I remember seeing Judy’s Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) in a rundown Islington warehouse. It was 1985 and I had just arrived in London; a young single parent mother, newly divorced, and a fledgling art critic. The year before that the work had been shown at the Edinburgh Festival. The huge crates had crossed the Atlantic by boat, and then travelled by lorry to Felixstowe, to be carried up two flights of stairs in a 19th century building without a lift. Arranged on a triangular banqueting table, each arm of which measured some 48 feet, there were a total of thirty-nine place settings commemorating women from history. Each setting was laid with a china-painted porcelain plate on which there was a raised central motif – vulvae and butterfly forms – created in a style appropriate to the woman being celebrated. There were also embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils and the names of another 999 women inscribed in gold on the white tile floor below the table. Disparaged and misunderstood by many at the time I was bowled over by its ambition and emotional reach. I’d never seen a visual art work that spoke so directly about female experience. There was nothing ironic, nothing deliberately sensational about the work. This was a female aesthetic based on the lives of important women, and on the oppression and devaluation of the feminine that had been the norm for centuries and was still current in contemporary society. The art historian, Griselda Pollock, suggested that the piece created “a feminist space of encounter”, where new explorations and new ideas about femininity, modernity and modes of representation could be examined. Its daring helped to open the door for women’s self expression on both sides of the Atlantic and gave permission for women to become real contenders in the art game.
It is now, perhaps, hard for younger women to understand the impact that such a work had nearly 30 years ago, how much the role of women in society has changed. But between 1970 and 1980 there were only three woman heads of government across the world. In Britain it was not until 1967 that the Abortion Act, brought in by the liberal MP, David Steel, and subjected to much controversy and heated debate, allowed for legal abortion on a variety of grounds. And it was not until 1973 that abortion was made legal in every state across America. Even in June 2012 the State Legislature in Michigan expelled a female Representative for daring to mention the word ‘vagina’ three times during a debate on abortion.
Born into a left-wing Jewish family in Chicago in 1939, Judy Cohen grew up in a household where political activism, human rights and the empowerment of the individual was a sine qua non. Her relationship with art began aged five when she was enrolled in art classes at the Art of Institute Chicago. In 1957 she moved to LA to study painting and sculpture at the University of California, legally changing her name in 1970 to Chicago in order to liberate herself from the perceived male dominance of the art-world. (She often found herself referred to as ‘Judy from Chicago’ – and thus took the name). In the early 70s she set up a pioneering course at California State University that looked at the work of women artists. This resulted in Womanhouse(1972). Along with her colleague, Miriam Schapiro, she encouraged students to fill the empty rooms of a house with art that expressed female concerns. Menstruation Bathroom was Chicago’s contribution. Seeing the black and white installation now, punctuated by the stain of discarded sanitary towels crammed into a plastic bin, is a reminder of just how transgressive and daring such an image was in the early 70s. This is not an idealised vision of womanhood as depicted by centuries of male artists but a picture of how women felt about and experienced themselves. Though with the coming of the more complex theoretical 80s Judy Chicago’s work fell prey to feminist guardians who saw it as essentialist with its connection of female achievement to biology, so that, for a while, she fell out of favour. Now her daring and boldness have established her as an icon of the feminist art movement of the late 20th century.
Less known in Britain than in the States, the Ben Uri Gallery is giving audiences a chance to discover Chicago’s work beyond The Dinner Party. Recently her early abstract and semi-abstract paintings and sculpture have undergone something of a critical reassessment after their inclusion in the Getty Research Institute’s Pacific Standard Time in California in 2011-12. The works shown here are more personal and more intimate than the massive installations. Paintings, prints, drawings, film and photographs focus on a gamut of female experience from menstruation to sex, birth and ageing. The gallery has placed her in conversation with three other women artists: Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick and Tracey Emin, though, here, they are something of a supporting cast. But what they do provide is an historical perspective, highlighting the concerns raised by generations of female artists.
In an interview with Lucy Lippard in 2002, Chicago admitted that: “… my goal has been to mine my own experience as a Jewish female person, an American person, to go from that particular to the larger human experience. Along the way my work has become more modest in scale, though maybe not in underlying intention.” Hers is a confessional art with a strong autobiographical thread. She is, in many ways, the Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton of visual art. Retrospective in a Box, the first work in the gallery, consists of 7 prints made in Santa Fe whilst working with Landfall Press between 2008-12, and it forms an emotional document of her career. The brightly coloured prints Into the Darkness and The Return of the Butterfly turn the female genitals into a combination of mandala, vagina dentata and exotic flora and fauna that owe something to the eroticism of Georgia O’ Keeffe, whom Chicago honours with a place at her Dinner Party. Alongside these Aging Woman/Artist/Jew (2012) presents a lurid self-portrait of Chicago in signature dark glasses in which she appears like Vitruvian man, naked and split from crotch to breast bone, with a Star of David emblazoned on her chest. Writ small in her open mouth is the word Truth, and scrawled across the print in large capitals are the words: EVERYONE WOULD SEE WHO SHE REALLY WAS. For a woman, for an artist, to be candid about ‘who one really is’ is not encouraged within a society where every article in Cosmopolitan or Grazia tells us how to shave, nip and tuck our bodies and our personalities to some media and male-ensnaring version of feminity.
In the 60s, in order to learn traditionally male techniques, Chicago enrolled in a pyrotechnics course, the only woman among 200 men. The result was The Woman and Smoke Series (1972) choreographed in the Californian desert with coloured flares and smoke in which images of naked women elide with notions of archetypal female goddesses, along with the feel of Michelangelo Antonioni’s seminal counter-culture desert film of the 70s, Zabriski Point. These works have been placed in the gallery near a series of photographs created in 1977 by the late British artist, Helen Chadwick. Here, daringly for the times, she stripped off and dressed in a range of soft sculptural kitchen appliances that she made and wore while reading a text that challenged the idea of the kitchen as a uniquely female space. Louise Bourgeois is represented by two pieces within the show, including Untitled (Sleep II) 1968, that addresses the masculine within the feminine and the feminine within the masculine. Her limp phallic sculpture also has the quality of a soft female breast.
The inclusion of Tracey Emin is more problematic. Certainly there is a very beautiful tiny painting entitled Masturbating in the Bath (from Memory) 2005 – a small pale work in graphite, watercolour and gouache, reminiscent of some of Joseph Beuys’ fragile paintings – which is both poetic and erotic But much of her other work suffers in comparison to the other artists. Where for Bourgeois, Chicago and Chadwick feminism was a political position in a world where women were largely invisible and seen primarily as sexual objects, carers and mothers rather than artists, Emin’s work seems solipsistic, self-centred and narcissistic. On the stairs is a work from 2007 in which she wears a Fawcett society campaign T-shirt that proclaims ‘This is what a feminist looks like’.Yet on her website under the same image is a caption in which she says: ‘I don’t actually adhere to that statement, – that to me is ‘old hat’. Emin is ambivalent about feminism. She belongs to a generation where ‘me’ rather than ‘us’ is the mantra. As a result the 9 hand written texts CV (1995) seem self-serving, a way of claiming special status as a hard-done by victim, rather than reading as the work of a woman who is fighting for creative, emotional and political visibility not only for herself but for her sisters.
At one end of the exhibition is a self-portrait of Judy Chicago taken by her husband in 2009 on her 70th birthday. It is gentle and humorous. She poses in her garden like a naked and contented Eve holding a red apple, the serpent represented by a pink plastic garden hose wrapped around her, still, slender body. The easiness of this image stands in contrast to one created some 40 years earlier when she was in the process of ‘becoming Judy Chicago’. In it she stands with cropped haired, dressed as a pugnacious boxer in the corner of a ring, ready to take on the world.
Armed with an inherent morality and work ethic inherited from her union-organiser father and artistic mother. Judy Chicago has used autobiography – whether in her Birth Project, her work on the Holocaust or even her Autobiography of a year to address the role of women in society as artists, as mothers and lovers. For her the personal is political; something that many younger woman artists such as Emin have forgotten. For Bourgeois, Chicago and Chadwick reshaping woman’s relationships not only to art history, but to the very question of what it meant to be a woman fighting for a visible place within society, was inextricably linked to their project of being an artist.