The artist speaks to Nancy Princenthal about environmentalism and how she used fashion to expand our concept of the divine

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Ferus Gallery—the Los Angeles space that launched the careers of Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin, and Larry Bell—was the epicenter of hyper-masculine cool. Into this scene entered Judy Chicago, then known as Judy Gerowitz, who discovered the art world was a man’s world, but one she desperately wanted to join. But back then, women weren’t welcomed as artists. Chicago’s work was mostly ignored—by the dealers, by the critics, and by the art world.

Chicago responded to dismissive attitudes by channeling her anger into action—and art. She created an ad to promote her California State University, Fullerton exhibition depicting herself as a boxer, standing in her corner of the ring wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with her fighting name: Judy Chicago. Art dealer Jack Glenn and a friend’s girlfriend, fellow artist Alona Hamilton Cooke, surround her, and she appears ready to battle the patriarchy. The image was instantly iconic, but what gave it added meaning was its mockery of a similar ad depicting the all-male Ferus artists draped over a motorcycle. One of the greatest feminist artists of our time had arrived, and no punches would be pulled.

Unapologetically, Chicago went all in, making art on her own terms as she navigated the female form through its soft curves. She taught the first studio classes on feminist art at California State University, Fresno, and later at the California Institute of the Arts. In 1979, Chicago created her most famous work, The Dinner Party, an elaborate installation with place settings featuring vulva-shaped dinnerware for female historical figures like Georgia O’Keeffe, Amelia Earhart, and Cleopatra. In the ’80s, Chicago delved into male violence in Power Play and the miracle of life through the embroidered Birth Project. (The figures depicted in the attached sketchbook were drawn around this time.) This May, Chicago was scheduled to return to San Francisco, where The Dinner Party was first exhibited, for her first retrospective at the de Young Museum. [Due to the coronavirus epidemic, this exhibition has been postponed.]

Nancy Princenthal, a former senior editor at Art in America, built her career telling the stories of female artists such as Hannah Wilke and Agnes Martin—whose biography earned Princenthal the 2016 PEN America Award. Her most recent book, Unspeakable Acts, looks at the ways artists have addressed sexual violence against women in their work.

Here, Princenthal speaks to Chicago about toxic masculinity, environmentalism, and the genesis of The Female Divine—a work Chicago presented with Dior at the house’s couture show in Paris in January—and why it’s the greatest creative opportunity of her life.

Untitled Sketchbook, 1983. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society, New York. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Nancy Princenthal: I thought I’d just jump right into the deep end and start with Power Play, which is the series that the drawings [from this 1983 sketchbook] are related to.

Judy Chicago: These drawings relate to Power Play and my exploration of why men sometimes seem so frightened of and hostile to and violent toward women. And how men are so often brought up to think that what is womanly is despicable, and to be vulnerable is somehow to be unmanned, and they project that onto women. That’s what these images are about.

Nancy: That was a very powerful series. Do you think through drawing?

Judy: I think through drawing. It’s very basic to my practice. A lot of my work, even my collaborative work, starts with drawing in my studio.

Nancy: The interesting thing about Power Play is that it’s about bringing men along and into the conversation. How successful have leading feminists such as yourself been in bringing men along? Where do we stand in 2020?

Judy: Two weeks ago, the director of Flower Art Space here in Belen [New Mexico] was sick. These two young boys did the tours. They guided 18 people and sold $400 worth of merchandise. There’s the good news, right? Young men, doing tours, feeling comfortable in a feminist space, and talking about women’s art. The bad news—we have men in power around the world like Trump, who are rolling back environmental regulations; Boris Johnson, who’s trying to get England back its former glory; the maniac in Australia, whose country is burning because they deny climate change; the maniac in Brazil, who’s destroying the rain forest; and the maniac in India, who is responsible for this unbelievable outpouring of violence against Muslims. At the same time, consciousness has definitely changed for younger generations. We have men in power who seem to be more willing to destroy the planet than give up power. So, that’s where I think we are. The outcome is unclear.

Untitled Sketchbook, 1983. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society, New York. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Nancy: The environment is an issue that has taken up a significant amount of your time and interest.

Judy: There’s been so much interest in my most recent project, The End. In the 1980s, I was commissioned to do a poster by Greenpeace based on the Native American legend that gave rise to the title of their ship, The Rainbow Warrior. Now that poster is being turned into marble in support of Project Zero, an international project that auctions artists’ work to raise money to save the oceans. I was just on the phone with Hans Ulrich Obrist, because he did this project in Europe called It’s Urgent, and now I’m involved with him and the Luma Foundation; with Jane Fonda and her Fire Drill Fridays; with Greenpeace; with the National Museum of Women in the Arts; and with the street artist Swoon in this effort to issue a call to artists around the world to make art about climate justice in response to the global protests that will take place in April around Earth Day. I’m thrilled by this collaboration because art can have a real place in social justice movements. I just turned one of my images from The End into something that can be widely distributed and easily understood. That will be part of this. Mostly I’m acting as a facilitator. As I said to Hans Ulrich Obrist when he was talking about the numbers of people involved, I was like, ‘My middle name is Collaboration.’ I love to collaborate.

Nancy: How many artists will ultimately be involved?

Judy: The more, the better. University art education has been pumping out thousands of artists who have been trained in conceptual, theoretical, and formal issues, and they’ve learned to ‘talk in tongues,’ which is making art that nobody but a small coterie of people can understand. If you leave that elitist environment and go into a broader audience, you simply can’t talk in tongues. You have to make images that are more accessible. That’s one of the things my practice has really focused on.

Untitled Sketchbook, 1983. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society, New York. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Nancy: Do you think your contribution and the contribution of other women and working principally in California in the ’70s have been adequately acknowledged?

Judy: The difference between me and my former student Suzanne Lacy, who is much more an example of social practice, is that I have remained deeply committed to the process of actually making physical, visual images. All of the social practice artists are performance based. Part of my whole problem in the art world is that I don’t really easily fit into any of the existing categories. I created my own career and had my own vision for art, and it’s a different vision. I love the process of making images. I’ve made thousands of paintings, sculptures, and drawings—multiple media. Although my work has definitely had social effects. For example, we did a study of Birth Project, which we gifted to various institutions to see what the effect would be, and it was amazing. There was one work, a big, 14-foot spray-painted piece, with embroidery-applied threadwork, which is permanently held at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, where it’s used as a place to bring together Christian, Jewish, and Muslim seminary students to discuss The Female Divine. So even though my work has had social and political effects, for me, first and foremost was the process of spray-painting, drawing, and creating that work.

Nancy: You mentioned the project you’re doing examines the spiritual connections between major worlds and religions, and you’ve talked about The Female Divine. Could you bring us up to date with that?

Judy: The greatest creative opportunity of my life? The Dior project happened like quite a few things happened in my life—out of the blue. My career is unusual in that it hasn’t been fueled by a major gallery, collector, curator, or critic. It seems to have a life of its own. Last spring I was contacted by Frankfurter Allgemeine Quarterly. They were putting out an article on Maria Grazia Chiuri. I didn’t even know who she was—she’s the first female director of Dior. She had apparently named ten women who had influenced her, and I was one of them. A couple months later, Dior contacted me again and said they wanted to bring me and Donald to Paris for the couture show in July. By a miracle, we had a window of time over the Fourth of July weekend, so we went. By this time I’d started doing some research on Dior and the history of fashion, which I knew nothing about. I’d discovered that a lot of male designers, had used art and art history as inspiration, and had collaborated with artists, but it’d always been male designers and male artists—until Maria. So I’m sitting in the couture show, thinking, Can art have any real place here other than as background? Or commodity? I’m also thinking, Fashion has historically oppressed women—horrible shoes, the male gaze. Could fashion disempower women? So I made a proposal to Dior called The Female Divine. In the late ’70s, I came up with the idea of a Mother Goddess sculpture that was like 60 feet; it was before I ever saw Niki de Saint Phalle’s photos of her Hon. I never could build it, because I could never have possibly gotten the support. I proposed building that figure, diffusing the interior with gold light, and hanging a series of banners that raised a number of contemporary questions. I also proposed a millefleur catwalk made of fresh flowers. Maria Grazia loved the proposal, but Dior wanted to keep the structure open for a week after the show, and—of course—then you couldn’t have fresh flowers. So, instead I sent them my drawing for the millefleur tapestry on the top of the Eleanor of Aquitaine runner [from The Dinner Party], which was a weaving. They accepted my entire proposal, which shocked me.

Untitled Sketchbook, 1983. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society, New York. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Nancy: You managed to convince them to celebrate the divine goddess in that way that brings us full circle in terms of the imagery that’s associated with feminist art and feminine identity and power.

Judy: The image is less important than the concept of it. As long as divinity is assumed to be male, women will always be lesser. For me, the goal is not to have female priests worshipping a male god. The goal is to expand our concept of the divine to include both male and female.

Nancy: And every gender in between.

Judy: Yes, and on either side!

Nancy: What will most change viewers’ understanding of what you’ve been doing all these years [in your de Young Museum retrospective that was scheduled to open this May]?

Judy: It’s going to be more of a revelation to viewers, as happened at Miami ICA, which was a three-decade survey. The Dinner Party blocked out the rest of my work for so long. [Curator] Claudia Schmuckli really wants to try to make my practice understood. I have approached a subject over and over again. I have gone through a period of research and preparation and thinking. Then, I tried to figure out what technique was most appropriate for that subject matter. I’ve taken a journey of discovery and gone wherever the content took me, even if it meant taking huge risks financially, psychologically, intellectually, because trying to make a contribution to art history and forging my own vision as an artist has been utmost in my mind. And Nancy, as you know, that has required years of isolation, excision from the mainstream of the art world, and vitriol that was completely undeserved. So, I’m very happy that this change is happening in my career.

This conversation appears in Document’s Spring/Summer issue, available for pre-order now.

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