An image of Judy Chicago's "Forever de Young" performance seconds before the plume descended (photo by the author)

The small portion of the audience who stood directly in front of Judy Chicago’s “Forever de Young” (2021) apparently enjoyed a lovely, choreographed show of multicolored poofs and plumes wafting gorgeously from the pyramid structure built on the lawn of the de Young Museum. No doubt that’s the vantage of all the press shots. But for the majority of the audience, stretching across the lawn to the side, those first brilliant puffs of smoke quickly blended into an evil smelling orange-green tarnish cloud that snaked east and enveloped the rest of us for several confusing, ugly moments of near panic for many. The smoke blocked the sun and chilled the air, and when that initial plume dispersed a bit the first things I could see were dozens of people running in the opposite direction, masked or scrambling to find their masks, and throwing their kids over their shoulders to escape, and then the lividly red sun itself, so obscured by smoke that I could comfortably stare into it. I couldn’t escape the stench — nowhere in the museums’ advertising blitzkrieg for the performance were we told to bring our wildfire-season masks as well as our covid masks, and covid masks don’t prevent smoke inhalation. And the plumes kept rolling at us and over us, I don’t know for how long.

Was Chicago trolling us? Enticing everyone to picnic on the grass on the last warm day of the year, we imagine, for a beautiful dance of color and texture ethereally floating upwards, upwards, upwards … and then slamming us with a foul, industrial-waste-colored fuck-you. But again, a small group got the show as promised. Was the hellscape experienced by the rest of us, who I’d estimate to be at least three-quarters of the entire audience of hundreds, unintentional?

Not exactly. Gallerist Jessica Silverman, who probably sat up front, told the Chronicle, “You can’t anticipate what this does, and that’s part of the beauty of it.” But you can anticipate a lot. The show was scheduled for 5:30pm. Late afternoons are windy, and the wind rushing through Golden Gate Park generally comes from the ocean. Anyone involved with the de Young — if they cared to consider this — knew this could happen. They knew that most people would be along the side, where there was room. And they knew this event would draw a large crowd because they spend that much on advertising, and this is the sort of flashy event for a visiting big name that our flagship publications devote seemingly endless column space to, and Chicago is an icon. She was probably the first artist I was introduced to in high school on whom was bestowed the term “feminist artist” within her own lifetime. 

It seems like nobody considered that when people could finally gather after months of isolation, finally go maskless, finally emerge from a particularly rough wildfire season, smoking them out in the name of “air sculptures” is out of touch and cruel.

Larissa Archer is a writer and theatre worker based in San Francisco. Her website is