FEMINIST ART ICON JUDY CHICAGO examines the role of women and history in her paintings and collaborative art installations showcasing images of birth, creation, and power. Spread across four floors of the New Museum, Chicago’s latest retrospective is a two-part exhibition. “Herstory” presents more than six decades of Chicago’s work in various mediums, including studies for her famed installation, The Dinner Party (1974–79), which is permanently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, alongside early experimental work to her most recent pieces. “The City of Ladies” is a showcase of women artists and thinkers whose work is essential to the progression of women’s history and art, such as Hilma af Klint, Hildegard of Bingen, Simone de Beauvoir, Artemisia Gentileschi, Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf, and more. The exhibition is on view at the New Museum in New York from October 12 to January 14, 2024.
How did you first conceive of this exhibition?
In 2021, when I had my first retrospective at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the director Tom Campbell talked about how my work had been marginalized by the art world. Working with [New Museum artistic director] Massimiliano Gioni on this retrospective has helped clarify why I’ve been so marginalized.
Gioni’s doing a comprehensive retrospective of my work and then he’s having another exhibition on the fourth floor within the context of my show, called “The City of Ladies,” which chronicles an alternative art paradigm going back centuries. Most people accept the male-centered paradigm as a universal art history. It is not. It is an exclusionary art history that has not only omitted women but also artists of color, nonbinary artists, trans artists, and regional artists. In the last few decades, we’ve seen an effort to add around this patriarchal art history a few women, artists of color, and nonbinary artists without disrupting the basic institutionalized patriarchal art history.
I cannot imagine a male artist allowing the work of 80 or 90 other male artists to be in their retrospective. They don’t have to. We all have all those other artists in our head, but to properly understand my work one must be aware of this alternative paradigm of imagery, subject matter, and technique from which I have drawn. Gioni is providing an entire historic context for my work that male artists take for granted and women artists often want to be integrated into.
How did you decide on which female figures and works to include in “The City of Ladies”?
We collaborated on it. The title comes from Italian French poet Christine de Pizan’s 15th-century book of the same name. When they say two centuries of feminist struggle, that’s not accurate. Historically, the origins of contemporary feminist discourse traces back to Christine de Pizan’s “The City of Ladies,” which challenged the misogyny of Renaissance writing and stimulated a European-wide movement, called La Querelle des femmes, of intellectual discourse on the role of women. That is the beginning of modern feminism. One work in the show was created a bit earlier and it’s an illumination by saint Hildegard von Bingen, who has a place setting on The Dinner Party table, along with Christine de Pizan. The show, ultimately, is a mix of works that Gioni and I both proposed.
Let’s talk about some notable works in the show.
The imagery in Birth Hood [1965–2011] was so reviled in the ‘60s when I first made it. Originally, they were paintings in my graduate show, but my male professors hated my imagery and my colors, and they made me feel so ashamed of my natural impulses that I destroyed the paintings. I went to autobody school right out of graduate school, and I transferred some of the images from those paintings to car hoods. I put that female imagery on what was considered a predominately male object. It was one of my first images of birth.
Later, when I started “The Birth Project” [1980–85], I thought there were no images of birth in western contemporary art, other than the Madonna and child, which is not exactly expressive of the birth experience. It was until I saw the exhibition “The Great Mother,” which Gioni curated [in 2015, at the Palazzo Reale] in Milan, that I learned that was totally untrue. In all contemporary movements there are women, but when these movements are historicized, women are eliminated from the narrative.
I realized after seeing this show that I had never considered a whole other form of eraser of subject matter, such as birth, that the male-centered art world does not consider important. When I made Birth Hood , it was such an anomaly that male artists and art professors could make me feel ashamed of my impulses. As it turns out, there a whole context for that work.
Your point about multiple kinds of erasure is so important. It’s wild to think that those works exist but are still difficult to access.
Art usually grows out of art. That’s one of the problems women artists are still encountering—they don’t know their own history. And so, they reinvent the wheel and they make images that have been made multiple times before. As a result, they can’t build.
Because it has become the norm.
But for so long everyone has just accepted it.
Another work, Guided by the Goddess , picks up some of these same themes.
Yes, it’s another stage in my exploration of the subject of birth and creation. And it’s a totally different technique. It’s sprayed fabric paint, applique, embroidery, and [a] pulled thread work, [the latter of] which was executed by Marjorie Smith in Ohio. Directly on my painted fabric surface there are some types of fabric like linen, where the weave allows you to pull the thread out in a grid. There are whole areas of pull thread work, which opens the space and references the celestial sky from which the goddess descends and creates life. And then the nipples, for example, are appliqué. The whole thing is embroidered.
At five feet tall and 14 feet long, it’s a beautiful and massive piece. It really aggravated me when feminist theorists in the ‘80s said that scale is male. Scale, as a tool, conveys a certain amount of meaning.
And, as women, we should be allowed to take up space.
Right! Guided by the Goddess grew out of “The Birth Project.” I heard so many stories from so many women about the range of experiences they had had—everything from abysmal to ecstatic—that I wanted to represent many aspects of the birth experience, including the early creation myths where a female goddess creates life.
There are other works in the show that speak to different kinds of female experiences. Gun violence, for example, is taken up in In the Shadow of the Handgun [1982–87].
After spending basically 15 years in a female community, I realized that women aren’t the problem. I started shifting my focus to men and began researching gender, which in the 1980s before queer and gender studies, the only thing that came up were books on women, as if only women have gender. At the time I did [ In the Shadow of the Handgun ] in the early 1980s, male violence was a problem. Now, we live on a global level in the shadow of the handgun. And it’s promoted and mythologized in our culture.
While I was living in a house in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this guy started harassing me in the driveway and he was becoming increasingly more aggressive. I became friends with a group of young male artists, who I told about this guy. One day, they came to my house and took me to the outskirts of the city where they taught me how to use a gun for self-protection. It was unnerving—at one point, I almost show off my foot. But, at the end of the day, they gave me a gun with bullets to keep at my house. It was then I realized the secret to the patriarchy: shut up or I’ll shoot you.
There’s such a shift in the power dynamics at play, even in your personal experience, while working on In the Shadow of the Handgun . And, again, you use scale to your advantage in this painting too. What do you hope people will take away from your retrospective?
I really want young women to discover the richness of their heritage. We need context, not just shows. We need a level of knowledge that is completely lacking. The association between women and spirituality, for instance, goes back to von Bingen in the Middle Ages. Think Teresa of Ávila, Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant—they all fit into a huge tradition that has been marginalized.