de Young Museum’s ‘Judy Chicago, A Retrospective’ Surveys a Radical Feminist Art Journey

Above image: Just Chicago, How Will I Die #7, from The End, a Meditation on Death © 2015, Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society, New York, Photo Donald Woodman / ARS

It says much about the misogynistic position of the art world establishment at the time (something that is far from solved even today, obviously), that when Judy Chicago at last completed her most iconic work in 1979, after five years of effort and conceptualizing, it was enthusiastically received by audiences, but outright panned by critics. The Dinner Party was a monumental and thought-provoking installation, with table settings that payed homage to equally monumental women and female deities, of ancient and more recent history, from Sappho to Elizabeth I to Sojourner Truth and Virginia Woolf.

Eventually the old guard came around (or maybe went away), and Ms. Chicago is now decisively acknowledged as one of the most important feminist artists of the last half century, with solo exhibitions at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in DC, the Brooklyn Museum, and Jeffrey Deitch LA – amongst many others – on her most recent CV. The latest, organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, has just opened at SF’s venerable de Young Museum, under the edifying title Judy Chicago, A Retrospective.

Installation View of Judy Chicago: A Retrospective, at the de Young Museum. Photography by Gary Sexton, image provided courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts San Francisco.

Retrospective indeed – curated by FAMSF’s Claudia Schmuckli, it boasts more than 125 paintings, drawings, ceramic sculptures, prints, assorted ephemera. The exhibition also emphasizes how from the very beginning, as a young artist working in Los Angeles, she rejected the prevailing – and very male – minimalist trend, painting car hoods (she actually enrolled in auto body school for just this purpose) with almost psychedelic representations of human anatomy. Though her iconoclasm is arguably most effectively represented in her nom de guerre itself, which she chose after her husband died in an automobile accident, when she was just 22, and at the time named Judy Gerowitz. She carried out the change very publicly (a full page ad in Artforum, to be specific) and conceptually, pre-dating a similar and obviously much more publicized action by Prince in 1993.

Significantly, a section of the exhibition explicates the development of her “central core imagery” concept, which ultimately led to the making of The Dinner Party. During this period she began to openly celebrate female sexuality, whilst also cultivating the feminist principles that would come to underpin and often define her work going forward. And though The Dinner Party is permanently installed at the Brooklyn Museum, de Young is displaying prep studies, drawings and archival materials, as well as the film Right Out of History: The Making of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, for a fascinating edification on the five-year process behind its birth.

Installation View of Judy Chicago: A Retrospective, at the de Young Museum. Photography by Gary Sexton, image provided courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts San Francisco.

It all leads ultimately to PowerPlay, her 1982 – 1987 series in which she explored the grey ambiguities of gender – certainly as zeitgeisty a topic to pair with 2021’s gender assignment debates as could have been possible to imagine nearly forty years ago. The title of Driving The World to Destruction is self-explanatory in its judgment of male power, and the image of a muscled man “in charge” and at the wheel is striking in its unfettered condemnations of said power.

“[This exhibition] reveals the continued radicality of Chicago’s practice, both in her choice of subject matter and embrace of media traditionally excluded from the art historical canon,” explains Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “To this day, her art is activist in its foundations. It is driven by the need and desire for social justice and an insistence on aesthetic strategies that don’t require knowledge of art history or critical theory to be legible, while being informed by both.”

Judy Chicago: A Retrospective will be on view at the de Young Museum through January 9, 2022.

Installation View of Judy Chicago: A Retrospective, at the de Young Museum. Photography by Gary Sexton, image provided courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts San Francisco.
Installation View of Judy Chicago: A Retrospective, at the de Young Museum. Photography by Gary Sexton, image provided courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts San Francisco.
Installation View of Judy Chicago: A Retrospective, at the de Young Museum. Photography by Gary Sexton, image provided courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts San Francisco.

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