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In Her New Museum Retrospective, Judy Chicago Hacks the Patriarchy | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacker


Art

Zoë Hopkins

Judy Chicago, Birth Trinity: Needlepoint 1, from the Birth Project, 1983. Needlepoint by Susan Bloomenstein, Elizabeth Colten, Karen Fogel, Helene Hirmes, Bernice Levitt, Linda Rothenberg, and Miriam Vogelman. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Donald Woodman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the New Museum.

After finishing her MFA at UCLA, Judy Chicago enrolled in auto-body school. She was the only woman in a class of 250. For the then 29-year-old artist, talking about the patriarchy wasn’t enough: She also wanted to hack into the spheres that it has designated as masculine. At that time, it was the auto-mechanic industry. In the years since, she has focused on the art world and art history itself.

“There is a totally unknown, female-centered artistic paradigm that counters the patriarchal paradigm that has pretended to be art history,” Chicago said in an interview with Artsy. “It is this alternative, female-centered cultural paradigm that I have worked out of for decades.”

“Herstory,” a retrospective exhibition of Chicago’s work at the New Museum in New York, which runs through January 14, 2024, shows how the artist has embraced this history. Stretching across four floors of the museum, the exhibition takes stock of Chicago’s restless trajectory from her artistic beginnings in 1964 all the way to the present. It demonstrates that her work remains vital today and, moreover, creates an important blueprint for the future.

This is Chicago’s first-ever retrospective in New York City. In many ways, this is hard to believe: The 84-year-old’s work is held in the collection of several major museums, and her decades-long career has shifted expectations across the international art world, especially for artists who made New York their home. Yet, as the exhibition makes clear, Chicago has always had to fight for recognition due to her insistence on making feminist work. In a series of drawings displayed on the second floor collectively entitled “Rejection Quintet,” Chicago grappled with years of being spurned and excluded by gallerists, museums, and collectors, by combining diaristic texts about these experiences with drawings of vaginal forms.

For the artist, the rejection of the patriarchal art world has only motivated her to continue to produce work that unsettles its paradigms. “As a young artist who wanted to be taken seriously, I felt obliged to move away from my natural (gendered) tendencies,” Chicago said. “After a decade of ‘trying to be one of the boys,’ I made a radical change…trying to figure out if there could be a feminist art practice, and if so, what that might look like.” For Massimiliano Gioni, who curated the New Museum show, organizing this exhibition with Chicago was a powerful reminder of “how erasure and elision work.” “There is a history of art that was transformed by the contributions of women,” Gioni said, “but it has been overlooked again and again.”

Judy Chicago, Through the Flower 2, 1973. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Donald Woodman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the New Museum.

Judy Chicago, Childhood Rejection Drawing, 1974. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the New Museum.

In the show, Chicago’s early minimalist works demonstrate how she initially pushed against the mainstream exclusion of feminist art. In the series “Through the Flower,” Chicago painted brightly chromatic abstract shapes that resemble flower petals growing from a nucleus of searing light. Here, she wrests the cool, detached aesthetics of minimalism from masculine neutrality and submits it to a gendered lens. Though she employs a formal vocabulary of geometric abstraction that has been linked throughout art history to minimalist ideas of disembodiment and universal transcendence, Chicago’s flower subjects are evocative of birth and the female body.

Nearby in the galleries are videos of Chicago’s series of performance works, “Atmospheres” (1968–74). For these land art happenings, the artist metaphorically set fire to the patriarchal insistence on making her invisible, using fireworks, smoke machines, and road flares to mark the Southern California landscape with colorful plumes of smoke, sometimes alongside nude collaborators. The “Atmosphere” works—both then and now—communicate a feminist commitment to disruption, a burning will to be seen and reckoned with.

Cover of Womanhouse catalogue, 1972. Edited by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro; designed by Sheila de Bretteville. Courtesy of Through the Flower Archives.

Judy Chicago, Immolation, 1972. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the artist.

“Herstory” is the retrospective that Chicago so richly deserves after early decades of exclusion, but the picture it paints stretches far beyond this singular artist. Collaboration has always been essential in Chicago’s artistic practice, and a guiding ethic in her way of seeing the world. “The feminist art movement was born from collaboration,” Chicago stated. “Most of my biggest projects came to reality because of the people with whom I have worked. When the art world had no place for women artists, we created a community.”

Among such projects was Womanhouse, a feminist exhibition and performance space convened by Chicago in 1972 along with the painter Miriam Schapiro and dozens of students from her Feminist Art Program at Fresno State College. In “Herstory,” Womanhouse is revived through assembled photographs, videos, and archival ephemera, which still evoke the bombastic experimentation and unfettered freedom that the community fostered.

Judy Chicago, installation view of “Herstory” at the New Museum, New York, 2023. Photo bv Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the New Museum.

This spirit of communality is (literally) threaded into Chicago’s The Birth Project, a needlework piece. For this work, Chicago collaborated with several artist volunteers to depict and celebrate various moments in the birthing process: Chicago was responsible for the initial drawing, while her skilled weavers and embroiderers stitched it into needlework, a material vocabulary traditionally associated with female housework. Chicago thinks of these embroiderers not as assistants, but as collaborators, a framing she noted has “confused the art world” and its conventions of authorship. Consequently, at the New Museum, the wall texts describing these works attribute credit not only to Chicago, but also to these collaborators.

This collective approach comes to a head in “City of Ladies,” an “exhibition within an exhibition” that occupies the entire fourth floor of the museum. Here, Chicago and Gioni have curated a wide-ranging homage to cultural and political works that women across the globe have contributed to modern history, featuring artworks and archives from the 15th century to the present. In so doing, they provide an alternative to the historical authority that male voices have been afforded in shaping cultural narratives.

Judy Chicago, What if Women Ruled the World? from “The Female Divine,” 2020. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Portrait of Judy Chicago, 2023. Photo by Donald Woodman. © Donald Woodman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the New Museum.

“City of Ladies” takes a messy and open approach to storytelling, and isn’t limited by conventions of categorization and chronology: Ethnographic recordings by Zora Neale Hurston hang together with a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi and a letter granting Rosa Bonheur permission to crossdress. Such arrangements also point to the multiple hats that Chicago herself has worn: “Judy had to be much more than an artist,” said Gioni. “She had to be an activist, an art historian, an organizer. She had to literally build a different art world that allowed for herself, her work, and that of her peers and predecessors to exist and be seen.”

“Herstory” represents this demand for feminism to be witnessed and activated, not only for the months that it is installed, but for the long haul. What if Women Ruled the World (2020), an embroidered work by Chicago that depicts its title question stitched in cursive, which hangs above “City of Ladies,” asks the viewer to look towards a future that is not simply organized by women, but divested of domination, extraction, and oppression. Indeed, Chicago describes her work as a portal to “a world infused with positive, life-affirming values. These have been labeled feminist values, but in fact, are human values of the highest orders, values that have shaped my life and art.”

It’s not simply that Chicago has made a history of feminist art and ideas visible, but that she has crafted a tangled and complex network through which her audiences can define, make sense of, or entirely contest what feminist art means. She leaves space for a feminism that is defined not only by her voice; instead, it is mutable and up for interpretation, bearing many faces and names.

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