At the New Museum: Judy Chicago: Herstory 10/12/23-1/14/24, by Elizabeth Ashe

It’s all about relationships, of women, and animals, with our earth and each other, powerful women, women artists; women’s lives, women’s views on birth and death, and women’s community, because this is a very personal art, and Judy Chicago is a woman, but also part of the human community, and as she illustrates the stages of life on our earth, of people and animals, she forms a community for all of us. 

The New Museum is an ideal spot to showcase Judy Chicago’s long career.  A museum of intimate spaces becomes expansive, as each gallery relates to another. The museum designed by architects (SANAA / Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa), both women, establishes an architectural polylogue as each room and each floor flows to another. On the first floor, Chicago’s crisp lined, colorfully Minimalist — “Rainbow Picket” (1965/2021) and “Trinity,” (1965/2019) recently in the Whitney’s In the Balance exhibition, are architectural, like a pivot point to a body or landscape unlike the male artist object-based Minimalism of the 1960’s.  Chicago learned new skills, auto shop painting resulting in the production of these clean, still, and precise artworks. They are engaging and take up space (in a good way). When first shown, this difference from New York Minimalists was treated negatively. As a Californian I may be biased, but they were doing something that New Yorkers weren’t bothering to do, producing shiny, smooth finishes, industrial finishes, like cars and motorcycles on the streets of SoCal., the subject of banter by male artists in Barney’s Beanery. Chicago was creating objects, craft, with industrial finishes like that in Carhood, a vaginal form mounted on a car hood. In 1965, Chicago dealt with the problem of color, explored by Chicago in Rainbow Picket, cited by Clement Greenberg in his review of the show at the Jewish Museum in 1966 as the best work in Primary Structures, and exhibited again now at the New Museum show.  At the New Museum, Herstory’s 10 Part Cylinders (1966/2019) using prefabricated cardboard tubes and fiberglass, are freeway underpasses turned into bodies and vessels, but also, neutral bodies in a room with relationships to one another. As Minimalist, they engage with their site, creating bold shadows and optical color shifts as the viewer moves around them. 

Room 2 shows a series of “Dinner Party” paintings like star notations, the Reincarnation Triptych and The Great Ladies series (1973) in which designs serve as precursors to those in The Dinner Party plates using the same color sensitivity and smoothness. The centralized images almost vibrate. They are two-dimensional dance steps between her minimalism and feminism. So much of Chicago’s work nearly vibrates, whether paintings or weavings, like heat and color resonating into making an oasis in the desert. They are thoughtful. The energy works to pull you in and blur out everything else that could vie for your attention. Five test plates and thirty-nine drawings for the Dinner Party, an iconic sculptural work produced first in 1972 and now in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum are on display here. The drawings are elegant, timeless, and transition from abstraction to literal imagery. In the same room as the large paintings, it is easy to see that it is natural for Chicago to work in a series, and how the central compositions evolved easily to multiple circular plates, each devoted to a woman left out of the historical, political, literary, or artistic canon, and here literally given a seat at the table.  I am glad that the test plates importantly show Chicago’s process and craft to produce objects used by women in a domestic setting, worthy of exhibition, fine craft. And it dawns on me — Chicago was writing in cursive on her work in the 1970’s, and still does. The perfect cursive frames different series, either as a wrap-around frame to a painting, “Dinner Party” place-setting, or as a caption to a direct image. Even when written in pencil or other media, it looks almost like embroidery. The feminist ethos was forming as she chose her last name and moved deeper to the push and pull of bodies, circles, and birth imagery. 

And then, Womanhouse, which turned fifty last year. Johanna Dematrakas’s video of Womanhouse is set to a sultry burlesque soundtrack when it focuses on images. The music stops when artists are talking together, or when an occasional solo talk with a guy about women’s experience takes place. A set of framed photographs are on the wall, and artifacts are in a large display case/table. It has been two decades since I learned about and studied the project, and Sandra Orgel’s “Linen Closet” still grabs me the most. The nude mannequin, sliced and fit into the shelves with two limbs reaching out to escape or pull in more linens to fold, shows how numb and disembodying the endless actions of a housewife can be. It broke so many walls, opened conversations, and revealed physical realities between genders. Womanhouse broke women from working in isolation and built community. It was a canon barrage for the Second Wave Feminist Movement. I’m grateful artists had their handheld video cameras and documented what they were doing, because the video breached ideas of domestic space as somewhere private and gave more and lasting validity to their work. 


There are videos of Atmospheres, the smoke performances produced by fireworks that Chicago exhibited first in 1970, at the Pasadena Art Museum, when multi-colored smoke continued and built upon the translucency of the Domes with ephemeral, colored smoke. Finally, A Butterfly for Oakland, at the Oakland Museum, a huge butterfly, recalling a vagina, was born, exploded with color, and then slowly died, recorded in video for posterity. Atmospheres is in a dark grey room. The videos feature Faith Wilding, who was a student of Chicago’s, and other women, nude, painted green or purple or orange, and a lot of colored smoke. The pyrotechnics sometimes include flames and flares, becoming fleeting parts of a dry landscape. What is it, to be a woman out in nature, without societal constructs of behavior? What is it to feel more a part of that nature that we walk and breathe? With the smoke, the performers are akin to goddess imagery, to women set on fire in funeral pyres, renewal ceremonies, and were even meant to match up with Vietnam protests, people’s immolation, tear gas and resulting smoke. 

Squares, rectangles, cylinders, and circles are all structures that support themselves and one another. They are hard and soft. 10 Cylinders share a room with the Pasadena Lifesavers series (1969-70), taking two points to what a cylinder feels like. Is it a freeway underpass, or a lifesaver ring out in the ocean? These projects are both Minimalism at the moment where she abandoned her first husband’s surname. They both show how connections form and support a composition. How does color build a shape and radiate gently from color to light, pulsing and vibrating.  

Soon after, the walls are painted red. A blood red, a true red, a stop red. With the drawings, Chicago writes how long they took, how making them consumed her for days, how figuring how to formally draw the cunt and break free of that formality, evolved. It is a process to develop a new visual language. Keeping touchstones, like the palm-held sized Venus series she made in clay, thinking through connections, new media, different materialities, shows her process and the willingness to fight for her identity. These little Venus sculptures range from geometric curving shapes to more detailed, butterfly labia and breasts and bodies. Love Story, a stripped-down negative/ monochrome photograph, tells of a rape scenario and it is hard to read. Alternatively, Four Part Temporal Connection” (2007) layers glass pieces and depicts connection in a different way that sex, by holding or touching hands, form outlines to bones to flesh. 

After The Dinner Party, Chicago spent about five years collaborating with over 150 needleworkers from across the US on the Birth Project. She continued to develop her cooperative and research-based approach. Including meetings, soliciting samples, experiences, building something. Birth, last seen at Art Basel Miami last December was placed first in view of the entire Fair. The Creation, (1984) is primordial, essential, monochromatic with just a hint of power and life in yellow details, Earth Birth (1983) is more a colorful mythology, connecting us to both the Earth and other animals. At the same time, Chicago started PowerPlay, a series of large-format paintings inspired by Renaissance paintings and her travels in Italy. The series could very well be a look at destructive and violent behavior. The bodies are full of lines and tension, working in on itself, a body becoming little more than a gun through its penis. The struggle is just as much internal expression as concrete, physically made, artwork.

The Holocaust Project works are a collaboration with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman. Of four rooms in the overall exhibition, walls in this room duplicate the grey from the Smoke series. It is dark, like oiled gunmetal. Some works include historical photographs. Compositionally, they are full of figures in transport or yards, very Neo- Classical or flat tableaus of figures posed in religious altarpieces. There is a stained-glass triptych, with twelve figures of different ages, races, and religions around a table, flanked by separate rainbow Stars of David, which serve as the background to the table. This is the story, no subtext to the genocide. Culturally Jewish, Chicago’s interpretation for this series centers on the communalism of women. Chicago and Woodman developed it over eight years of research, with trips to concentration camps. Not just imagery, but community, is at the heart of so much of Chicago’s work. In one set, she even combines the woman symbol overlaid and patterned with the Star of David, balancing out and equalizing their value. The figures posed under a rainbow of colored geometric form reminds me of Marc Chagall’s stained-glass windows depicting the twelves tribes at Hadassah Hospital in Israel. 

The Extinction Suite was part of her show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), and its installation room is a well-lit mausoleum cave. What grips me, is how, in Mortality Relief, hands on the wall are in direct connection to Extinction Relief, with closed eyes in the first and taxidermy-vibes open in the latter. The animal’s fierceness is posed, shown maimed and otherwise illustrating the object product they became, the reason they were killed. They don’t have the same physical peace as Mortality, with its cast hands and face, sculpted body in bed holding a bouquet of lilies. These solo or small animal groups both personify them and illustrate how close they are to dying out. Maybe these animals gazing out at the viewer are enough for us to care, and hopefully, to act. This stance is feminist. it’s commonly a woman, like Sarah McLaughlin, pleading with the viewer, educating the public to help neglected and hurt animals.


Third floor — The City of Ladies are Judy’s inspirations; feminists, known and unknown artists, writers, thinkers, that led to the feminist canon identified on the plates of the Dinner Party. With deep yellow walls and thick royal purple carpet, the installation is split into three hallways. In the center, a cast-about of stemmed florals are part of the carpet weave. Clearly, this center is the church, a temple, with Venus sculptures, a tabernacle, with the largest overhead banner asking the question— What if women ruled the world? Above the dividing walls are more quilted and embroidered banners, asking how the world would be different if the central question came true. These slightly smaller but no less potent banners bridge and activate the airspace. On the walls and plinths are works by many women artists, creating almost a museum within a museum, a canon reinstated, spanning centuries, generously lent by museums including the Jewish Museum, the Uffizi, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Library of Congress.  Paintings and photographs by Frieda and Dorothea Lange, Imogene Cunningham’s portrait of Gertrude Stein (1935). Paintings by Dora Maar, Kathy Kollwitz, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Georgia O’ Keefe are exhibited beside work by Hilma af Klimt, Anaïs Nin, and sculptures of Barbara Hepworth, Louise Nevelson, work by Sojourner Truth, Remedios Var, Maria Sibylla Merian. Scraps of paper scrawled on by Emily Dickinson. Rosa Bonheur’s permission letter to cross-dress signed by the Secretary General amazed me and the group of women who brought it to my attention. There were some women who I had not heard of, like Emma Kunz (Swiss). Meret Oppenheimer, Alice Guy-Blanche whose film “Cabbage Fairy” (1896) featured dolls and babies coming out of cabbages. 

The top floor has much less art yet is much more about an optimism and the personal ability to march in protest, in memory, in recognition. The first wall is a large quilt, asking the same central question from the floor below – What if women ruled the world? Similar to Ringgold’s quilting style that includes narratives to make up a full story with imagery, this piece uses a gridded squares and rectangles pattern to include bands of text and image. Scattered across it are answers from individuals, discussing questions of equality, violence, strength, the environment, architecture. The end object of a quilt isn’t the end; quilt-making has a history of generations within a family, with pieces coming from this person and that favorite dress, kept and used. A quilt is both individual and community. The rest of the room contains triangle quilted flags, installed fifteen to a moveable wall, close to each other and three rows tall. The lives span centuries. Each piece is dedicated to a woman or group of women, including something about them, and a place associated with them; Isadora Duncan, San Francisco; Jane Addams, Chicago — most of these names, I did not know. They are inviting, and I plan on looking up every single name I do not know. Judy would want me to know them. With the window walls overlooking New York, it feels like a current and future call. Work has been done. There is still work to do, and Judy Chicago has called on the community of women to carry on the work. Continuing the mission to form a community of women, of humankind, of all living beings on earth, the top floor includes a collaboration between Chicago and Nadya Tolokonnikova, a member of the activist, feminist art collective, Pussy Riot, asking visitors for their responses. 

Attending Herstory on the press preview day gave me extra energy. I took an early morning train from DC to attend. I wanted to experience the show when every person, comprising her community, wanted to be there. Judy Chicago deserves no less than a fully eager and engaged audience. I loved the discovery moments; when someone noticed something I had not and wanted to share as I did. When I was a child, my mother introduced me to The Dinner Party. It was and still is, important. Seeing the full span of Judy Chicago’s career to date is experience and inspiration. Judy Chicago’s work is vital. Making a pilgrimage to see it is fundamental to the Feminist, and the human, experience.