Last summer, I went to an exhibit by George Fok titled Passing Through at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco featuring and honoring the singer, songwriter and poet, Leonard Cohen (1934-2016). There was an installation that featured an entire room with screens filling three walls and videos of Cohen performing his songs and speaking throughout his lifetime. There were armchairs and couches to sit on and be immersed in Cohen’s music, his “oevre,” singing the same song at various ages and with other artists. It was an extremely moving thing to sit through. I sat there for a couple of full views, in tears.
Outside of the installation were works by other artists in tribute to Cohen. One of them, Cohanim, was by artist Judy Chicago, whom I had not realized until that moment, was born Judith Sylvia Cohen
“‘Cohen’ is Hebrew for ‘priest,’ and Cohanim are believed to be of direct patrilineal descent from Aaron, the first Jewish priest and brother of Moses. Chicago’s gesture of realigning herself with the given surname she electively abandoned serves a dual function. Her adoption of the surname ‘Chicago’ was an act of liberation from the patriarchal tradition of surnames passed down exclusively by men or acquired through marriage. By informally reclaiming her given surname she draws a parallel not only with Leonard Cohen, but also with the priestly brotherhood of Cohanim, thereby challenging the erasure of women in patriarchal structures, Orthodox Judaism among them” (Contemporary Jewish Museum 2021, Cohanim).
Chicago created special pieces to express her lifelong interaction with his songs and music and her own identity as Jewish.
In the piece titled “Cohanim” she writes:
“Leonard Cohen’s lyrics often seemed to perfectly express my feelings at various points in my life. Even now, whenever I hear one of his songs, I can remember where I was and what I was working on when I first heard the words. And I am also deeply moved by the rhythms that inform his music, perhaps because of our shared lineage. He is the grandson of a Talmudic scholar and I am descended from twenty-three generations of rabbis.”
~Judy (Cohen) Chicago 2019
My interest in Chicago was piqued. I learned that a retrospective of her work was coming to San Francisco in the fall. Thinking she was a perfect subject for Nasty Women Writers, I purchased, The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago — a four hundred page book covering her entire life until the present, that she wrote during the Covid lockdowns and published in 2021 at the age of 82.
The book impressed and inspired me. Until then I had very limited exposure to Chicago’s work. Like most people I knew her only through her groundbreaking and famous The Dinner Party (1974-1979): an installation of 39 plates and place settings dedicated to women from history, set around a triangular table formation all sitting atop a “heritage floor” made of porcelain tiles with the names of 999 women from history hand inscribed in gold paint.
I had heard about it when I was in my teens from my older sisters who had gone to the exhibit and returned giggling, because they were unaware that the plates had been sculpted in Chicago’s signature vulval form until standing in front of them. No one had ever done anything like that. I had also seen and read about images of separate plates in some of my women’s studies classes and books.
The plates were used to “imply that the women’s achievements had been “consumed” rather than honored by history”(TF 120).
Of the recurrence of the vulval form in her work, Chicago says:
“I wanted the vulval image to act as a visual symbol for the physically defining characteristic of the female in an almost metaphysical sense, that is, as an entryway into an aesthetic exploration of what it has meant to be a woman experientially, historically and philosophically….to put it another way, I was looking for a way of openly working from what might be called a female form base in order to remake the world in women’s own image and likeness. In the final transmutation of this form, it turned into a winged butterfly, thereby providing me with the beginnings of a dynamic feminine iconography”(TF 123).
Judy Chicago is clear that gender is an artifice. In much of her art she chose to explore all that coalesced around the gender of feminine, femininity and all that had come to be associated with it, including social attitudes towards the female person and how often “it is because one has a vulva” that they experience these things or have them projected onto them. She also wished to destigmatize the female body, bring the reality of it out of the shadows and away from the projections of the male gaze. She wished to offer images and art that reveal the female body through the experience of someone who was actually living in one. The shock or other emotions many feel when they look at the central plate images of The Dinner Party installation should be informative enough about how female anatomy has been co-opted, objectified and stigmatized in modern times. Examining the response to many of Chicago’s images is often informative of our cultural biases and underlying inherited beliefs. Seeing these vulval forms depicted as high art, honored and even portrayed as sacred portals, as in early and indigenous cultures, returns them to their true status.
Read our piece on The Dinner Party:
Reading The Flowering and coming to understand the wholeness of this woman’s work, her vision and steadfast dedication to her art, feminist art, women’s history, women’s, human and now animal rights, her long and ongoing fight for equal representation in the art world, my heart surged with excitement and gratitude. I felt I wanted to bow down to her and thank her for all that she has accomplished and for how much she sacrificed to do it. How many glass ceilings this woman has broken! How much she suffered and fought and in so doing, changed the art world forever. Thank you, Judy Chicago.
I also felt that I was sitting in the presence of a wise elder as I read this book. There is so much she learned in all that she created and how she carried it out, about women, herself, how to work in a non patriarchal way within the patriarchy: the pitfalls, the challenges and the successes—all of this she openly and honestly shares in this book.
“What is feminist art? It is art that reaches out and affirms women and validates our experience and makes us feel good about ourselves. Feminist art teaches us that the basis of our culture is grounded in a pernicious fallacy—a fallacy which causes us to believe that alienation is the human condition and real human contact is unattainable. This fallacy has divided our feelings from our thoughts, this fallacy has caused the planet to be divided as are the sexes. Feminist art is art that leads us to a future where these opposites can be reconciled with ourselves and the world thereby made whole” ~Judy Chicago, 1977 (JCM 118)
Born in Chicago in 1939 to a liberal Jewish family with an appreciation of art, Judy Chicago’s talent was noticed early. She was sent to art school at a young age. She was always very ambitious.
Her father was a Marxist activist always working for social justice. She had a very strong and positive relationship with her father. His kindness and undying belief in her definitely stayed with her and kept her going all her life. Her parents modeled equality in their relationship which also affected her expectations in her own relationships.
Though her father’s father was a rabbi and a Cohen from an unbroken chain of 23 rabbis before him, her father broke this tradition. Chicago grew up with very little relationship or understanding of herself as a Jew and a Cohen. Her father, eventually fired from his job over his Marxist beliefs, and labeled a communist, became depressed, eventually dying of stomach cancer when she was 13. Upon his death, she began to experience even more isolation from his family as well as her own Jewish heritage. With her mother and brother, she eventually moved to Los Angeles.
Later in life her Jewish identity became very important to her and she went to Europe with her husband Donald Woodman, a photographer, also Jewish, to discover, expose and connect with her own Jewish roots. She also wished to deal with the subject of the Holocaust as an art installation after coming to understand how little space it had been given in art history.
“For her research on Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light (1985-1993), Chicago scoured archives, reviewed videotaped histories of survivors, and connected with leaders of Jewish academic and religious circles. She traveled through Eastern and Western Europe to bear witness to the ruins of concentration camps and better understand how the Holocaust was memorialized there. She was accompanied by Woodman, who contributed source photography for works on the series”(JCM 195).
When it was time for college, Chicago enrolled in the UCLA arts program. In school and outside she found herself in all male environments and began to try to fit in with the male artists and culture. In the process of identifying and trying to compete and keep up in the male art world, she noticed that she began to internalize contempt for women. She was also at this time confronted with literal responses of “Ick” and “Yuck” from male professors when she painted female anatomy (TF 29) and was told with anger that she needed to stop because these were images they could never show their family.
After Graduate school at UCLA, she began to watch her fellow male students move into working with large materials and construct large pieces with mechanical tools. This seemed to be one of the ways they “professionalized” and “commodified” their art and secured large exhibits and bookings for installations in museums and galleries. She realized she knew nothing about building and constructing large objects and had not been considering the fact that she needed to support herself. She enrolled in classes to learn. At this time she moved toward sculpture and abstraction.
“Halfway through my last year in graduate school, I became involved with one of the best galleries in town, run by a man named Rolf Nelson. He used to take me to the artists’ bar Barney’s Beanery, where all the “important” artists hung out, most of whom showed at Ferus Gallery. They were all men, of course, and they spent most of their time talking about cars, motorcycles, women and their “joints.” I knew nothing about cars or motorcycles, couldn’t really join in on their discussions about women, and didn’t have a joint. They made a lot of cracks about my being a woman, but I was determined to convince them, as I had convinced the men at school, that I was serious. In an effort to be accepted, I began to wear boots and smoke cigars. I went to motorcycle races and tried to act tough whenever I saw them.
By the time I left school, I had incorporated many of the attitudes that had been brought to bear on me and my work, both in school and in the art scene. I had abandoned the paintings that my graduate advisors disliked so intensely, leaving them in a garage to be destroyed. . . . After I finished college, I decided to go to auto-body school to learn to spray paint”(TF 29-30).
Though she admits to seeking approval from men, meaning the male art world in general by forcing herself into what she felt at the time were more male forms of art, she also enjoyed moving into and allowing herself to create very big pieces. She learned to include her body in the work and experience herself as strong, powerful and in command in a way she had not before.
She continued to use the skills she learned at this time all through her career including the actual hands on tools and skills but also the skill of finding a new art form and pursuing it even if it meant that she was veering away from what she had done previously. This allowed Chicago to be a very flexible artist, never locking herself into one style, form or theme. It opened her to a very exciting, varied and free kind of life as an artist.
In spite of the many obstacles she faced, and she faced many, she kept pushing foreword, pushing her art, her exploration of the culture and herself in relationship to it. I found this enormously impressive. I appreciate her daring in the risks she took, the examination of her own assumptions around her choices in relation to herself as a woman. She came to understand that some of those choices were based on internalized sexism and were extremely limiting. She pushed beyond that, challenging herself time and time again, riding the edge of her comfort zone over and over and learning how much more she was capable of in the process.
She learned how to work in porcelain to create The Dinner Party, she learned all about the history of needlework and textile for The Birthing Project, she learned how to design for stained glass in work on the Holocaust Project. She learned to think large and work large and not be afraid to take up space or work in the vulval form without apology and she modeled that for all of us.
Womanhouse and Creating Feminist Art
Identifying with male artists and hiding away her own point of view as a woman soon ended. Chicago realized she was repressing her own experiences and reality. She moved forward into exploring her identity as a woman and a feminist in a patriarchal culture. In so doing, she awoke to the experiences of women who had come before her, including artists, writers and feminists whose work had been erased, minimized, ignored and ridiculed. She engaged in vast research about these foremothers and their work. She began to paint images based on them. These pieces pre-date The Dinner Party.
In her Reincarnation Triptych, 1972 she painted and writes about women writers Mme. De Stael, George Sand and Virginia Woolf.
The writing on the frame says : Virginia Woolf- first woman to forge a female form of language in literature Conscious to the point of agony, she controlled her anger, yet did not emerge undamaged from her struggle to balance the excesses of masculine culture with feminine values.
In a series called Compressed Women Who Yearned To Be Butterflies 1973-1974,
Chicago writes and draws about women from history who were doing groundbreaking work when their lives and ambitions were cut short. Onto one sketch of Paula Modersohn-Becker for this series she writes
Paula Modersohn-Becker—an early German expressionist. Her work pre-dated Nolde’s and is quite extraordinary, especially her self-portraits a Christ figure. Every time I visit a museum with an Expressionist section, I become very angry because her work is never included while that of lesser male artists is. I wonder if the same thing will happen to me. Her life was cut short at the age of 31 when she died in a childbirth that she felt conflicted about—another woman whose genius could not be realized within the strictures of male culture. Will it ever change? (MJC 108).
See our posts on Paula Modersohn-Becker:
In this same time period Chicago was creating and teaching in feminist art departments. She was committed to educating and sharing with other women what she had discovered and supporting them in their work in a way she had not been. She also firmly believed in holding women accountable as she noticed that many of these young women did not take themselves or their work seriously.
To this effort she and another feminist art teacher, Miriam Schapiro, created a project called Womanhouse where they actually acquired a two-story dilapidated mansion for an art installation as part of a class project. The entire house was set up to be an interactive experience for those who came with each room expressing a different theme about women’s reality. Public performances were also held as part of the project.
“Chicago continued working toward destigmatizing women’s bodies in Menstrual Bathroom (1972) a component of the Womanhouse project of 1972….Menstrual Bathroom featured a shelf stocked with feminine hygiene products above a wastebasket brimming with re-creations of used menstrual belts, pads, and tampons”(MJC 93).
At the retrospective at The de Young Museum in San Francisco that I was lucky to go to I saw a short film made in the 60s about Womanhouse. A Menstrual Bathroom, a Bridal Staircase, a kitchen with eggs that look like breasts all over the walls, a room of female saints and a performance featuring ironing and women giving birth to one another and a Cock and Cunt play.
“If men reacted to the work, that was fine, but it was to a female audience that the house was primarily directed, and it was to women that we looked for evaluation, criticisms, and responses. For me, the response to Womanhouse was deeply reinforcing. During the month that it was open, almost ten thousand people came to see it, mostly through word of mouth. I had sensed that art that reflected women’s experience could have a profound impact, but to think that and to see it actualized were two different things.”(TF 109).
Though the Womanhouse project ended in 1974, it began her long tradition of collaboration with other artists in her large installations and foretells The Birth Project (1980-85): another groundbreaking installation that emerged out of Chicago’s vision and artistry. The final result is a collaborative piece with a wide range of women in needlework, textile, batik, and quilting, exploring the experience of birth from a female point of view. Read our piece on that installation:
Also a Nasty Woman Writer, Chicago has published thirteen other books. She also worked with large shows of fireworks and has most recently been engaged in projects about death, the death process and ecology and environmentalism, especially where it concerns the rights and well-being of animals.
We continue to learn from her and receive her gifts.
Judy Chicago is a Nasty Woman Writer and Artist.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2022
Chicago, Judy. The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago. Thames and Hudson, 2021.
Schmuckli, Claudia, with Jenni Sorkin and Janna Keegan. Judy Chicago In the Making. fine arts museums of san Francisco, Thames & Hudson. 2021.