Gail Levin examines the life & art of Judy Chicago, the creator of The Dinner Party
Courtesy of Through the Flower Archives
Judy Chicago at work in her china-painting studio in 1974.
BECOMING JUDY CHICAGO A Biography of the Artist. By Gail Levin.
Illustrated. 485 pp. Harmony Books. $29.95.
By ELSA DIXLER
Published: March 4, 2007
When the Elizabeth A.
Sackler Center for Feminist Art opens
later this month, Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party,” a multimedia installation celebrating the
role of women in Western civilization, will have a permanent home. Conceived by
and 1979, “The Dinner Party” was seen by more than a million people in the years
following its completion. But since 1988 it has spent much of the time in storage.
How that could happen to what the critic Arthur Danto has called “one of the major
artistic monuments of the second half of the 20th century” is revealed in “Becoming Judy
author of many other books, including a well-received biography of Edward Hopper
enlarged edition just out], examines the
is liveliest when it turns to the creation and reception of “The Dinner Party.”
Every artist “becomes” herself as she matures, but for Judith Sylvia Cohen, the process
was political as well as artistic. Her father, a union activist and a Communist, was
hounded out of his job and died in 1953, when Judy was 13. Her parents’ politics shaped
her belief that art could change the world, and their love and support helped her grow up
confident. She took classes at the Art Institute of Chicago from the time she was 5, and
Judy Cohen tried to be one of the boys in her art-school crowd — “I began to wear boots
and smoke cigars,” she wrote — and emulated their work. She had some success; her
sculpture was included in an important show and noticed in Artforum. But she began to
feel that “I could no longer pretend in my art that being a woman had no meaning,” and
she produced images that, while still formal, evoked women’s sexuality. An Artforum ad
for her show at California State College,
Gerowitz (the name of her first husband, who had died), in a boxing ring, wearing trunks
and a sweatshirt emblazoned with the name Judy Chicago — a gallery owner’s nickname
for her because of her accent. On a wall facing the entrance to
sign: “Judy Gerowitz hereby divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male
social dominance and freely chooses her own name Judy Chicago.” It was definitely
Increasingly influenced by the emerging women’s movement,
program at Fresno State College to help young women become artists. She used her own
version of consciousness-raising, taught the students carpentry so they could build a
studio and encouraged them to make art out of their own
experience. In 1971,
with the painter Miriam Schapiro, moved the program to the new California Institute of
the Arts. But focusing on the students’ emotions made her
“nothing but a therapist,” and she was torn between her commitment to her teaching and
her desire to work, alone, in her studio. Some students felt that
monumentally hard worker — pushed them beyond their limits. Their complaints, Levin
says, were the source of later rumors that
Dinner Party.” Tensions over leadership, although Levin does not say so, were endemic
in the early women’s movement.
The relationship of feminists to established institutions was another continuing tension.
After two years of increasing conflict with Schapiro,
wanted to work within that admittedly flawed institution, while
colleagues, started an independent feminist art school.
concentrate on the work that became “The Dinner Party.” She attempted to create images
at once feminine and active; she painted vaginal shapes that morphed into butterflies and
the petals of a flower arranged around a central core. She wrote biographical information
around the edges of abstract portraits of great women in history.
This story has been told by Chicago herself in “Through the Flower,” a memoir named
for one of her breakthrough feminist paintings and published in 1975. Levin’s book is
based in large part on
her), so the anecdotes and descriptions can seem familiar to someone who has read
— the feminist writers and critics Chicago spoke with, the meetings she attended,
interviews with her students, descriptions and reviews of her work. Sometimes there is
too much information — about the Eastern European milieu of
example, or about short-lived college romances. And sometimes there is too little. Levin
mentions that some
“essentialism controversy” — that is, they
create is always based on biological forms. She discusses the debate briefly but presents
the critique of
women who consider it a compliment to be told that they ‘paint like a man.’ ” This is not
a fair treatment of a serious question. Levin is so immersed in
perspectives seem nearly identical, and her account of the artist’s ideas, choices and
behavior is defensive rather than analytical. The reader wants a little more Levin.
When “The Dinner Party” opened in March 1979 at the
Francisco, the critical response was mixed. (Hilton Kramer, then the chief art critic of
The New York Times, called it “kitsch” and “very bad art ... mired in the pieties of a
political cause.”) But it attracted huge crowds all over
it down, women raised money to show “The Dinner Party” in other settings. When I first
saw it at the
away. It was exhilarating to see so many women — the women who had created “The
Dinner Party” and the women honored by it, and all the women who came to see it. With
the opening of the
expression of feminist art and the women’s movement of the ’70s. Those who cannot
make the trip to Brooklyn will find the next best thing in
, with an essay by
hundreds of color photographs by her husband, Donald Woodman.
“Becoming Judy Chicago” is a work of large scope and wide research — as well as
beautiful illustrations. It brings alive a body of work and an unironic era that seem very
Elsa Dixler is an editor at the Book Review.