Half a century ago, the history of art was a story told by men.
There were no women’s studies programs at universities. Few books about women’s art. And in art museums, only a small percentage of art and new acquisitions were by women.
Linda Nochlin had just written her earthshaking article in ARTnews, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”
In Los Angeles, a young artist named Judith Sylvia Cohen was navigating personal change, exploring themes of sexuality, birth and death — her first husband had died in a car accident — and struggling to fit into the art world.
She changed her name to Judy Chicago. And she began wondering about the cultural amnesia surrounding women’s accomplishments and the lack of information about women in history.
The result was her historic installation, “The Dinner Party,” which forever changed the way we understand women’s contributions to the world.
“The Dinner Party” is a triangular banquet table with 39 place settings, each commemorating a significant woman from history.
Mostly their names had been forgotten — women like Aspasia, Hildegarde of Bingen, Petronella de Meath, Hrosvitha, Bodicea, Christine de Pisan, and Anna Maria van Schurman. In addition, another 999 names were inscribed in gold on the tile floor below.
Frankly erotic, it was a celebration of women’s intelligence, physicality, and accomplishments. It was also largely vilified by the art establishment as “vaginas on plates.”
Frankly erotic, it was a celebration of women’s intelligence, contributions, and physicality. It was also vilified by the art establishment as “vaginas on plates.”
Through the decades, Judy Chicago has continued making art about taboo or uncomfortable subjects — the experience of birth, the Holocaust, and more recently, the environment. Her work runs the gamut from sculpture to performance.
She’s created massive outdoor installations and handbags for Dior. Some of her works are instant hits, others disturb and yes, even offend.
She keeps going. She keeps speaking out and challenging our assumptions.
Next month, Judy Chicago’s work can be seen at a retrospective at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. And she’s about to publish The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago, taking stock of a lifetime of experiences. It appears on July 20, her 82nd birthday.
It feels like it’s been long time coming, yet just in time.
Happy birthday Judy Chicago!
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