New York

Judy Chicago, Rainbow Pickett, 1965/2004, latex paint on canvas-covered plywood, 10' 6“ × 10' 6” × 9' 10".

Judy Chicago, Rainbow Pickett, 1965/2004, latex paint on canvas-covered plywood, 10' 6“ × 10' 6” × 9' 10".

Judy Chicago

Judy Chicago, Rainbow Pickett, 1965/2004, latex paint on canvas-covered plywood, 10' 6“ × 10' 6” × 9' 10".

There we were, a contemporary Bruegel tableau in Prospect Park, waiting for Judy Chicago’s A Butterfly for Brooklyn fireworks display to begin: We had shimmied up trees for a better view or were madly waving glow sticks as if light begot light. The park at the end of April was already an explosion of pink, and when Butterfly spluttered into action in all its kitschy splendor, and the fuchsia smoke from the flares on the ground that outlined the giant wings started drifting over us and through the cherry blossoms, it was a transporting spectacle. Then the sky cleared into night, and our painting broke apart to go home.

Chicago hadn’t used fireworks since 1974, the final year covered in the terrific, focused exhibition “Chicago in L.A.: Judy Chicago’s Early Work, 1963–74,” organized by Catherine J. Morris with Saisha Grayson, and installed adjacent to the high drama of the artist’s most famous piece, The Dinner Party, 1974–79, in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. “I’ve waited forty years to work at the scale of A Butterfly for Brooklyn,” Chicago recently told; the piece was a fitting reemergence for an artist enjoying a spate of exhibitions at the age of seventy-five.

The displacement implied by the punning title anchored “Chicago in L.A.” in a series of situational metamorphoses, presenting both an artist finding her place—almost half the works were made when Judy Chicago was Judy Gerowitz (née Cohen), a young widow who had just completed her master’s degree in painting and sculpture at UCLA in 1964—and an artist who seemed preternaturally aware of where she wanted to be from the start. In the museum, the show launched with a photograph of Chicago, sleeves rolled up, sitting confidently on the floor between two large sculptures from 1965. Five years later, Chicago announced her name change with her California State College at Fullerton exhibition. Advertisements in the October 1970 and December 1970 issues of Artforum (displayed in a vitrine) emphasized this shedding of patrilineal affiliation; the latter features a full-page photo of Chicago as a boxer in the corner of the ring with her arms draped over the ropes and wearing a sweatshirt boldly emblazoned with her new name. Float like a butterfly, indeed.

Commanding attention at the start of the exhibition, and of Chicago’s career, was Rainbow Pickett, 1965/2004, a brightly variegated serial sculpture once installed against a lobby wall in the Jewish Museum’s iconic 1966 show “Primary Structures,” where it must have stood out among its somber Minimalist cohorts. Here, it blended into the pastel palette of the deliciously plump, pinched pinwheels in Large Dome Drawing #4, 1968–69, and the slimmer “Donut,” 1968, and “Lifesaver,” 1969–70, works hanging adjacent.

Small sculptures in wood, metal, and formed acrylic, while in obvious dialogue with modernism, hinted at a subversion of form blatantly explored in later work. There was Multicolor Rearrangeable Game Board, 1965–66, like a miniature Stonehenge in Candy Land, and the slick polished domes of 1968, like silicone breast implants. But the knockout was 3.5.5. Acrylic Shapes, 1967, composed of transparent geometric objects set on a mirror: part chess set, part abstract form as Narcissus, and part sex toy. (Josiah McElheny’s Czech Modernism Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely from 2005 is an obvious relative.)

Directly connecting to the inaugural fireworks was documentation of Chicago’s early “Atmospheres,” 1969–2014, ephemeral smoke and vapor installations in locations around California and the Pacific Northwest, including a 1967 ziggurat of thirty-seven tons of dry-ice blocks in the Century City Mall in Los Angeles (Minimalism, we are not in Kansas anymore). “Atmospheres” could easily describe the mural-scale acrylic lacquer surfaces of the 1971 painting Dusk/Glow, too.

What imbued “Chicago in L.A.” with joyful energy—despite the personal and political struggles the artist faced during its time span—was its emphasis on learning. Challenging materials became opportunities: Chicago took boat-building lessons to handle fiberglass; she was the sole woman in an auto-body-painting class; she apprenticed at a fireworks company; she organized the Feminist Art Program; she ran extensive glaze trials for firing china. She learned from criticism, both constructive (the exhibition rightly cites Lucy Lippard as a crucial voice) and sexist, all of which she used as narrative fuel in her yonic 1974 “Rejection Drawings” series. In other words, the exhibition showcased the ways in which a young Chicago never stood still in her corner.

Prudence Peiffer