For three decades Judy Chicago has melded politics with art through painting, sculpture, writing, and teaching.
Born Judy Cohen on July 20, 1939, in Chicago, Illinois, she later broke with patrilineal tradition by adopting the surname Chicago. To explain her seemingly innate belief in herself and her dismissal of sexist stereotypes, Chicago has pointed to the lack of gender bias in her family. An avid Marxist, Chicago’s father, Arthur, encouraged his only daughter to participate in the political discussions that pervaded their middle-class home. Descended from twenty-three generations of rabbis—one of whom was the eighteenth-century Lithuanian rabbi the Gaon of Vilna—Arthur himself rejected Orthodox Jewish life. Chicago’s mother May, an erstwhile dancer, prompted Chicago and her younger brother, Ben, to pursue artistic interests.
Chicago’s art education commenced at the Art Institute of Chicago and continued at the University of California at Los Angeles, where she completed a master of fine arts degree in 1964. Her marriage to Jerry Gerowitz in 1961 ended tragically when he was killed in a car accident two years later. Chicago explains that she turned to art for solace and produced minimalist sculpture—aspiring to gain acceptance from the male-dominated art world. However, she soon changed her objective: “I could no longer pretend in my art that being a woman had no meaning in my life” (Through the Flower 51). She began to examine what it meant to be both a woman and an artist. Wanting to aid other women on their artistic journeys, Chicago developed the Fresno Feminist Art Program at California State University in 1970. Artist Miriam Schapiro joined Chicago the following year, when the program was moved to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Here female students relied upon personal experience for subject matter, culminating with the exhibition Womanhouse (1972). Via installation and performance, the Feminist Art Program transformed a dilapidated house into an environment expressing the participants’ individual perspectives as women.
With the women’s movement in full swing, Chicago became increasingly disturbed by the absence of women from historical accounts. By 1976, Chicago had separated from her second husband, Lloyd Hamrol, and was conducting research that uncovered a wealth of significant women neglected by historians. She resolved to honor many such women in a monumental work, The Dinner Party (1974–1979). Hundreds of volunteers collaborated with Chicago to commemorate individual women through personalized place settings that are distributed around a large triangular table. Each setting consists of an embroidered runner and a vaginal/butterfly-designed ceramic plate. Such sexually dynamic imagery challenges feminine stereotypes, but also raises complex questions about essentialism. Undeniably a landmark in feminist art history, The Dinner Party continues to empower women while remaining controversial to this day. In 2002 a generous grant from the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation enabled the purchase of The Dinner Party and its installation in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Arts. By the time of its installation, The Dinner Party had been seen by more than a million people in six countries on three continents.
Creating iconographic imagery where there had been little before is a pattern in Chicago’s art. Upon realizing that the birthing process was seldom depicted in Western art, Chicago decided to portray it in a new communal endeavor, The Birth Project (1980–1985). She designed images of women in labor that were then translated into needlework by women across the country. The goal, asserts Chicago, was to recast the story of Genesis by challenging “the notion of a male god creating a male human being with no reference to women’s participation in this process” (Beyond the Flower, 84–85).
Chicago altered her focus when she began to investigate the construction of masculinity and its relationship to power in the painted series Powerplay. This course of inquiry led her to the tragedy of the Holocaust and her realization of the insufficient knowledge she had concerning this event as well as her heritage in general. Settling in New Mexico, Chicago planned to explore her Jewish identity in tandem with her soon-to-be husband, photographer Donald Woodman. By the time they were married on New Year’s Eve, 1985, the couple had agreed to join their efforts in order to visually represent the Holocaust—a subject rarely broached in fine art. After years of study, Chicago and Woodman produced The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light (1985–1993), a mixed-media installation that confronts formidable issues surrounding the abuse of power and its horrific manifestations. Like all of her projects, this one too traveled to a number of venues in the U.S.
In 2001 Chicago completed Resolutions: A Stitch in Time, a series of painted and needleworked images reinterpreting traditional proverbs. By reinterpreting the proverbs, she hopes to “present images of a world transformed into a global community of caring people” (Beyond 262). Indeed, as Chicago suggests, it is the Jewish concept of tikkun—the healing of the world—that consistently motivates her most profound art. It was probably this overriding philosophy which in July 2002 prompted her to travel to China to take part in a five-month long art project in which twelve Chinese women artists and dozens more from all over the world participated in an attempt to answer the question of what our planet could look like “If Women Ruled the World.”
In 2003 Duke University awarded Chicago an honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts. In 2004 she received the Visionary Women Award and the International Lion of Judah Conference Award for Pinoneering American Women Jewish Artists.
Women and Art: Contested Territory, co-written with Edward Lucie-Smith (1999); Beyond the Flower: The Autobiography of a Feminist Artist (1996); Powerplay (1986); The Birth Project (1980–1985); The Dinner Party (1974–1979); Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework (1980); Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light (1985–1993); The Second Decade, 1973–1983 (1984); Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist (1975).
Bronx Museum of the Arts. Division of Labor: ‘Women’s Work’ in Contemporary Art (1995).
Jones, Amelia. Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist Art History (1996).
Lippard, Lucy. From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (1976), and “Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party.’” Art in America 68:4 (April 1980): 114–126.
Mathews, Patricia. “Judy Chicago.” In North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Jules Heller and Nancy G. Heller (1995).
The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact, edited by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (1994).
Robinson, Marlee. “Judy Chicago.” In Contemporary Artists, edited by Muriel Emanuel et al. 2d ed. (1983).
Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists: From Early Indian Times to the Present (1982), and American Women Sculptors: A History of Women Working in Three Dimensions (1990).
Judy Chicago donated her papers to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College in 1977.