Party like it’s 1979: interview with Judy Chicago

Sunday, September 27, 2015
Party like it’s 1979: interview with Judy Chicago

As befits the hospitable ethic of her best known piece of work, Judy Chicago would make a fantastic guest at any dinner party. When we meet at her London gallery, Riflemaker, the American artist is warm, whip-smart and given to infectious laughter. You might not expect a beleaguered feminist, who for most of her 50-year career has been out in the cold, to have retained such good humour.

Party like it’s 1979: interview with Judy Chicago

As befits the hospitable ethic of her best known piece of work, Judy Chicago would make a fantastic guest at any dinner party. When we meet at her London gallery, Riflemaker, the American artist is warm, whip-smart and given to infectious laughter.  You might not expect a beleaguered feminist, who for most of her 50-year career has been out in the cold, to have retained such good humour. 

“I'm just thrilled that Europe is starting to get a glimpse of my production,” she tells me. If so, we are really making up for lost time. In addition to this exhibition of early works in Soho, she has lined up shows in Bordeaux and Milan, plus a major retrospective in Bilbao. The only surprise, given the place she already has in art history, is that this display at Azkuna Zentroa will only be her first major survey.

Her place in the canon is largely on the strength of her epic 1979 installation The Dinner Party, for which she laid individualised places for no less than 39 pioneering women on a triangular banquet table. The piece took six years to make and cost some $250,000, the product of extensive research, needlework, ceramic making, and industrial design.  

Judy Chicago, Optical Shapes #4. From: Minimal, 1969. Acrylic on mat board. 11 x11 in. 

The industrial side of the operation may still surprise some who dismiss the landmark artwork as an exercise in craft: “We had to design the technology for each plate,” she says, pointing to one or two of the test plates on show at Riflemaker. “Those were fired probably fourteen times. Then I decided that I wanted the plates to rise up; that's why I took so long”.

Rise up, her plates do, often with imagery associated with the much-feared female anatomy. It is a language that Chicago has stuck with throughout her career, even if, at one time, “The imagery was greeted with shrieks of horror”. Now an early example of this outrageous behaviour can be sampled in the pop art show at Tate Modern, where you can find such gynaecological motifs on car bonnets. 

The artist took a course in automotive bodywork painting, and in the 60s art scene of LA, this can be seen as a way to have played the macho minimalists at their own game.

Judy Chicago. Ceramic Goddess #3. From: The Dinner Party - Test plates, Studies, & Ancillaries, 1977. Glazed porcelain. 5 x2.25 x1.25in. 

“Right from the beginning of my career I had very large ambitions,” Chicago insists. “My father really raised me with the idea that it was my responsibility to try and make a contribution to the world and from the beginning I've always thought large.” The artist describes a family fuelled by a radical belief in the equal rights for women, whose only fault was to leave her unprepared for the opposing views of the rest of the world.

When asked how she coped with the vilification which beset her from male critics, Chicago admits, “I cried a lot”. But then she turns deadly serious: “I’m going to tell you how I did it, Okay?” As anyone would be given this air of candour, I’m all ears, as Chicago relates the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in America: “She was spat upon by women in the streets and I thought if she could do it, I could do it. And that’s why learning about women’s history was so empowering to me.”

Whether considering new technology or gaps in world history, you soon realise that research is a big part of Chicago’s practice.

Judy Chicago. Petronilla de Meath - Illuminated Letter Study. From: The Dinner Party - Test plates, Studies, & Ancillaries, 1977. Prismacolor on rag paper. 15 x 22 in. 

In addition to Doctor Blackwell, she draws on references to 6thcentury Byzantine empress Theodora, the first major female composer Ethel Smyth and gender bending novelist George Eliot. “You’d never imagine I’d published 14 books,” she says. It’s true, but only because it is hard to imagine any visual artist to find time for such an endeavour.

“I was deep in research about women’s history and I had discovered that in all cultures in the world, prior to patriarchal deity or a male deity, peoples of the world had worshipped female deities,” she says, pointing out a small, highly charged sculpture based on the prehistoric figurine of the Woman of Willendorf. The gender of paleolithic artists is a subject up for current debate, but my attempt to draw Chicago into this is met with, at first light speculation, then a quite disarming question: “What do you think?”

It seems there is no period of history in which Chicago does not have a professional interest, and so the impromptu lesson continues. “You know during the renaissance, the prevailing idea developed that only men have the power to infuse an image with life, that a woman and a woman’s womb is nothing.” Aristotle’s idea that said body part is a mere ‘receptacle’ is treated with derision: “I mean, a more misogynist argument is hard to find”.

Judy Chicago. Study for Flight Hood. From: Early Work, 2011. Acrylic on rag paper. 22 x 30 in. 

But no matter how outmoded the ancient Greek idea, Chicago will still take it on. She points out that her show in Bilbao will demonstrate her career-long challenge to “phallocentric culture”, to borrow a phrase from her curator Xabier Arakistain. Visitors will encounter a prolific, “effort to make a place for female-centric imagery that would be as respected as the respect we ascribe to men’s creation”.

“Sexism is really not a woman's problem,” she continues. “It’s men's problem. Men are sexist. Men are disfigured by sexism and men are the ones who are standing in the way of women”.  After many years of fighting this battle, it is a wonder that Chicago can still sound so bemused by it. But perhaps there are the signs that artistically, she is beginning to prevail.

Asked why Europe is now waking up to her work, she says with characteristic excitement: “I don't know, I don't care. I think it's great…I used to go around saying, I wonder if I'll live long enough for the rest of my body of work to emerge from the shadow of The Dinner Party.” Now that it has, one can only toast her belated success. Everyone is invited.

Judy Chicago. Mother Superette, 1963 © Judy Chicago/Riflemaker. Photo: Donald Woodman

Image on top: Judy Chicago. Theodora Test Plate #7. From: The Dinner Party - Test plates, Studies, & Ancillaries, 1975-1978. China paint on porcelain. 14 in. diameter, 1.5 in. depth 

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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie‐Thérèse), executed 4 December 1937. Oil on canvas. 24⅛ x 18⅛ in (61.2 x 46.1 cm)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie‐Thérèse), executed 4 December 1937. Oil on canvas. 24⅛ x 18⅛ in (61.2 x 46.1 cm)

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