Forever de Young: Judy Chicago’s Pyrotechnic ‘Atmospheres’

Judy Chicago promoting Atmospheres

Fall colors abound every autumn, swirling around in the air as they dance making shapes visible and invisible. And, for visitors to — or lucky viewers of —  San Francisco’s de Young Museum this Saturday, October 16 (6 pm),  fall will also bring an additional riot of color . . . in smoke art! As a part of  Judy Chicago: A Retrospective, the artist’s current exhibition is marked with a free performance of one of her pyrotechnic “Atmospheres.” So either gather outdoor of the main entrance or fire up your computer or smart tv for a color immersion meant to feminize us! 

Judy Chicago working on Atmospheres

Legendary artist, feminist, and art educator Judy Chicago will perform in person her piece titled Forever de Young: A Judy Chicago Atmosphere.  This medium uses the air as a canvas for her colored smoke and firework experience. But pay attention to its title: Forever de Young. At age 81, this is Chicago’s first retrospective, the de Young is responsible for a long-overdue celebration of her work. But in this case, punning with the museum name hearkens to her longevity, her youthful spirit, and the regenerative nature of her subject matter. Judy Chicago’s oeuvre is glittered with pieces that deal with life and death like the Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light, or 2015-2016’s mixed-media serial sculptures, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, wherein the artist contemplates extinction and eco-anxiety. Or 1980-1985’s Birth Project, which featured a succession of painting, quilting and needlepoint work representing images of birthing, from the crowning head of babies to a mother’s transformation. 

Not only does Chicago work with primal themes, but her consistency is found in her subject: women and history — and more importantly, their herstories. Yet her mediums are purposely inconsistent, and hard to pin down. She is the genuine article, blazing trails (or is it air?) as an interdisciplinary artist, has worked creatively and boldly with paint, mixed medium, sculpture, lecture, video, poetry, fireworks and glass (what she calls fringe techniques). Like her subject matter, such as gender equality and body positivity, dealers and viewers have also been made uncomfortable by not knowing how to categorize her. For reasons the Guerrilla Girls regularly expose, the money-driven, male-dominated art world did not promote her work. 

In fact, the pieces she is most known for, The Dinner Party, shown primarily between 1974 and 1979, took 30 years to find a permanent home at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. In the Dinner Party, strong women and female figures (who we might know more about today, thanks to feminists like her breaking the pink ceiling) were re-included in the history of Western Civilization. Turning the male insistence of women in private and domestic spheres on its head, the piece is made of tables, or “wings” aligned in a triangle with plates, runners, and settings for various goddesses and female figures forgotten (or rather, erased) by male-dominated narratives of history, such as the Snake Goddess of a female-centric Minoan Crete, the great lesbian poet Sappho, Boedeccia (a real Celtic woman warrior), Emily Dickinson and even Queen Elizabeth.

The Dinner Party demands we contemplate gender roles, the divine feminine, diversity of femaleness, enclosures, and what it means to consume. Using ceramics, textures, beadwork, mosaics, vulvic motifs,  dimension, psychedelic patternings, and incredible glaze and color, (reminiscent of transcendentalist painter Agnes Peleton), this piece now celebrates its 40th anniversary and is the impetus — alongside the 100th anniversary of US women’s right to vote—  for Judy Chicago: A Retrospective.

This is somehow Judy Chicago’s first retrospective; through prints, drawings, ceramics, films, ephemera, and nearly 130 paintings, long overdue attention is brought to old and new audiences, priming us to move into post–patriarchy. Continuing to make waves, and communicate urgency and burden of care on women’s shoulders. The exhibition opens with moving back in time. Jori Finkel, in writing for the Art Newspaper, described the exhibit as: 

 . . . confrontational. . . Right away at the entrance, you encounter powerful images that the artist, 82, recently made in attempt to envision her own death.
On the opposite wall are leaked pictures she made of animals nearing extinction, from sea turtles to elephants, accompanied by her precise descriptions of
how people are inadvertently or intentionally killing them. Most of the images are small but mesmerizing, done in kiln-fired glass paint on black glass that
reflects your own image as well. Welcome to the end of the world, and you are implicated.

Highlighting the connection between viewer and artist, woman and their oppression, cycles of life and death, humans and their end on earth, Judy Chicago does not stop upturning patriarchal structures. In her reel for the Nevada Museum of Art, working against the idea of land art as a “mainly masculine pursuit,” she did not want to create by dominating nature, so she devised painting in the air using colored smokes over fireworks. In her own words, the work can be seen “as emotive color in the air to be experienced, and enjoyed…I’ve always been interested as in my smoke pieces as a gesture of liberation.”  She had wondered, “Can images be made with colored smokes and fireworks?” — and so, always innovating, she answered with techniques like lance work. It demands hand-building a framework to support designs so that when lit an image emerges. See her piece Pacific Standard Time or the Butterfly of Oakland created by emphasizing the femaleness of a butterfly shape.

Watch a special “Atmospheres” piece on the Forever deYoung livestream on Saturday, October 16, 6 pm on their Youtube channel: .

Oh, and to note: The ever-open artist who defies your expectations, Chicago doesn’t deny men; in fact, she collaborates and creates with her husband, photographer Don Woodman. Together they create and capture “Atmospheres” and run Through the Flower Art Space.

The de Young Museum exhibition is until January 22, 2022.


© Katherine Factor (1o/14/21) for FF2 Media.



Featured Photo: Judy Chicago, 2020 Photograph © Donald Woodman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Middle Photo: Judy Chicago, “On Fire at 80”, 2019 Archival Inkjet Print 24 x 30 1/8 in. (61 x 76.5 cm) © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; Jessica Silverman, San Francisco; and Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles.

Bottom Photo: “The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago” by @KevinCase is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Taken on February 7, 2015.


Tags: Birth Project, de Young Museum, Forever deYoung, International SWANs, iswans, Judy Chicago, Judy Chicago: A Retrospective, katherine factor, Support Women Artists Now, The Dinner Party

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Katherine Factor is an editor, book coach, and educator. Her debut poetry book, 'A Sybil Society' won the Test Site Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from the University of Nevada Press. She has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The author of three Choose Your Own Adventure books, more about her work can be found at
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