San Francisco

View of “Judy Chicago: A Retrospective,” 2021–22. From left: Rainbow Pickett, 1965/2021; Birth Hood, 1965/2011. Photo: Drew Altizer.

View of “Judy Chicago: A Retrospective,” 2021–22. From left: Rainbow Pickett, 1965/2021; Birth Hood, 1965/2011. Photo: Drew Altizer.

Judy Chicago

View of “Judy Chicago: A Retrospective,” 2021–22. From left: Rainbow Pickett, 1965/2021; Birth Hood, 1965/2011. Photo: Drew Altizer.

JUDY CHICAGO IS EIGHTY-TWO. This is the first retrospective of her work. Late recognition is all too common for important female artists. Lee Bontecou was seventy-three at the time of her first major retrospective, Mierle Laderman Ukeles seventy-six, Carolee Schneemann seventy-eight, Faith Ringgold eighty-eight; Jay DeFeo had been dead for twenty-three years (she would have been eighty-four). The first solo show for Yolanda López, who passed away on September 3 at the age of seventy-eight, opened this past month at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Take any modern female artist with a long career and google her name plus “long-overdue.” It will make you giddy.

Chicago’s long-overdue retrospective focuses on her major bodies of work rather than on individual pieces. The biggest surprise for me were her 1960s experiments in a form of Southern Californian Minimalism known as Finish Fetish. Once you see its origins, the influence of Minimalism on Chicago’s art is obvious, particularly in the clean-lined abstraction, gorgeous use of color, and repetition that infuse the second-wave feminist work for which she is best known. Though her practice has always been political, Chicago’s later work expands her feminist agenda to confront larger issues of social inequity, oppressive masculinity, mortality, human cruelty, and the horrors of unbridled power.

Judy Chicago, Study for Emily Dickinson, 1977, ink, C-print, and collage on rag paper, 22 1⁄2 × 34 1⁄2".  © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

What we don’t find among the some 150 works on display is Chicago’s most iconic piece, The Dinner Party, 1974–79, which is on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum and does not travel. At the de Young we instead find test plates and other documentation about its creation. The Dinner Party was a massive endeavor. It took five years to produce with the help of hundreds of volunteers, including weavers and ceramicists. The piece is composed of three forty-eight-foot-long tables arranged in a triangle, each table holding thirty-nine place settings, each dedicated to a mythical or historical female figure. Most of the dinner plates are decorated with stylized vulvas. Emily Dickinson’s vulva is pink and lacy. Margaret Sanger’s looks like an ominous red lobster. An additional 999 names of goddesses and women are written on the installation’s porcelain floor.

The Dinner Party did not get good reviews. New York Times critic Hilton Kramer led the assault, declaring the piece “an outrageous libel on the female imagination.” If there were a biopic of Judy Chicago’s life, Kramer would be the antagonist. Critics be damned—The Dinner Party became a popular sensation. It went on a nine-year international tour where it drew tens of thousands of visitors. Its presence was so ubiquitous in the feminist circles I ran in back then that when I started this review, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually seen the piece or if I were experiencing some sort of implanted memory from having talked and read so much about it. When I looked up online where it traveled to, I discovered that it premiered in March 1979 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, just a few months after I moved to the city. So now I’m convinced I did actually see it.

Judy Chicago, Mortality Relief, 2018, patinated bronze, 36 × 20 × 8". © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

I visualize myself standing before its extravagance with my feminist sisters in a state of awe. We loved to write about our vaginas. No one had to tell us that this proliferation of female genitalia displayed in an art museum was a rebellion against phallocentric cultural hegemony. What is museum-worthy is still being challenged. Careers are being destroyed over it. Granted, the politics behind The Dinner Party seem hokey in light of current conversations around gender and race. Why aren’t there more place settings honoring the accomplishments of BIPOC women? Does anyone still believe that if women ruled the world, things would then be OK? The second-wave feminists of the ’60s and ’70s were performing interventions like examining the mother figure in children’s literature. What they found were white women wearing aprons, so many aprons. Women were so brainwashed by mid-twentieth-century patriarchal norms that it was radical just to imagine another system.

In the ’80s, American feminism embraced postmodern theory, which resulted in a disavowal of the “essentialist” feminism of the ’70s. Chicago found herself grappling with a new layer of critique, though Helen Molesworth has argued that the gulf between essentialist and theory-based feminism is exaggerated. For instance, The Dinner Party (essentialist) and Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (theory based), both 1979, share a concern with “the reciprocity and contested relations between the public and private spheres and the forms of labor that supported them.” Both works question standards of personal and institutional legitimacy.

Dinner Party’s presence was so ubiquitous in the feminist circles I ran in back then that when I started this review, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually seen the piece or if I were experiencing some sort of implanted memory from having talked and read so much about it.

Clearly, a Judy Chicago retrospective comes with a lot of baggage—or as Judy Chicago is quoted as saying in the de Young’s press release, “The retrospective at the de Young museum is a great opportunity for me to step out of the shadows cast by The Dinner Party.” Another quote from the press release: “During the 1980s and 1990s, Chicago experienced a sexist and elitist backlash in which she was deemed too popular with the general public and too overtly political for the art world.” This rhetoric is so reductive it reads more like Twitter callout than an official museum statement. All retrospectives implicitly argue for their subject’s importance. Likewise, this exhibition becomes an argument for Chicago’s stature as an artist. She is indeed more than The Dinner Party, and here are nearly six decades of work to prove it. But with the de Young show, demonstrating Chicago’s worth is a major focus.

It requires vision for a curator to take a chance on someone who’s out of favor. Claudia Schmuckli deserves applause for the exceptional job she has done in staging the retrospective. To demonstrate that Chicago is not just a historical figure but that she resonates with the present moment, the exhibition begins with her latest work and burrows back in time. This is both convincing and surprisingly moving. The first piece you see when you enter is Mortality Relief, 2018, a patinated bronze cast of Chicago, bald, lying in bed with her eyes closed, holding a bouquet of flowers. It’s a death mask, hung high on the entrance wall so you have to look up at it. The effect is destabilizing and primes the viewer for emotional engagement.

Judy Chicago, Driving the World to Destruction, 1985, spray acrylic and oil on linen, 9 × 14". From the series “PowerPlay,” 1982–87. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

There’s a lot of pain in this show. There’s all sorts of tragedy—the Holocaust, environmental disaster, creatures both human and animal grimacing in agony. The work is consistently grand, whether in size or owing to the sheer number of pieces in a series, and so full of meaning. It could easily be unendurable. What saves it are unexpected moments of zaniness. For example, in one painting in the “PowerPlay” series, 1982–87, a crazed hypermasculine brute clenches a steering wheel. The title of the piece is Driving the World to Destruction, 1985. Groan. But the corny pun in the title gave me a bleep of fun and then I returned to the horror of the image. The sarcasm even made the image stronger for me. I’m reminded of the overdetermined titles of Goya’s satirical “Los Caprichos,” 1799: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Pretty Teacher!

Chicago was very upset by Kramer’s description of The Dinner Party as “vaginas on plates.” Despite its dreadful dismissiveness, “vaginas on plates” is funny, and on a literal level, it’s an accurate description of the piece. If the artwork were, say, books on plates, would anybody still care about The Dinner Party? The very campiness of the whole endeavor is in itself a critique of the dour seriousness privileged in certain forms of social critique. The Dinner Party skirts the one-note didacticism of boring political art. It’s surreal and aggressive and confusingly sexy.

Judy Chicago, Goddess with Flares, 1971. Performance view, near Fresno, CA, 1971. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Even a quick walk-through of the retrospective takes an hour. There’s so much to think about and take in—bronze reliefs, ceramics, porcelain figurines, sketchbooks, stained glass, needlepoint depictions of childbirth, photography, video footage of Chicago’s 1972 Womanhouse project with Miriam Schapiro. It’s exhausting. I was delighted when the show ended (at least the way I moved through it) with stills and videos of Chicago’s smoke sculptures. I felt rewarded by these naked women with monochromatically painted bodies frolicking in brightly colored smoke. Their unselfconscious joy hints at mysterious rituals. In the distance, a wonderfully broad-hipped woman with a huge bush holds a flare in either hand that billows red smoke as she marches toward us. She seems to be marching forever, until she fills the frame, then overextends it. She presents as fully embodied, mythic.

Perhaps, in arguing that Judy Chicago’s artistic contribution is more than The Dinner Party, the de Young retrospective acts as a sort of sequel to it, reclaiming Chicago just as her project reclaimed other marginalized women. If a vagina on a plate equals a seat at the table, then the de Young has positioned Chicago’s plate front and center. 

“Judy Chicago: A Retrospective” is on view through January 9, 2022.

Dodie Bellamy is a writer who lives in San Francisco. Her essay collection Bee Reaved and a new edition of her 1998 novel The Letters of Mina Harker were released by Semiotext(e) in October.