JUDY CHICAGO, Inspirational Icon
Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles
through November 2
Written by Betty Brown
Judy Chicago (nee Judith Cohen in 1939) is a household name. But few people know that before becoming the leading practitioner of Feminist Art–before she founded Feminist Art Programs in Fresno and Cal Arts, before Womanhouse, the Los Angeles Woman’s Building, and the Dinner Party–she created a robust body of abstract artworks. Between her graduation from UCLA (1962) and her teaching job at Cal State Fresno (1970), Chicago’s oeuvre involved spare, geometric structures coated with the same airbrushed enamels used by custom car detailers. From discs of space-age plastic to car hoods turned into emblematic shields, Chicago’s early work was lauded at the time–Art in America wrote that she was “at the forefront”–but has since disappeared into the immense vaults of shadowed history. Chicago’s formal innovations, refined use of “non-art” materials, and sophisticated experiments with color from that era indicate a savvy willingness to stretch the boundaries of the visual arts. She was particularly daring in the realm of performance art, where her early works greatly expanded the conceptual possibilities of the genre.
Judy Chicago: Los Angeles at Jeffrey Deitch’s immense gallery (on North Orange Drive, just off Santa Monica Boulevard) features almost 40 of Chicago’s early works. They range from small, reflective domes to immense angular sculptures, to photographic documents of early feminist performance art. I think the show is a stunner–and I would think so even if I weren’t a committed feminist who admires Chicago immensely.
If you enter Deitch’s glorious space and do a clockwise circuit, you begin with several of Chicago’s domes: groups of three clear acrylic domes mounted on mirrored glass and plexiglass bases. The domes were created in the late 1960s, precisely the same time California Light & Space artist Larry Bell was exploring reflection and translucence in his large glass cubes. Bell began that series by using glass fragments scavenged from his job as a picture framer. Chicago, on the other hand, studied industrial materials and techniques in an auto body painting class–she was the only woman in a class of over 200–and used them to combine minimal forms with her feminist sensibility.
In addition to the domes, Chicago produced large angular sculptures of stainless steel covered in polyurethane paint. Trinity (originally created in 1965; reproduced in 2019) is comprised of three inverted “Vs” that move from large to larger, as their colors transition from red to red-orange to orange. (It looks like an Ellsworth Kelly painting made dimensional.) Across the gallery is Chicago’s Zig Zag (1965/2019), another red-orange piece based on right angles, but in this case, the three components are linked into, well, a zig-zag. Nearby is Rearrangeable Rainbow Blocks (1965), a group of twelve aluminum hexahedrons painted with automotive lacquer. (It’s like a Sol Lewitt “Wall Drawing” turned dimensional.)
At the back of the left-hand wall are three car hoods, painted with sprayed automotive lacquer in vivid emblematic designs. Their bold, hard-edged symmetry is echoed in Billy Al Bengston’s paintings of military insignia from the same era, such as Tom from 1968, but Chicago’s emblems are larger and more brilliantly hued. They recall European family crests in their direct readability and bilateral symmetry. They also look forward to the graphic intensity of the plate designs for Chicago’s Dinner Party installation dated 1979.
On the far right-hand wall of the gallery are several of Chicago’s Pasadena Lifesavers from 1969-70. (At that time, Chicago had a studio in Pasadena, in a building just off Colorado Boulevard.) Each composition presents four donut shapes created with sprayed acrylic lacquer on clear acrylic. Each of the Lifesavers has an evocative translucence. Similar visual presence is found in Chicago’s studies for the “Fresno Fans” series: Prismacolor drawings of shaded grids that shimmer atop white illustration board. The subtle blending of light and color became a key compositional device for Chicago: it is seen later in her “Through the Flower” and “Great Ladies” series of the early 1970s; continues in “The Birth Project” (1980-85), the “Holocaust Project” (1985-93); and is visible in Chicago’s most recent series, “The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction.” “The End” opens later this month at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C.
The back wall of Deitch’s gallery is lined with photographic stills that document Chicago’s early performance art. Videos of the performances are on a loop around the corner from the photographs. The titles are revealing: Purple Atmosphere (1969), Smoke Holes #2 (1969), Bridge Atmosphere (1971), Women and Smoke, California (1971-72), and Goddess with Flares (1972). All of the performances were done outside, some in the wilderness, some in the city, and all involved the color-saturated smoke of pyrotechnic flares (the ones used for signaling distress and other military purposes.) The videos are stunning visually, with painted bodies juxtaposed with clouds of red, orange, purple or blue smoke. The one featuring a forest green woman lighting red flares is truly dazzling.
The show is a visual treat. But perhaps more importantly, it demonstrates the innovative and always experimental nature of Chicago’s early work. Few young artists range as widely, and with as much aesthetic success. Few reveal their genius at such an early age.
* * * * * * * * *
About an hour after I posted some photographs of the Chicago exhibition on Facebook, a woman I know messaged me with the following: “Did you ever talk to anyone who worked for and with Judy Chicago? She is HATED by all the women who ever had been involved with her. Not a role model at all.” Needless to say, I was taken aback by her assertion.
Her statement is mistaken on its face: I have worked with Chicago several times and have only admiration for her. So not all her former collaborators hate her. As it happens, I went through the exhibition with two artists who also have worked with Chicago on numerous projects, and similarly hold her in high regard. While we were walking around the show, I brought up the fact that Chicago used to get a really bad rap as a “pushy bitch.” But we agreed that label was a kind of feminist shaming, if not outright misogyny, and that its use in reference to Chicago seemed to have faded.
So I was dismayed to get that woman’s message the next day. She has never worked with Judy Chicago, so she was just repeating malicious gossip–but still… I am troubled by the fact that women are still maligned for being strong, outspoken, and successful. It concerns me when people call Hilary Clinton a bitch. And it concerns me when people say similar things about Judy Chicago.
Chicago has always been gracious and generous with me, but, as the English monk John Lydgate warned us in the 15th century, no one can please all the people all the time. I’m sure Chicago can be difficult. A lot of artists are difficult. They work really hard for infrequent (and often inadequate) acknowledgments or rewards. But male artists are applauded for being strong, outspoken, and successful, which is to say, for precisely the “difficult” behavior that is criticized in women. Male artists’ difficulty doesn’t seem to generate negative gossip about them; they seem immune to the nasty comments leveled at their female counterparts. It’s that pesky double-standard thing, alive and well in the art world in 2019.
And there’s one more troubling aspect of this issue: Sexism only works when women (like my angry emailing friend) continue to scorn and shame other women. Especially when they are strong, accomplished women who dare to step into the spotlight and change the world.