Judy Chicago illustrates a cautionary tale for our post-COVID future

On a special edition artist cover for Document Issue 16, Chicago warns, ‘We must change course or we are DOOMED.’

The impulse to narrativize is always compelling, but it particularly appeals during periods of crisis. Ordering chaos into an intelligible plot line renders it more manageable, delineating a potential path to the denouement. While the particularities change, crises tell similar stories, falling into established paradigms.

Judy Chicago’s diptych It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn—inspired by Native American folklore—is a case in point. Intended as a cautionary tale against treating animals with negligence and cruelty, Chicago reinterprets the legend within the context of COVID-19. “This pandemic has been caused by our own behavior; our disregard for the well-being of other sensate creatures and our refusal to face the consequences of climate change,” says Chicago. To access the vibrant, idyllic world of coexistence in the right panel, then, we must discard the cruel world of toxic industrialization in the left. By assuming storybook format, the piece distills the essence of the crisis of pandemic with cogent urgency. After all, Chicago says, “We must change course or we are DOOMED.”

Here, the artist shares her thoughts about the piece, conveying cautious optimism towards the future.

Hannah Ongley: Has your schedule changed at all over the past two months? What has lately been keeping you motivated to keep making art?

Judy Chicago: My work and life have not changed at all over the last few months except for the absence of dinner with friends and travel. In addition to [projects with] #CreateArtForEarth, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Serpentine; Jane Fonda and her Fire Drill Fridays; the artist Swoon and the National Museum of Women in the Arts; and Greenpeace, I have been entirely focused on a new book project with Thames and Hudson that will be published in June 2021, at the time of my postponed retrospective at the De Young Museum and my show at the Serpentine.

This publication—my 15th—will be a combined, edited, and revised version of my two autobiographies, Through the Flower and Beyond the Flower, with a new afterword by me and an introduction by Gloria Steinem. My days are spent working on this, exercising, and reading The New York Times, getting depressed by the state of the world and our failed leadership.

Hannah: Do you recall when you first learned of the Native American legend about the revenge of the four-legged and the winged? Why did it stick in your memory?

Judy: Gloria Steinem told me about the legend, and it really impacted me. It informed my Extinction series that is part of my most recent project, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, which premiered last fall at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and will be part of my retrospective. What we are doing to other creatures on this planet breaks my heart, and they deserve to wreak revenge on us because of our heartless treatment. As we know, the coronavirus is the outcome of live animal markets; if we do not change course, there will be more of these [outbreaks].

Hannah: Can you speak to the use of color versus black and white in this work?

Judy: Over the years, I have been—stupidly—accused of hopeless idealism and naiveté. This is completely wrong, especially after spending eight years on the Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light, a collaboration with my husband, photographer Donald Woodman. That project caused us to face the evil human beings are capable of. In my next project, Resolutions: A Stitch in Time—a series of painted and needleworked images reimagining traditional proverbs—I brought that understanding to bear.

In It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn, the left side of the painting—painted in black and white—depicts the world as I know it to be, and it’s a pretty bleak image. The right side represents a vision of peace and harmony on the planet, and the color merged with the embroidery brings this vision to life.

Hannah: In your conversation with Nancy Princenthal for Document’s Spring/Summer 2020 issue, you speak of a struggle between powerful men—including Trump, Boris, and Bolsonaro—willing to destroy the planet and a younger generation with a heightened consciousness. How can the younger generation use this consciousness to enact tangible change at this point in history?

Judy: Younger people will inherit a pretty terrible world; all the problems and inequities on the planet have been exposed by the coronavirus and our response to it. Although my generation was able to change consciousness around gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etcetera, we have not been able to translate those changes into institutional change. Thus, we have seen how easily the changes can be rolled back. The job ahead is institutional and systemic change all over the world—and that is a BIG job.

Hannah: Are you optimistic about humanity’s ability to reverse course?

Judy: I don’t know if we are going to be able to change course, but I comfort myself by remembering that there was once a time when the whole human race thought the sun revolved around the earth and was able to correct its understanding of the universe.

Hannah: The mainstream art world has been slow to welcome artists who threaten the status quo—one reason your work from decades ago still feels so powerful today. Can this crisis expedite the collapse of existing power structures? Or do you fear it will further entrench them?

Judy: I wish I had a crystal ball and could answer the question, but I have no idea. I choose to be hopeful, but given the level of despair on the planet, it is sometimes difficult.