Judy Chicago spraying Large Toby Head
Published: 13 December, 2012
by FRANCES BORZELLO
ON March 1,1984, The Dinner Party by American artist Judy Chicago went on display at The Warehouse, 38-41 White Lion Street at the Angel. Germaine Greer spoke at the opening and thousands visited the huge installation in the following two months.
No one had seen anything like it. A triangle composed of three 48ft tables set with elaborate ceramic plates officially in the shape of butterflies but as everyone knew in their hearts, actually female genitalia. Each of the 39 place settings celebrated the achievements of a famous woman with a further 999 women celebrated with their names on tiles on the floor of the artwork.
Visitors were moved and overwhelmed by an exhibit described at the time by Julia Pascal of City Limits as threatening “our smug civilised façade” by offering “a vision of the world seen only by half of humanity” .... “As I walk round the Dinner Party, men and women are arguing with one another about Judy Chicago’s vision, others are staring in fascination.”
Though her name is inscribed under Feminism on the art history wall of Tate Modern, little of Chicago’s work since The Dinner Party has been seen in this country.
A show that opened last month at the Ben Uri Gallery in Boundary Road sets out to fill in some of the gaps, with examples of her works of the last three decades.
And a smaller show at Soho’s Riflemaker Gallery concentrates on her work from the 1960s, before the Dinner Party, when she was trying to be one of the boys in the Californian Finish Fetish group, spray-painting car bonnets with designs which with hindsight seem full of erotic female shapes.
Chicago has always thought big and made even bigger. The Dinner Party was five years in the making and was followed by a succession of huge projects.
She produced The Birth Project between 1982-85; The Holocaust Project, in collaboration with her photographer husband Donald Woodman, between 1985-1993; and Powerplay, a look at the construction of masculinity between 1986-90. The final work is always a huge ensemble of assorted parts and materials incorporating prints, stained glass, textiles and photography.
Books chronicle the progress of these long-term projects, revealing the financial worries, collaborations, experiments and the setbacks and successes of the journey to completion.
Words are important to Chicago. Not just in her books and the words she incorporates in her art, but verbally as well.
Statistics drop from her like hail.
Asked by the Review whether women’s status in art had improved since she started out, she says: “In major museums, the permanent collections are only 3-5 per cent women, and in terms of monographs, in the 1970s, 1.7 percent were devoted to women artists and 40 years later, it is still only 2.5 per cent.
“I would say that it is more hospitable at entry level (group exhibitions, regional shows, small galleries) but the higher up one goes in the art world, the fewer women there are.”
She thinks things are slightly better in the literary world: “In the art world, one needs financial support, physical space and a champion in order for one’s work to become visible. In the literary world, one only needs one editor to publish a book.”
Over the years, the feminism of The Dinner Party, created between 1974 and 1979, has broadened into an interest in justice and equality. But she is not, she insists, a political artist. “My work addresses moral rather than political issues. I’ve always shied away from overtly political topics because they quickly become dated and my goal was to create art with a universal dimension from my own perspective as a woman’.
A particular hero is the German Otto Dix whose war prints she saw at the Wellcome Collection’s current show on death: “Some of his images speak across the century and could be Iraq or Afghan-istan today. That’s the kind of art I believe in and have attempted to create.”
All through her career, Chicago has produced sketches and spinoffs of her huge installations as well as more personal works that together add up to a form of self-portraiture. A selection of these works on paper are on show at Ben Uri. Stand in the centre of one small room, and you are surrounded by the drawings of Autobiography of a Year, produced at a time of personal turmoil when access to her studio was limited. These emotionally honest and sexually raw images lack the precision of her usual style, and offer an intimate insight into an artist whose seriousness can sometimes seem a little daunting.
“I’ve always tried to be myself, in my work and in my public life,” she says. “The artists I admire have forged their own paths and created
art of meaning in the face of an art world that too often celebrates celebrity rather than substantive art.”
• Judy Chicago, Ben Uri Gallery, 108A Boundary Road, NW8, until March 10; Judy Chicago, Riflemaker Gallery, 79 Beak Street, W1, until December 22; Death, Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, until February 24.
• Frances Borzello is an art historian and writer. Her latest book, The Naked Nude, was published in October by Thames and Hudson. She lives in Islington.