One of America's leading contemporary artists is the subject a new exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, located here in Washington, D.C. Painter, sculptor, author and educator Judy Chicago led the feminist art movement of the 1970s by creating images of women's experiences from a uniquely female point of view. Though controversy has sometimes accompanied the critical acclaim she has enjoyed over the years, today Judy Chicago is widely considered a feminist icon and pioneer who dared to challenge the art world establishment.
At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, there was a feeling of excitement among people in attendance at the opening of the Judy Chicago exhibition the first time a collection representing the artist's 30-year career was being exhibited in a major gallery. "When I was growing up as a child, looking at art and wanting to model myself on the artists, all of them were men. And their views of women were not consistent with how I experienced myself," she says.
Judy Chicago, who adopted her surname from the city where she was born, began formal art training as a child in the traditional way one might expect of art institutions of the 1950s. But she says the 1970s women's movement fueled her desire to use art to communicate women's history and experiences, which she felt had been largely ignored. Ms. Chicago's first major effort in this direction would become her most famous and most controversial work.
She called it The Dinner Party. "I sometimes describe it as a reinterpretation of The Last Supper, from the point of view of those who had done the cooking throughout history," she says. "Because if you look at The Last Supper paintings, there is all this food on the table, which sort of miraculously appeared and then miraculously cleared away. So, who did it? Right? And why weren't they there? They're [the women] always absent from the story and so putting them back into the story has been one of the goals of my career and my work."
The Dinner Party, which opened in San Francisco in 1979, is a symbolic representation of the history of women in the form of a 16-meter triangular table. Thirty-nine place settings represent notable women through the ages, including Primordial Goddess, Sappho; writer and abolitionist Sojourner Truth and artist Georgia O'Keefe.
Although much acclaimed for its scope, inventiveness and Ms. Chicago's multi-media use of ceramics, china painting, tile and needlework, The Dinner Party was also criticized for Ms. Chicago's use of what she describes as "vulvul" imagery each plate, whether embellished as a flower or butterfly, in some way also resembles a woman's genitalia.
But Judy Chicago says her main goal was to give young women a broader view of their own history. "And they wouldn't have to go through what I went through in college, which was having a class, for example, in the intellectual history of Europe, in which the professor ended the class by talking about women's contributions and his basic assessment was the they had made none. And so, in my own research, before there were women's studies, I discovered that this was not true. Women had made many contributions and they had been erased," she says. "And one of my goals when I did it was to counter that erasure."
The Judy Chicago retrospective at the National Museum of Women in the Arts includes some of the test plates and place settings for The Dinner Party, which is now on permanent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. Other paintings and sculptures included in the Washington exhibition include Powerplay, an examination of the concept of masculinity; excerpts from The Holocaust Project on which she collaborated with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman; and The Birth Project, a celebration in paint and textiles of the power and range of the birth experience.
"In the early '80s, there were almost no images of birth in the museums that reflected women's experience of giving birth. There were images of the Madonna and, as any woman knows who's gone through it, it is neither an immaculate conception or a bloodless act," she says. "So even introducing the subject of birth, introducing the subject of menstruation, of women's history, the subject of women's bodies and how women feel about their own bodies, these were all not part of our history. The idea that women's experience would be important was not accepted. So changing that has been a really long struggle."
For Judy Chicago, the struggle has paid off. Since she founded the Feminist Art Movement 30 years ago, she has been credited with inspiring similar art movements throughout the world. And in cities across the United States, numerous retrospectives of her work are currently on display. In addition to The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum, her Holocaust Project is being shown at the Orlando Museum of Art. And her most recent project, Resolutions recently opened at the Hunter Museum in Chatanooga, Tennessee.
Judy Chicago says she would like to say to women artists everywhere to "have courage." "Because my career is a testament to persistence, I suppose. Not giving up in the face of pretty hideous reviews there's been pretty hideous writing about my work over the years. So I think it says something about the power of art, that art can really move us, change us, help us, transform ourselves. And I'm so thrilled by everything that's happening," she says.
Artist Judy Chicago, speaking from the National Museum of women in the Arts in Washington. Her exhibition will be on view through February, 2003.