Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 22, 2022
Judy Chicago: A Retrospective
de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA, August 28, 2021–January 9, 2022
Judy Chicago and Donald Woodman, Rainbow Shabbat, 1992, stained glass, 4 ft. 6 in. x 17 ft. (1.37 x 5.18 m). Fabrication by Bob Gomez, glass painting by Dorothy Maddy. Collection Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation (© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society, New York; photograph © Donald Woodman/ARS)

Judy Chicago’s smoke-and-fireworks performance Forever de Young, on October 16, 2021, drew thousands of people to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This site-specific performance was planned in conjunction with Chicago’s first retrospective exhibition, held at the de Young Museum. The early fall day was beautiful, and the number of new COVID-19 cases had dipped, lending the outdoor gathering an upbeat aura. Expectation built for the crowd as Thomas Campbell, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Claudia Shmuckli, the museums’ curator of contemporary art; Jordan Schnitzer, sponsor of the exhibition; and Judy Chicago herself each presented brief introductions. At last, standing high above the gathering on a platform—like a conductor—Chicago gestured and thick plumes of red, purple, yellow, green, orange, magenta, and white smoke began to surge from a complex scaffolding erected in front of the museum, eliciting excited comments and “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd. A little girl, sitting behind me on her father’s shoulders, breathlessly announced the colors as they burst into the air. 

The fifteen minutes of pyrotechnics were heightened by thin streams of color and crackling, puffy firecrackers bursting into the sky, which evoked more thrilled exclamations from the crowd. And then, there we were an assemblage of people who had just shared something we have been missing: being together in a public place, beholding a display of jewel-toned pyrotechnics in Golden Gate Park. The sensory experience evoked nostalgic memories of prepandemic life and was a reminder of the potential of art to shift our perspective on the everyday. It was also uplifting to witness the artist—a force at age eighty-two—performing a new version of her Atmospheres series, which she began more than fifty years ago as a feminizing contradiction to the invasive Land art practices of male artists during the 1960s and 1970s.  

Judy Chicago: A Retrospective took a deep look at Chicago’s early life and work before she shifted her focus to creating a personal visual language for the experience of being female. The show’s earliest works dated from the mid-1960s, the period when Chicago was learning pyrotechnics as a means to release color into the air and experimenting with creating color systems that would make forms appear to be dissolving. The Atmospheres was also a critical way for Chicago to claim her identity as an independent woman artist and a feminist during the 1960s and 1970s while she was living in the macho art culture of Los Angeles. In addition to pyrotechnics, Chicago became conversant with other traditionally male genres including auto-body spray painting on car hoods, which she feminized with her own color palette and stylized sexual imagery. She also explored creating large-scale sculpture with sprayed fiberglass over cardboard tubes. In 1970 she made the decision to change her surname from Gerowitz (her maiden name) to Chicago (her place of birth) and declared the name change a feminist act with an announcement in Artforum. In her remarks during a walk-through of the exhibition on August 16, 2021, Shmuckli described Chicago’s breakaway ambitions during this period as “feminizing the atmosphere with her colors. Her intention was to build ephemeral sculptures in the air with color, and it represents a continuity with when she was working with airbrush and color systems.”

To upstage audience expectations in experiencing the breadth of Chicago’s oeuvre, especially the art world’s preoccupation with Chicago’s earlier work, an atypical curatorial choice was made to direct the viewer in reverse chronological order through the exhibition. This choice was dramatically augmented by installing Mortality Relief (2016), a life-size cast bronze life mask of the artist, as prologue to the exhibition. This introductory gallery of Chicago’s most recent work included The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2016), a series of twenty-eight pieces that are a contemplation on loss, environmental demise, species extinction, and the artist’s own death. The melancholy aura of these themes, questions, and images, rendered on black glass, was reinforced by low lighting in the space. The ambience was intimate, compelling the viewer to slow down and look more thoughtfully, setting a tone for moving through the remainder of the exhibition. As Shmuckli explained to me in a phone interview that I conducted with her on October 19, 2021: 

For an artist who is so vital and engaged with the present time, who is alive and working and making such important work about climate change, extinction, and mortality . . . it just felt like the right choice to bring the viewer into this room and to impress on them they’re dealing with an artist who is not just a historical figure, but who is still deeply engaged with the most pressing social issues of our time. 

As I walked through the galleries, I was reminded that Judy Chicago has always been deeply immersed in the social issues she believes to be the most pressing. This was underscored while reconsidering The Dinner Party (1974–79), the legendary installation that capped Chicago’s feminist awakenings during the early 1970s. Chicago’s most celebrated and excoriated work, The Dinner Party honors 1,038 women in Western history, 39 of whom are represented at the monumental triangular table by elaborate needlework runners and ceramic plates with centralized, often vulvar, motifs. Ironically, while the piece has drawn record attendance at museums since its first showing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1979, has traveled around the world, and was acquired by the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum twenty years ago, its notoriety has largely obscured Chicago’s work since that time. The curatorial choice to represent The Dinner Party in this retrospective with drawings, sketchbooks, a floor plan, cartoons for banners, and test plates was a way to enable an understanding of the piece, along with its controversies and its significance.   

It has been pointed out that Chicago’s creative output from the 1980s and 1990s, which was a prolific time for her, has had little exposure. That fruitful period for Chicago was represented here with PowerPlay (1982–87), a series of paintings that subvert traditional ideas about male privilege and accepted codes of masculinity. With their monumental scale and stylized images of hostile men controlling women and annihilating the world, these paintings remain shockingly relevant today. In related ways, her Holocaust ProjectFrom Darkness into Light (1985–93) addresses the foundational narratives about the Jewish Holocaust; the ways in which the histories of women and people of color were excluded from those narratives; and how the emergence of humanism and the scientific and industrial revolutions in Western Europe created conditions that made possible the mechanization of mass murder. What is noteworthy here is how Chicago epitomizes and challenges men’s predisposition toward domination and punctuates her defiance with an alternative point of view in Rainbow Shabbat (1992), a grand-scale stained-glass piece that offers an image of a more humane, inclusive world.  

It was a relief to move from these somber themes into Chicago’s next work, The Birth Project (1980–85), which celebrates the generative power and capacity of women, as well as the sensuous and graphically interwoven creation myths of women and the world. This segue is analogous to Chicago’s long-ago realization that “if the art world as it existed could not provide me with what I needed then I would have to commit myself to creating an alternative” (The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago, Thames & Hudson, 2021, 54). As I walked through the exhibition’s final gallery, filled with a processional of elegant banners from her series The Female Divine (2020) that pose speculative responses to the question, “What If Women Ruled the World?” it became clear that while Chicago may not have answers to her existential questions, she is always willing to choose hope.

It is important to note that Judy Chicago’s work has been a defining part of the zeitgeist, both locally and outside the Bay Area, with her creations featured in many group and solo exhibitions in the last five years, including these 2021 exhibitions: Judy Chicago: Cohanim (Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco); Human Geometries (Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco); New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century (Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley); and Judy Chicago: Dry Ice, Smoke, and Fireworks Archive (Nevada Museum of Art, Reno). Judy Chicago: A Retrospective is the most comprehensive exhibition to date, offering a sweeping overview of her career and the experiences and milieu that have helped shape her vision.

Terri Cohn
Writer, Curator, Independent Scholar