With a career spanning five decades, Judy Chicago’s career is difficult to pin down into one neat category. But that itself is undeniably evocative of Chicago’s life and work at large has sought to shine a light and empower those society previously placed at the bottom of the pile. From her landmark contributions to feminist art to her ties to the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), it is clear that Chicago’s life and work have fought for political change.
Her work itself incorporates a variety of techniques which stray from traditional fine arts, including needlework welding and pyrotechnics. But she is most known for her large collaborative art installations which centre on the topic of birth and creation, in turn probing the role of women throughout the world’s history and cultures.
Growing up in Chicago as the daughter of a Marxist Rabbi undoubtedly helped to shape the views of Judith Sylvia Cohen (Judy Chicago). Of course, due to her father’s Marxist tendencies, he became under fire during the era of McCarthyism. But while her father may have shaped many of her views, her mother, May Cohen, likely imbued her with a passion for the arts. Herself a former dancer, May encouraged her children to pursue arts, taking Judy to attend classes at the Art Institute of Chicago as early as age 3.
Throwing herself head-first into the arts, Judy enrolled at UCLA where she juggled artistic ambition and political activity. While here, she became closely associated with the NAACP first designing posters for the UCLA chapter, then eventually becoming its corresponding secretary.
While studying, she married Jerry Gerowitz. However, their life together was tragically cut short when Gerowitz died in a car crash in 1963. This event profoundly affected Judy, with her grad school series Bigamy drawing on the traumatic experience of her husband’s death.
In 1965, Chicago held her first solo show at the Rolf Nelson Gallery in Los Angeles which set the precedence moving forwards. While she was one of the few female artists to be featured at the gallery, Chicago made a clear statement to never “show in any group defined as Woman, Jewish or California” exclaiming that “someday when we all grow up there will be no labels”.
This strong idealist stance towards identity fueled Judy’s name change. Born Cohen, and (at this point) holding her deceased husband’s name, Gerowitz, Judy decided to change her name to something independent of connection to male-centric marriage or heritage. Rolf Nelson, the gallery owner, had nicknamed her Judy Chicago because of her strong Chicago accent, and the name stuck.
During the 1970s, feminist art came into full force. At this time, Judy was teaching full-time at Fresno State College. Here, she crafted a landmark Feminist Art Program which solidified herself as one of the first-generation feminist artists. In such a way, it is fair to say that one of her most notable works is the education and empowerment of young female artists in the 1970s.
Looking at more physical works, The Dinner Party (1979), now housed in the Brooklyn Museum, is a work which came to define her career and goals. Itself a large triangle consisting of 39 individually laid dining places, The Dinner Party commemorates 39 historical and mythical female figures.
Birth Project (1985) was yet another large scale work which took five years to create. The piece used images of childbirth as icons to celebrate woman’s role as mother, directly opposing the idea that the biblical act of Genesis could have only involved a male got and a male human.
The Holocaust Project (1985-93) shifted Chicago’s focus beyond female identity, into an exploration of masculine power and powerlessness in the context of the holocaust—of course also encouraging a reconnection with her Jewish identity. Completed in collaboration with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, the project explored victimization, oppression, injustice and human cruelty through the lens of WWII’s greatest tragedy.
Reflecting on Judy Chicago’s work today, it is clear that she, among other first wave feminist artists, was a powerful component in the leveling of gender playing fields. And with that in mind, I would suggest her greatest works of art was her time spent as an impassioned educator, with strong, progressive values. As through providing countless female artists with power, voice and inspiration, Chicago could easily be argued as one of the most important American artists of the late 20th century.