Sunday, July 20, 2008

Happy Birthday, Judy Chicago!

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It's the birthday of feminist artist Judy Chicago, (books by this author) born Judy Cohen, in Chicago (1939). She grew up in a secular Jewish family and her father was, according to her, "an atheist, a radical, and a labor organizer." She began drawing when she was a toddler and from a very early age she knew she wanted to be an artist. She said, "Because my mother worked and because I saw women participating fully in all the discussions that went on in the house, I grew up with the sense that I could do what I wanted and be what I wanted." At age eight, she started taking Saturday lessons at the Chicago Art Institute.

Her father died when she was 13, and the event was for her particularly traumatic, shadowing her teenage years. When she graduated from high school, she was given a scholarship to study art. She left the Midwest for Southern California and went to UCLA to do a bachelor's and M.F.A. in art. She has noted that while she was there, she encountered several barriers that stemmed from male chauvinism. The art department didn't give teaching assistant stipends to women painters, so she had to teach in the sculpture section instead. Some of her master's advisers found that her work was too full of female genitalia and other "biomorphic imagery," which they found offensive, and they told her that they would no longer support her thesis if she continued to incorporate such imagery. She altered her art so that it became less graphic and more abstract.

She married a fellow student and thereby became Judy Gerowitz. Her husband died in a car accident, however, just a few years after they had married.

Five years after she received her master's, the Pasadena Art Museum featured her work in a solo show. Over the next many years, she devoted increasing energies to spotlighting women artists and their art. She founded the Feminist Studio Workshop in Los Angeles, which promoted art as well as leadership, and she saw to the opening of the Woman's Building, a facility for feminist political organizations, theater groups, and media. At one of her art shows, she posted an announcement: "Judy Gerowitz divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and freely chooses her own name, Judy Chicago."

She published an autobiography in 1975, Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist. Some critics thought it a significant contribution to feminist literature, but the book was widely disparaged for sloppy and clichéd writing.

She is perhaps best known for her piece "The Dinner Party," which opened to the public in 1979 at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. It's a huge triangular banquet table with 39 full place settings, each for a significant woman in mythology or history. The Fertility goddess, Saint Bridget, Amazon, Sacajawea, Hildegard of Bingen, Susan B. Anthony, Emily Dickinson, Margaret Sanger, Virginia Woolf, and Georgia O'Keeffe are all honored with place settings—which include golden chalices, embroidered runners, and intricate porcelain plates.

Judy Chicago documented the process of making the exhibit, which took five years and the collaboration of many skilled artists, in The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage (1979) and Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework (1980). It's now on permanent exhibition at the New York's Brooklyn Museum.

She said, "I am trying to make art that relates to the deepest and most mythic concerns of human kind, and I believe that, at this moment of history, feminism is humanism."

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