Los Angeles

View of “Judy Chicago,” 2019.

View of “Judy Chicago,” 2019.

Judy Chicago

Not unlike Judy Chicago’s famed installation The Dinner Party, 1974–79, this exhibition took a clear and radical stance against the historical erasure of a woman and her work. Of the thirty-nine pieces making up this survey of Chicago’s prolific output from 1965 to 1972, almost half (nineteen sculptures and photographs) had been refabricated or printed anew within the past fifteen years. This work looked unapologetically fresh alongside older sculptures, paintings, and drawings. Conceived and executed around five decades ago, many of Chicago’s original works did not survive owing to the lack of support for women artists and thereby of resources to store and care for their art. Providing a timely if overdue remedy, this show revived rarely seen works such as Chicago’s 10 Part Cylinders, 1966/2019, a cluster of tall monochrome fiberglass-and-cardboard columns with the industrial sexiness of freeway overpasses (indeed, the prefab forms Chicago made these from were manufactured for pouring concrete columns). Many of these efforts, including Trinity, <em>1965/2019—a grouping of three large angled shapes with high-gloss surfaces and a vibrant ombré color progression—easily upstage well-known Minimal sculptures from the same period (think John McCracken’s 1960s planks or Robert Morris’s Untitled [L-Beams]</em>, 1965). In fact, Chicago’s Rainbow Pickett, 1965/2004, also included here, was displayed alongside work by male contemporaries in the notable 1966 exhibition “Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum in New York.

But comparing Chicago’s output to that of a canon of male artists somewhat misses the point. This exhibition chronicled how the artist forged her voice in a male-dominated art world, but it also underscored Chicago’s originality and resourcefulness. Like other Finish Fetish artists, Chicago turned to Southern Californian industries for new materials and skills, even enrolling as the sole female student in an auto-body school to learn spray-painting and finishing techniques. This training resulted in four wildly painted car hoods, three of which were included in this show: Bigamy Hood, Birth Hood, and Flight Hood, all 1965/2011. Each composition involves a Rorschach-like array of biomorphic, hard-edge forms—butterflies, phalluses, apples, vaginas, checkerboards, oculi—in a candy-colored palette, presenting a “feminine” take on car-culture machismo. The works were originally painted on hoods from sports cars such as the Chevrolet Corvair, whose sleek, aerodynamic curves and high performance were often compared to the objectified female body. Chicago’s compositions reclaim gendered surfaces.

Similarly, her series of acrylic dome sculptures from 1967–68 utilizes the synthetic materials developed by SoCal’s aerospace industry in the service of stripped-down iridescent forms that nevertheless recall breasts or pregnant bellies. Among Chicago’s extant objects from the period, the sculptures retained a late-’60s formal and political sincerity, where body-based ideas commingle with space-age materials. The results still hold and, like so many works in this show, strike a careful balance between assertion and delicacy, qualities also evident in Chicago’s calculated use of color. For example, a row of ten large-format color photos printed on aluminum—from Chicago’s “Atmospheres,” 1968–74, and “Women and Smoke,” 1971–72—documents performative Happenings in which the artist transformed natural and urban landscapes with billows of colored smoke, often surrounding the painted bodies of nude female performers. The formal qualities of volume and softness that this created around the women were echoed in several of the abstract paintings and drawings on view. The back wall on which these photos were hung was painted with a gradient of mostly warm tones recalling a desert sunset or the heavy luminosity of the Los Angeles sky. It was the backdrop to an expansive show that might have felt overhung but instead felt abundant, laying bare the earnestness and ambition of the young Judy Chicago.