At auto-body school, Chicago was the only woman in a class of 250 men. “I had already discovered that there was freedom in materials that were not directly linked to a long art-historical tradition,” she said. “I never liked oil paint. I didn’t like imposing on the canvas in that way; I always associated the surface of the canvas with my skin.”
Mastering the airbrush was a pivotal discovery. Chicago considers it “the single-most important tool of [her] career.” What she learned while training in pyrotechnics and auto-body painting is evident in series such as her “Atmosphere” fireworks performances (1968–72) and pieces like Car Hood (1964), a section of Corvair hood sprayed pristinely with acrylic lacquer.
“I’ve always felt that even though the scene in the 1960s and early ’70s was very inhospitable to women, that was still when I built the formal building blocks that have stood me in good stead in my career,” Chicago said. “That’s when I learned how to spray paint, to develop my color systems, when I started working in monumental scale.”