Art heals. I spend a great deal of time reading and writing about that healing as critically as possible: How well and how much does art heal? When is it too late, when is it insufficient and when has it left out those who need it most?
But in this immediate cultural moment, after news of an ongoing humanitarian crisis remains on our feeds, and New York City continues its own social struggles, I approached the New Museum’s Herstory, a first retrospective of American artist Judy Chicago, with nothing but the urgency to seek out art as a salve for this aching feeling. Auspiciously, Judy’s work centers many healing concepts in art, such as revising, recalibrating, and honoring the past. In fact, on the first of four floors dedicated to the exhibition, we read that her deep research of Western women’s cultural history arose, in her words: “out of a desperate need to find out if there had been any women before [her] who had faced the kinds of obstacles [she] was encountering.”
If any desperation, urgency, or need is already present, I predict Herstory can light a path toward a moment of personal peace.
A “desperate need” may not be a prerequisite for appreciating this thoroughly researched and rigorously well-curated exhibition, which spans decades of feminist history and social justice movements in the hands of one of the USA’s most pioneering and prolific 20th/21st century artists. But if any desperation, urgency, or need is already present, I predict Herstory can light a path toward a moment of personal peace.
Herstory comprises four stories of Manhattan’s eight story New Museum, which juts up from the Bowery in a teetering stack of metal boxes. The floor-by-floor, upward-and-onward layout is itself an insightful way to either see Judy’s work for the first time, or to experience it on a deeper level. She is perhaps best known for her installation The Dinner Party, an enormous three-pointed banquet table set in a room with glossy black walls which is permanently installed at the nearby Brooklyn Museum (only a few miles away on the other side of the East River).
The Dinner Party’s table is heavily laden with surprising meals, but put a pin in that. Before dissecting the contents of The Dinner Party, it’s important to note how to experience it: unable to see everything at once, the viewer must go for a walk in the round. At Herstory too, the viewer must walk: look up, look down, look at reflections on shining surfaces, and then tread on. After finishing one floor at Herstory, you reenter a mirrored elevator. You travel up. You end in a glass box filled with natural light called the Sky Room (just as you exit the dimly-lit Dinner Party to a renewed sense of light and air).
May this highly abridged breakdown of each floor be an incentive to go and see it for yourself. First up, then down, then perhaps around again.
With the depth and breadth of the works on view — both a thorough representation of Judy’s best and lesser known works, as well as a lexicon of women artists who have influenced her throughout her research — there is, regrettably, no way to cover all the stars of this show. May this highly abridged breakdown of each floor be an incentive to go and see it for yourself. First up, then down, then perhaps around again.
The first floor of the Herstory exhibit (which actually Floor 2 in the New Museum — please bear with me) lays the foundation for some essential themes that Judy’s work explores. Floor 3, and Floor 4 of the exhibit complicate and expand on these themes, and on the top floor, we see how her work and ideas thrust into the future.
Judy Chicago is known as one of the pre-eminent American feminist artists. And true enough; she was active in the 60s and 70s, joining the women’s lib movement, collaborating with other significant feminist artistic and political voices of the movement, and exploring both the art history and contemporary iconographies of varied female identities, including female oppression, trauma, connection, and liberation.
That said, her work has always been excitingly intersectional, putting feminism in conversation with a complex network of identities and ways of thinking. Claiming any essentialism in Judy’s feminism is to put the cart before the horse. As the quote on Judy’s Western women’s history research states, rather than intentionally spark a movement, she wanted to find people from the past to relate to. Thus, the needs that the first two waves of Western feminism articulated were within Judy before there was a name for it. This is a cultural moment we don’t often talk about. There was the history before feminist thinking, there were the ideologies of the movement, and there are the results of it today. But in her early work, we see that critical moment before the movement, and the way it ignited a spark.
Floor 2 best exemplifies this idea through minimalist, monolithic sculptures that Judy refers to as her macho-arts (possibly short for machine or mechanical). These early 60’s works don’t immediately suggest form, instead they celebrate material and skillfully deploy abstraction. Walking Floor 2 is like wandering through dreamlike industrial ruins: a rainbow of sharp beams, a forest of fiberglass cylinders, a row of car hoods coated in bright lacquered designs. Her “machos” reveal how feminism remains a central concept – but not limiting concept. By taking materials of male-dominated industries and cultures, like automotive (cars and boats), pyrotechnics, as well as the traditionally-male size – big – she denies the call to create soft, domestic and demure work. Beyond a subtle acknowledgement of gender disparity, Judy levels the artistic playing field by embracing vocational forms of craft; for example, her fiberglass practice emerged from formal training at boat building school. She likewise appropriates recognizable media like car parts and spray paint to pull trade work into the discourse of art making; an idea only just beginning to emerge for fine arts of any gender identity.
Floor 2 also covers The Dinner Party, with sketches and notes describing the process that began her best known work. Again, this project demonstrates Judy’s appreciation for abstraction and the acknowledgement of how labor and work beyond the artistic elite contribute to her practice. It’s easy enough to render a phallus, and artists named and otherwise have never hesitated to do so. But Judy’s dinner party plates – while undeniably representing vulvas as the meals – stay in the ambiguous space of organic things of light and shadow. She uses an anatomically unspecific palette, carefully drawn with colored pencil. Given the tone of the decade, it’s unlikely she feared censorship; rather, her choice to remain abstract over rendering vulvas from life opens possibilities for the viewer. It allows us to stay in contemplation, to consider diversity and the collective, to think narratively as our imagination is pulled by the patterns of many plates, a table laid with many women.
The exhibition text notes that “volunteer artisans” created the porcelains that ended up as the vulva sculptures of The Dinner Party. Aware of her love for Western art history and her search for her kin, I cannot help but think of Clara Driscoll and her staff of working class female laborers responsible for bringing to life the stained glass designs of Louis Comfort Tiffany. You can visit the American Wing at The Met and admire a fountain’s lush stained glass, and see from the caption how countless New York City women are remembered as “the workshop” of Tiffany. The Dinner Party craftswomen also remain nameless, but Herstory highlights volunteer efforts throughout the exhibition – which marks a change in the way we regard labor and art making, a shift both aided and supported by Judy.
Floor 3 offers a great contrast to the macho arts, greeting viewers without the cold shine of industrial material but with the soft touch of fiber. First we see a comfortable hearth; giant tapestries explore different motifs of the body, and cover all manner of techniques, from embroidery to crotchet, to weaving, to various printing and pigmenting practices. The wall text among these tapestries reveals that as Judy’s work gathered momentum, she received over three hundred unsolicited letters from volunteer embroiderers who wanted to join her projects. On view hang the results of her willingness to take on all these skilled needle artists inspired by her work.
Once more, Judy demonstrates a reverence of material for materials sake; her fiber practice is deeply entwined with “women’s work” while simultaneously pushing the bounds of the medium, and celebrating the collaboration that her materials require. In these tapestries, her work lives far outside any narrative. Indeed, traversing so many materials throughout her career, Judy’s work in general suggests that narrative itself, might be inherently part of a patriarchy. Our storytelling impulses feed the Western canon that her work attempts to rewrite. Her decision to tell stories not through allegory but through material, scale, and abstraction signifies that she has always been interested in human connection, and the human connection to the physical world, to nature.
That said, Floor 3 presents her work with narrative and allegory too. Fittingly, she employs it to discuss concepts that expand outside her feminist framework… by directly examining masculinity, violence, and destruction. To tackle these ideas, being explicit comes in handy. Her PowerPlay series of looming male portraits depicting everything from anguish to urination, for example, leave little doubt of their subject. With works depicting extinction, we see the animals. Most direct, perhaps, her Holocaust series appears first as a dark room with stained glass panels, backlit for maximum brightness. On closer examination, the Jewish stories on view borrow only their style from medieval church windows; the narratives are inescapably from the 20th century.
On Floor 4, Judy’s “City of Ladies” stands as the show’s greatest triumph. This proposed “personal museum” in which Judy curates a group exhibition of women artists who have inspired her, emphasizes the artist’s generosity and curiosity for the collective work of art making. It also strengthens her thesis on the need to “make a contribution to art history” by revising it. Here, not only does the patriarchy come under fire, but museum pedagogy itself. The “City of Ladies” offers an “introspective” rather than “retrospective” point of view on the act of viewing art, inviting viewers not to revere the austerity of art history, but to identify with it.
This is not a white cube or a salon tiled in gold frames. The room’s layout, lit like as though with a fireplace, recalls The Dinner Party — the repetition of a powerful V shape appearing in the butter yellow walls spreading out from a central altar of Venuses and vulvas, and reappearing in the posture of a large open illuminated manuscript suspended in a glass case. Even the persistent sound of a violin adds another V. In celebrating the female contributions to Western material culture, yes, the classics are here: Georgia O’Keeffe, Emily Dickinson, Meret Oppenheim, a white and purple suffragette banner. But in an homage to Judy’s perspective, allow me to list a few other guests at this table, whose names haven’t permeated the same membrane of popular culture. She includes: Russian artist Varvara Stepanova (whose early 20th century textile designs continue to shape modern design), Argentinian artist Leonore Fini and American artist Dorothea Tanning (who both contributed to multiple surrealist movements), and American Pueblo painter Pablita Velarde.
Finally on Floor 7, lives Judy Chicago’s most recent and ongoing project: an elaborate mixed media quilt that continues to document the women of history and today; this time entirely in the hands of her collaborators. Here there is no glass and no museum lighting — fresh with natural light, the quilts invite such closeness that you can make out lint on black velvet. There is no end to the discovery as you read, look, and lean into this collective sculpture. This growing quilt testifies to her life’s work according to Herstory: we are connected, we are together.
In Judy Chicago’s world, we are definitely not one, but a beautiful, important many.
© Allison Green (12/6/23) – Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Visit the Judy Chicago exhibit at The New Museum in New York.
Watch Judy Chicago in conversation with The New Museum.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Judy Chicago with her ”Find It in Your Heart” wooden sculpture in the Through the Flower Art Space gallery in 2019. Photograph by Greg Sorber for the Albuquerque Journal. Alamy Image ID: W2W09X
Middle Photo: Photo of Pablita Velarde’s “Santa Cruz Women Before The Altar” (1933). Photo by Allison Green for FF2 Media. Approved by FF2 for responsible use provided that user includes credit line with link to this post.
Bottom Photo: Partial view of Floor 4’s “City of Ladies.” (Banner at the top is part of The Dinner Party.) Photo by Allison Green for FF2 Media. Approved by FF2 for responsible use provided that user includes credit line with link to this post.