Judy Chicago, arguably the world’s best known Feminist artist, continues to fiercely divide opinion. Her detractors accuse her work of being simplistic and singleminded, while loyalists praise her unwavering activism. The artist has fostered a reputation for being independent and uncompromising. “I realize that some readers might be put off by my candor,” Chicago writes knowingly in the introduction to her new book, Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education (The Monacelli Press, 2014), “but I feel strongly that it is important to speak plainly about what I have learned during my decades of struggling with these issues.” Chicago’s early work is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Entitled Chicago in LA.: Judy Chicago’s Early Work, 1963–74, the show is situated beside the artist’s best known installation, “The Dinner Party” (1974–79), which has been permanently housed within the museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art since 2007. Though Institutional Time is ostensibly a focused take on studio art education, it also illuminates the artist’s perception of her early work, and therefore functions as a compelling primer for Chicago in LA.
Chicago’s highly readable text is likely to rankle her detractors. Though the artist’s observations about studio education are largely common-sense, Institutional Time frequently veers into self-mythology. This is somewhat understandable given that Chicago’s views are largely based on her own teaching experience, but it can become overbearing. Chicago isn’t shy about cementing her legacy. “I became determined to use my time on earth to create art — as much of it as possible,” she continues in the introduction, “and to make a place for myself in art history.”
Chicago turned 75 this year, so it is unsurprising that legacy is at the forefront of her mind. This has been a bumper year for the artist. Last April, the Brooklyn Museum helped realize “A Butterfly for Brooklyn” (2014), the artist’s most ambitious pyrotechnic work, utilizing over 1,000 fireworks. But despite her successes, several major institutions have yet to acquire any of Chicago’s work. As the artist told The Village Voice last month, “not one of my works is in a major museum collection, other than the Brooklyn Museum or LACMA. Not MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Met, [or] the Whitney.” Such an omission by four of the nation’s museums is jaw-droppingly shocking. That Chicago’s work has had an historic impact is undeniable. Could the lack of interest by these institutions be related to historic criticisms of her oeuvre? And how does Chicago in LA and Institutional Time frame the historic reception of her work?
To understand the opposition to Chicago, it’s best to start with early criticism of “The Dinner Party,” the artist’s celebration of historic and pioneering women. The installation takes the form of a triangular banquet table, with uniquely designed table settings for 39 distinguished women, including Hatshepsut, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Virginia Woolf. The piece is best known for its sculptural ceramic plates which are reminiscent of vulva and flower-like forms. A number of critics have claimed that Chicago’s work, specifically her use of vaginal imagery, is essentialist (that it espouses the view that men and women have intrinsically different natures), which I suspect is simply a theoretical way of describing it as overly literal or reductive. When you unpack all the critical claims against the artist, what you’re essentially left with (forgive the pun) is an opposition to Chicago’s preference for narrative devices and instant readability; that because a work such as “The Dinner Party” has a clear didactic message, it’s somehow a lesser work of art.
This view was nakedly expressed by Hilton Kramer who likened “The Dinner Party” to an “advertising campaign … crass, solemn and singleminded.” Though less explicit, I suspect Roberta Smith felt the same when she concluded that the work’s social significance “may be greater than its aesthetic value.” Despite living in the post, post-modern era where, as the theorist Arthur Danto put it, “anything goes,” the art word still places a premium on ambiguity, irony, and detachment, over accessibility and narrative. Chicago has persistently and stubbornly swum against the currents of fashion, whether it’s by dealing with difficult subject matter (“The Holocaust Project“) or by adopting unfashionable media (such as ceramics and embroidery in the case of “The Dinner Party”).
It’s unsurprising then that one of Chicago’s chief criticisms of studio art education is its apparent devaluing of subject matter. As she writes in Institutional Time:
Increasingly, understandable content in art has come to be seen almost like an infectious disease, something to be avoided … in my opinion, not only is content important, it should be expressed clearly so that it can be understood by viewers.
Chicago cites instances in which her students “abstracted” their subject matter, largely in cases where their work related to personal trauma. Her ethos is that art making is largely a form of therapy and self-actualization, a notion that Postmodernism, with its detached cynicism, has largely discredited. As a feminist who also rejects modernist tropes, Chicago is trapped between a rock and a hard place. Fitting into neither ‘camp’ thus partly accounts for her being ostracized from certain scions of the art world.
For those who aren’t enamored with Chicago’s work, there is still plenty to agree with in her text. She affirms that there are now more studio courses and more artists then ever before, and not enough financial support. Only a tiny fraction of graduates will find success (however one defines it). “I would have urged [students] to pursue [their] desire to be an artist without heeding the financial consequences,” Chicago muses, “but times have changed considerably since I was a young artist.”
Chapter Seven of Institutional Time, which cooly lays out the difficulties that graduates will face, should be required reading for all prospective arts students. Chicago is quick to put down the notion that the West has accomplished a state of Post-Feminist bliss, maintaining that equality of education has a long way to go. Relying less on statistics and more on written studies and personal anecdotes, Chicago revisits her own teaching experiences, including her time at Fresno State College where she initiated the first feminist art program in the US.
Among Chicago’s more controversial assessments is her opinion that women “can’t have it all” and will have to choose between raising a family or pursuing a career in art. Some classes, the artist maintains, may have to consist solely of women, since men tend to dominant discussion and debate in the classroom. Throughout Institutional Time, Chicago champions a commitment to “rigorous work” as opposed to “touchy-feely” approaches, which she brands infantilizing. The artist cautiously accounts for her conclusions, often citing theorists who adhere to the contrary. The book’s single greatest acknowledgment is that there is remarkably little written on the subject of how to structure studio courses.
Chicago regularly employs the text to dispel her fearsome reputation. “I also possess a soft heart” the artist professes, though she hazards this by occasionally sliding into egoism (discussing her piece “Earth Birth”: “It’s power terrified me; in fact I couldn’t show it to anyone for several days”) and flippancy (on students sharing their traumas: “I hate to sound blasé, but after having facilitated so many self-presentations, these confessions sounded all too familiar.”). Reading Institutional Time, it struck me that the animosity toward Chicago is not simply a response to her emphatic personality, but is due to the fact that she is willing to play the career game. Chicago wants to become part of the art historical canon (as so many men have), whereas many Feminist theorists believe that canons should be abolished all together, a task that looks insurmountable in our slavish age of celebrity.
Chicago’s book will present a dilemma for visitors of the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition. In a narrative that is largely adhered to by the curators of Chicago in LA, the artist describes her early career in Institutional Time as a period in which she adopted “male drag”:
Because I desperately wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, I had adopted what I now describe as ‘male drag,’ trying to act, and make art, as if I were a man. During these years, my work became increasingly minimal, which wasn’t an altogether bad thing as I developed considerable formal control and visual mastery, which would prove valuable to my development as an artist.
While it’s true that the history of minimalism is largely defined by its male proponents, can movements or styles really be engendered? If viewers admire Chicago’s early work, does this make them complicit with some sort of patriarchal aesthetic? In wall texts for the exhibition, Curator Catherine Morris and Assistant Curator Saisha Grayson outline Chicago’s struggle to find an authentic visual language:
[Chicago] repressed imagery that directly referenced her gender and built her reputation as an ambitious, serious artist by mastering power tools, auto-body-painting techniques, and fiberglass casting. This industrial approach to object-making was shared by her minimalist contemporaries, but Chicago’s work was distinguished by a playful use of scale, color, and multipart arrangements. These elements can be seen as subtley highlighting an interest in relationships, hierarchies, and sensory responses to color that resonates with later articulations of a female or feminist aesthetic.
The most immediate example of Chicago’s interest in visual hierarchies is “Rainbow Pickett” (1964/reconstructed 2004), the largest sculpture in the show. Exhibited as part of Primary Structures (1966) at the Jewish Museum (the first major show of Minimalism in the US), the work marked Chicago’s first big break on the East Coast, although it’s unclear whether the piece was felt to subvert minimalist aesthetics at the time. A better example is ‘Birth Hood” (1965) in which Chicago’s interest in incorporating so-called ‘feminine’ forms is readily apparent. Immaculately painted in crisp Californian colors, “Birth Hood” resembles a cross between a highly abstracted anatomy diagram, and an anthropomorphized face. The use of an car hood typifies Chicago’s participation in the Finish Fetish School, a movement defined by the use of industrial processes and materials, supposedly the preserve of men.
Chicago in LA supports the artist’s assertion that she purposefully adopted “masculine techniques,” a problematic assessment since it perpetuates the assumption that very few women used industrial media (are we to disregard Finish Fetishist Helen Pashgian for instance?). It’s ironic that an exhibition centered on a feminist artist does so little to redress the historical banishment of other contemporaneous women.
Overall the exhibition is beautifully arranged. Chicago’s artistic transformation is linearly experienced from start to finish, with the final room leading to “The Dinner Party”, the artist’s feminist apotheosis. Two characteristics remain consistent; Chicago’s Californian color palette (flamingo pinks, sky blues, palm-tree greens), and a high degree of technical finish. All the works in the exhibition look immaculate, including a set of plates used to test paint colors for “The Dinner Party.” The standard of technical execution is so high that It’s hard to imagine what the artist’s doodles might look like. One suspects that Chicago applies a similar level of control and presentation to her own life story.
What’s troubling about Chicago in LA is its willing acquiescence to Chicago’s own narrative about her career. The voice of Institutional Time and the curatorial voice of Chicago in LA line up a little too neatly. There is some evidence of curatorial criticality, notably the display of a 1970 magazine advertisement produced by the Jack Glenn Gallery. Published in Artforum, the advertisement announced the artist’s new name. As stated in the artist’s trademark cursive script:
Judy Gerowitz hereby devests herself of all names impressed upon her through male social dominance and freely chooses her own name: Judy Chicago.
In the accompanying photograph, a cool looking Chicago stares defiantly into the distance. The ad isn’t just a work of feminist commentary, it’s also a masterstroke of self-promotion. It encapsulates Chicago’s twin ambitions; to be recognized as a renowned artist and to champion feminist activism. These two goals needn’t be mutually exclusive, but they can be perceived to clash. Activists are held to a higher standard, their activities regularly scrutinized through the prism of their beliefs. When the “Dinner Party” debuted in 1979 there were accusations that Chicago had exploited her volunteers, a charge that the artist refuses to answer in Institutional Time. “I have rarely responded to what amounted to deeply hurtful assaults on my integrity,” Chicago writes.
Though the exhibition inadvertently raises questions that it cannot answer — the burden of biography, the perceived engendering of aesthetics, and the critical distance of curators — it remains perversely satisfying. As is the case with Institutional Time, a lot can be read between the lines. One will leave Chicago in LA with a far better understanding of Chicago’s divisiveness, and why, in many respects, she remains unfairly slighted by the institutional art world.
Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education (2014) is published by The Monacelli Press and is also available as an e-book.
Chicago in LA: Judy Chicago’s Early Work, 1963-74 continues at The Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through September 28.
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