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Judy Chicago: Artist, Educator, and Feminist

Judy Chicago: Artist, Educator, and Feminist

 Sofia Wilson
May 9, 2015

It’s exciting to find out that I have so many connections with someone I have never met. When I first learned of her, I was immediately interested in the works of artist, feminist, and educator Judy Chicago. Her history and motivations remind me of myself and what I would like to pursue in the future. That is what really made me want to write about Judy Chicago for my major project. Judy used art to portray struggles of women, and the power of women. She also incorporated her Jewish heritage into her work with her piece “The Holocaust Project”, which I will talk about in a few minutes. Please sit back and enjoy as I tell you all about this amazing and powerful woman, Judy Chicago.

PICTURE Judy Sylvia Cohen was born in 1939 in Chicago, Illinois to May and Arthur Cohen; she changed her last name which I will discuss later on. Judy’s mom, May, was a former dancer but she stopped dancing and worked as a medical secretary after she gave birth to Judy. Arthur worked at a post office.

Judy inherited her liberal beliefs from her father, and her love of art from her mother. Both Arthur and May had many left-wing views, and strongly believed in equal rights for women. Judy remembers people gathering in their second floor apartment and engaging in political arguments. Arthur identified as a communist; he believed in changing the conditions for black people in America, in abolishing poverty and in expanding educational opportunities for poor people. Judy has said that her father was the one who made her feel confident about herself and her achievements. Over time, however, Arthur’s symptoms of depression became more obvious to Judy, especially when he started staying home from work. Judy was only 14 when her father entered a deep depression. He subsequently developed stomach ulcers and on July 15th, 1953 he died during surgery. As a way to escape the pain from her father’s death Judy leaned towards art. She started to visit the Art Institute on Saturdays to view art. She became interested in how the colors in the artwork evoked emotional states.

Art opened Judy up to a whole new world, a world that gave her many more opportunities than she could ever imagine. Something that really interested me about Judy Chicago is that although she was Jewish, she stated that her parents “basically rejected everything Jewish.” Even though Judy acknowledged that her family did not observe Jewish rituals at their home, she believed that her family was guided by Jewish ethical values like Tikkun Olam– bettering the world. Judy’s parents both grew up in homes infused with Yiddish, but this didn’t really continue when May and Arthur had kids. The Cohens actually never lit a Hanukkah candle during Judy’s childhood, but they did celebrate Christmas until she was eight. When Judy turned eight, one of her religious aunts who kept kosher insisted that the Cohens start to celebrate Hanukkah instead of Christmas. Judy felt very connected to the cultural and intellectual traditions of Judaism, which included knowing about the world, speaking up, and making change. Being Jewish for her meant having high aspirations. She used her artwork to express many concerns and issues.

Since I was in second grade I have been coming to the City Congregation for Sunday school, and it has always felt normal for me to not believe in god, similarly to Judy. I relate to her, because I feel that the most important parts of Judaism to me are the ethical values.

In the early 1960’s Judy attended the University of California in Los Angeles, earning a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1962. When she was in college, Judy had her first love relationship with Jerry Gerowitz. Jerry was a secular Jew born in Chicago and had moved to LA by the time he was in high school. Judy was attracted to Jerry’s great sense of humor and his “mixed-up and rebellious” ways. Judy and Jerry immediately clicked, causing Judy to change her mind about wanting to move into her own studio. They ended up moving to New York together in 1959. Judy decided to put her academics aside to go on this adventure with Jerry. They sublet an apartment on 33rd Street, but soon Judy decided to move out, and go back to LA to finish school. She increasingly felt that Jerry had a “lack of direction” and this caused a lot of fighting between them. After many weeks apart Jerry joined Judy in LA. They tried to work out their relationship and ended up marrying in the spring of 1961 at the Los Angeles County courthouse. After they married she started to wonder if Jerry’s problems were similar to her father’s. This made her nervous; first her father and now her husband. Jerry stayed home from his job frequently, and seemed to be losing his direction in life.

On June 10th of that year Jerry was killed in a car accident in Topanga Canyon. Judy couldn’t believe he had died. When she talked to his therapist about it, Jerry’s therapist stated that he wondered if it was an “unconscious suicide. ” He believed Jerry felt that he couldn’t face the struggles ahead of him. Judy had dealt with grief when her father died. Jerry’s death forced her to re-live the grief of losing her father.

Judy went back to UCLA to finish her master’s degree in 1964. While she was in graduate school she created some work involving sex organs that was controversial to Judy’s mostly male teachers, especially a piece titled Bigamy. In 1965 Judy’s work was exhibited in her first solo show at the Rolf Nelson Gallery in Los Angeles. Many people asked her why she didn’t display her artwork at the “California Women in the Arts” exhibition. Judy said she didn’t want to define herself by membership in a particular group. She preferred not to have a label of “woman” or “Jewish” as an artist. I understand why Judy felt that she didn’t want to be labeled. She wanted to be an artist, and that’s it. Later on in her career she created a poster with the image of her bare body. Surrounding her body were the words “Aging, woman, Jew, and artist”. Judy did label herself in this image, which confused me at first, but I think her purpose was to express her view that she can label herself, but she doesn’t want to be labeled by other people.

When Judy Cohen married Jerry, she followed tradition and became Judy Gerowitz. When Jerry died she decided she wanted to change her name. She wanted to be independent. She did not want a last name connected to a man from her heritage or marriage. One of Judy’s friends and gallery owners, Rolf Nelson, nicknamed Judy “Judy Chicago”, because of her large personality and strong Chicago accent. She decided to go with the new name, and legally became Judy Chicago. This caused many people to question her. No one could understand why she would change her married name. To show people how passionate she felt about her new name, she posed for her new exhibition dressed up as a boxer with a shirt that said Chicago. (PICTURE)

This was in the 1970’s at the California State University of Fullerton. (PICTURE) She created a banner which said “Judy Gerowitz hereby divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and chooses her own name, Judy Chicago.” I think this was an amazing move. I have always been bothered by the fact that in our society tradition dictates that women change their last name to their husband’s last name. If that is what someone wants to do, I support it. But I also support the idea of wanting to be independent, and having your own last name, just as Judy Chicago did.

She contributed significantly to the formation of the female art community and the visibility of feminist art. In 1970, Chicago taught at Fresno State College. Her goal was to teach women how to express the female perspective in their work. She taught a class that consisted of only women, and she started a “feminist art” class. This was the first feminist art program in the United States.

In 1972 Judy Chicago became a teacher at California Institute for the Arts, where she created a program called Woman House with her friend Miriam Schapiro. Woman House was the first exhibition to show a female perspective on art. Their goal was to portray conflicts experienced by women every day. By providing opportunities to use power tools and building techniques at Woman House, they hoped women would gain confidence and become more connected with their artistic aspirations. Judy Chicago believed that society “fails women by not demanding excellence from them.”

Twenty-seven women participated in Woman House and the final exhibition was very successful (PICTURE). About 10,000 people visited the old deserted mansion where Woman House took place. (PICTURE) One of the artists who participated created a linen closet with different parts of a woman mannequin on all of the shelves. Sandy Orgel, the artist who created this sculpture, stated that women have always been “in between the sheets and on the shelf,” and that it was time “for women to come out of the closet” (PICTURE). Judy Chicago also created something for Woman House, “Menstruation Bathroom”, which was trying to show that menstruation is something that many women feel like they can’t talk about or are ashamed of.

I was very lucky to see Judy Chicago’s exhibit “The Dinner Party” at the Brooklyn Museum with my parents, my mentor Eva and her daughter Anna. I had heard a bit about “The Dinner Party” from my parents, but I really didn’t know what to expect. Chicago first created the idea for this project in 1974 with the goal of teaching people about the history of powerful women and their struggles for freedom. The project began in her Santa Monica studio where she created her drawings. She began with the idea of putting images reflecting women from history and mythology on the front of ceramic plates and writing on the back descriptions of what the women achieved and their individual stories.

To prepare for this project Judy Chicago studied China painting for two years (PICTURE). She decided on 39 place settings. The exhibit is like an imaginary large dinner gathering with many influential women from many generations, all sitting together at a dinner party. (PICTURE)

Chicago put all of her money into this project until she slowly started receiving grants. “The Dinner Party” was first displayed in San Francisco, and moved around to many museums. In 1990 everyone was talking about “The Dinner Party.” An article appeared in the Washington Times reporting that “The Dinner Party” was banned at many museums because of its depictions of women’s genitalia on plates. Robert Dornan, a Republican from California, believed that “The Dinner Party” wasn’t art, but rather “3D pornography.” It seems to me that Judy Chicago was breaking taboos, or the norm at that time. Times have changed; nowadays many people would come and see “The Dinner Party” and not have any problem with it. Despite the controversy,” The Dinner Party” stayed in Northern California for the next 12 years. In 2002, a big supporter of Judy Chicago, Elizabeth A. Sackler, acquired “The Dinner Party” and brought it to the Brooklyn Museum, along with money to create a whole new gallery devoted to feminist art. Now “The Dinner Party” is a permanent exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

The first wing of “The Dinner Party” begins with pre-history, with about seven place settings of mythical or legendary women. One of the beautiful plates from Wing 1 was based on Kali, an Indian goddess who was worshiped by Hindu in the first millennium BCE, at a time when the power of women was being assaulted.

The second Wing of the “Dinner Party” covers the period of time from early Christianity to the Reformation, when women were forced out of some of their traditional occupations. (PICTURE) One of the memorable plates from Wing 2 is Saint Bridget. Bridget was the daughter of an Irish Chieftain and a slave. She established a school of the arts, and to this day many travelers visit a location named after Bridget to be “healed.” (PICTURE) Another of my favorite plates is Theodora, who passed laws to improve the lives of actresses and created an institution for ex-prostitutes to start a new life. I loved Theodora’s plate so much that we used the tile design from this plate for my Bat Mitzvah invitation, thanks to our dear friend Bennett Goldberg. (PICTURE)

The wing that impressed me the most and inspired me greatly was Wing 3. Wing 3 was based on the Women’s Revolution. (PICTURE) Judy Chicago created a pretty flower-like design on Susan B. Anthony’s plate. Susan B. Anthony was one of the biggest faces in the fight for women’s rights during the 1870’s. (PICTURE) Another plate that struck me was Sojourner Truth’s plate. I would have to say that this plate is my favorite. I love how Chicago portrayed fear and sadness in this plate, with the different faces showing different emotions. Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in New York as Isabella Baumfree. She was raped and sold multiple times. When she escaped in 1827, she changed her name to Sojourner, because Sojourn means to “dwell temporarily.” She wanted everyone to know she had moved on from being a slave, and was going towards something new in her life to dwell on, as an activist. This is similar to Judy Chicago changing her name when she moved on from a different time in her life. Sojourner was one out of the many plates that inspired me to think about the women in the world who have really made a difference, but don’t get much credit for their impact and influence.

Judy Chicago designed the exhibit in a very interesting way. She chose 39 women to base the plates on, and surrounding each plate she painted the names of other people who were connected to these powerful women. (PICTURE) For example, under Emily Dickinson’s plate many other authors’ names were written, such as Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bekker, and Fanny Burney.

I highly suggest that you go to the Brooklyn Museum to see “The Dinner Party.” The artistic design on the plates is beautiful, and the whole thing is really inspiring and worth visiting.

When researching Judy Chicago what really stood out to me was her feminist work, and her view on feminist art. However, I also found out that she worked beyond issues of female identity. In 1985 Judy Chicago married the photographer Donald Woodman. Although her previous husbands were also Jewish, Donald inspired her to explore her Jewish heritage. Together, they created “The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light”. It was a project that aimed to extend awareness of the Holocaust, and to link contemporary issues to it. The couple worked together for eight years to complete their Holocaust Project. They both sought inspiration from the documentary Shoah, which included interviews from Holocaust survivors and depictions of concentration camps. Judy Chicago felt she wanted to explore aspects of power: both feeling powerless and male power. She wanted to express how being Jewish shaped her art and her interest in the subject of the Holocaust.

She also included photo and written archives about the Holocaust in the “Project”. The artists traveled to Eastern Europe and visited all of the concentration camps, with the goal of combining contemporary issues with the Holocaust.

(PICTURES 3) The finished piece, “The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light” consisted of sixteen large works made from stained glass, metal work, wood work, painting, and photography, capturing experiences of people in concentration camps. The main message in “The Holocaust Project” was to move from the darkness of the Holocaust to the light of day.

Chicago’s “Holocaust Project” really made an impact on me. When I began brainstorming about my major project for my Bat Mitzvah I was leaning towards studying art during the Holocaust in concentration camps, because I am interested in the use of art to deal with fear or struggle. I then leaned towards writing about Jewish artists. When I first read about Judy Chicago, I found her to be a combination of everything I was thinking about: she is a woman, she is Jewish, and she created art related to the Holocaust.

As I finished all of my research on this project I realized that there was a connection I hadn’t seen at the beginning. Judy Chicago pushed for the rights of women just like Malala. They did this in different ways and from different beginnings: Chicago with artistic expression, and Malala with the power of speech. It makes a lot of sense that I was drawn to both of them.

Judy Chicago is now 75, and she is still pursuing what she believes in. She founded Through the Flower in 1978, an organization that holds many workshops and lectures on feminist art and has launched a K-12 curriculum. The goal of the curriculum is to encourage the empowerment of women through art using “The Dinner Party” as the basis for teaching. The “Holocaust Project”, Through the Flower, “The Dinner Party”, and Judy Chicago’s many other projects are what inspired me and hopefully have inspired all of you too.