Through her elaborate art installation The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago became one of the most famous feminist artists. Her body of work encompasses art about personal as well as universal female experiences. Her works often focus on important women from history. Chicago frequently collaborated with different women and female artists. Her use of needlework challenged the notion that the medium’s traditional connotations prohibit it from being considered serious art.
The Origins of Judy Chicago’s Career as a Feminist Artist
Judy Chicago was born in 1939 in Chicago, Illinois, which is where her art name comes from. Her actual name is Judith Sylvia Cohen. Her father, Arthur Cohen, was part of the American Communist milieu and had liberal views toward gender relations. Judy Chicago’s mother May, who was artistically inclined as well, stayed at home to take care of her, but Chicago’s father Arthur wanted May to work again.
Chicago started drawing when she was only three years old. Chicago’s mother encouraged her to develop her artistic talent and took her to classes held at the Art Institute of Chicago when she was only five years old. Judy said that she never wanted to be anything but an artist. She applied for a scholarship at the Art Institute of Chicago but did not receive it. Instead, she got a scholarship from her high school, which she used to pay for the tuition at UCLA.
In order to be taken seriously as a student, Chicago befriended men who were perceived as serious. She also didn’t take classes that were taught by the small number of female instructors since she felt that they were less respected than their male colleagues. However, a conversation with one of the female teachers, Annita Delano, changed her opinion. Chicago found Delano fascinating and learned about her independent lifestyle, her travels, and her studies with John Dewey. Chicago made her early feminist pieces at the beginning of the 1970s. These allowed her to depict her experiences as a woman, which was not possible during her years in college. Here are 5 examples of her feminist works.
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1. Womanhouse, 1972
Womanhouse was a performance and installation piece that took place from January 30 to February 28 in 1972 at 533 Mariposa Street in Hollywood, California. The work was a collaboration between Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro, and artists of the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts. They turned an abandoned mansion into a large-scale feminist art installation. When viewers entered the house, they were confronted with themed rooms that challenged stereotypes about women and showed different female experiences.
Performances were also part of Womanhouse. Chicago, for example, wrote a piece called Cock and Cunt Play which was performed by Faith Wilding and Jan Lester. The artists were equipped with enlarged genitals and performed a comical dialogue mocking the notion that women were supposed to do household chores due to their biological traits.
The feminist nature of Womanhouse was visible in its various rooms. Chicago also created the house’s Menstruation Bathroom. There was a mounted shelf that was filled with menstrual hygiene products, deodorants, and other cosmetic products. Seemingly used menstrual pads were put into a white trash can. Chicago recreated her Menstruation Bathroom from the Womanhouse in 1995 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. She also explored the theme of menstruation and the products women use when they have their periods in her explicit photolithograph called Red Flag in 1971. The work shows a woman removing a bloody tampon.
2. The Great Ladies Series, 1973
In her Great Ladies series, Judy Chicago honored important historical women like Queen Victoria, Christine of Sweden, Virginia Woolf, and Marie Antoinette. The abstract images coincided with Judy Chicago’s discovery of how the achievements of female figures from the past were often excluded from historical narratives. Her work on Marie Antoinette was complemented by a text written in cursive at the sides of the abstract motif. The text reads: Marie Antoinette – during her reign, women artists enjoyed great success. But the French Revolution – which brought democracy to men – caused women artists to lose their status while the Queen lost her head.
Another work was dedicated to the French novelist George Sand and her achievements. Judy described her as a 19th-century writer, feminist, and political activist who wrote a considerable number of books with only a few of them printed. Chicago’s work about Virginia Woolf discussed how the English writer’s effort to balance a male-centered culture with feminine values left her damaged. This confrontation with underrepresented female artists, writers, and other remarkable women can also be seen in her famous work The Dinner Party.
3. The Dinner Party, 1979
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party made her widely known as a feminist artist. This installation represents another collaborative work that became a famous example of the feminist art movement. With the help of many assistants and volunteers, Chicago made a triangular installation that serves as a dinner table set for 39 significant women.
The sections of the table can be divided into three groups: Wing One includes women from Prehistory to the Roman Empire, Wing Two features women from Christianity to the Reformation, and Wing Three represents women from the American Revolution to the Women’s Revolution. Wing One, for example, includes the Snake Goddess, the Greek poet Sappho, and the Fertile Goddess. Wing Two includes the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, the Byzantine empress Theodora, and Italian doctor Trotula of Salerno, who is considered the world’s first gynecologist. Wing Three features abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, the poet Emily Dickinson, and the painter Georgia O’Keeffe.
The table is placed on the Heritage Floor which is made up of tiles inscribed with the names of 998 mythical and historical women. To be part of the heritage floor, the women had to fulfill one or more of the following criteria: did they contribute something valuable to society, did they try to improve conditions for women, and was their work or life an example of significant aspects of women’s history or were they an egalitarian role model?
The materials used in The Dinner Party reflect its feminist message. The installation was made from embroidery and ceramics. The mediums that were used were traditionally often seen as women’s work and perceived as less valuable than fine arts, especially painting or sculpture. Many people responded positively to The Dinner Party, but it also received a lot of criticism. For example, it was criticized because it excluded Spanish and Latin American women.
4. The Birth Project, 1980-1985
Judy Chicago’s Birth Project is another result of collaborative work. The artist worked with over 150 needleworkers from the United States, Canada, and New Zealand to depict different aspects of giving birth. Chicago described the Birth Project as one of the steps in her development as a feminist artist. When she started thinking about images displaying birth in Western art, not a single one crossed her mind. While there are images that illustrate childbirth, most art historical paintings portray the subject right after the actual birth and avoid explicit nudity.
Chicago’s Birth Project was a reaction to this lack of imagery and it was inspired by the real-life experiences of women giving birth. Chicago gathered stories by asking women about their personal experiences. In order to prepare for the series, Chicago also went to watch an actual birth. When people asked her how she could depict this topic even though she never experienced it herself, Chicago answered: Why, you don’t have to be crucified to paint a picture of the crucifixion, now do you?
5. Judy Chicago’s PowerPlay, 1982-1987
Judy Chicago’s PowerPlay concentrates on the construction of masculinity rather than femininity. The works explore how the use of power has influenced men and the world around them. The series offers a stark contrast to the Birth Project, on which Chicago was still working when she began creating PowerPlay. Chicago noticed that there was a shortage of pictures portraying men in the way women saw them.
The artist also wanted to understand the violent actions of some men. On a trip to Italy, she looked at famous Renaissance paintings and decided to explore the classical depiction of men in heroic nudes in a series of monumental oil paintings. Chicago wrote in her book Beyond the Flower: The Autobiography of a Feminist Artist that the contemporary notion of masculinity was generated in the Italian Renaissance. She wanted to challenge this notion by using the visual language from which it emerged. The artist used to mainly draw female models in her figure drawing classes, but for her PowerPlay series, she started working with a male model. Chicago was fascinated by how different drawing the male body was from drawing the female body.