an institutional failure and it could be and should be part of institutional critique. This is why I wrote Institutional Time.
Institutional Time is about university studio art education and the gap between art school and the art world. In school, you are taught to develop technique and a certain formal vocabulary. But how are you then suddenly going to bring in your own personal content after moving away from what you had just learned, particularly when content-based artmaking is certainly not what’s emphasized in the art world? It also always amuses me when feminist theorists accuse my generation of not being sensitive to issues of race and ethnicity and sexual orientation. I guess they never saw my early Heaven Is for White Men Only. Those flesh bars are multi-colored; the work is about how many of us are barred from freedom.
I told the “Pacific Standard Time” curators that one of the reasons I was so glad for that group of shows, in terms of my own career and my own history, was that it rooted my work back in California. Once The Dinner Party was permanently housed in New York at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, my career turned eastward. My history in California was being overlooked. As macho as the Los Angeles scene was in the 1960s—and as completely inhospitable as it was to women—the spirit of self-invention that characterized Southern California art back then was extremely important to me in terms of my development as an artist. And even though there is probably not a major museum in the world that would accord enough space for a real retrospective of my work, I was just calculating the number of square feet of exhibition space I am currently occupying in what has sort of become my national retrospective, and it’s probably something like twenty thousand square feet across the country.
For my upcoming exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, I’ve been granted the opportunity to carry out a large-scale performance in Prospect Park. A Butterfly for Brooklyn is the first major fireworks piece I’ve ever done in the east. After I got out of graduate school, my first studio was with two other artists, Lloyd Hamrol and Llyn Foulkes. It was located on the corner where the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena passes by. One year, a number of us decided to do a performance for the people who camped out on the streets the night before the parade. I got fog machines and lined them up outside and built a color wheel like in the color studies I was doing then. The smoke came up and the color was liberated into the air. At the time I called these pieces “Atmospheres” because I wanted to feminize the atmosphere, to put the idea of femininity—one of my major goals—out into the air. But I had to stop working with fireworks in 1974 because I wanted them to get bigger and I couldn’t get the funding. I’ve waited forty years to work at the scale of A Butterfly for Brooklyn. How could I not be thrilled by all that is happening around my seventy-fifth birthday? You never know what will happen if you live long enough.