Through an apprenticeship with a pyrotechnics company, Chicago learned to set off fireworks herself. She’d always had an interest in the emotional resonance of color, and she began to experiment with tinted smoke. In 1968, she filled Los Angeles’s Brookside Park with ethereal orange clouds (Orange Atmosphere). In 1969, she took the series to the beach in Santa Barbara, where she ignited sublime billows of purple mist (Purple Atmosphere #4). They diffused into the sea air, seeming to rise over the ocean.
Unlike the actions of some of her male peers, Chicago’s interventions in the natural world didn’t involve any destruction of the landscape. Rather, they softened it and highlighted its beauty. At times, the smoke acted like a curtain, slowly lifting to reveal the stunning landscape behind it. At others, it curled across the environment’s curves and grooves, emphasizing its elegant and varied contours.
But when Chicago began to bring her “Atmospheres” into the built environment, their meaning shifted: They became more aggressive. When the Santa Barbara Museum of Art commissioned a piece, Chicago exploded orange and yellow smoke along a strip of the museum’s concrete wall. “It looked like the museum was on fire. I loved that,” she remembers. “Because, of course, museums were not exactly hospitable to women artists.” The flares scarred the wall with permanent black marks.
As the series developed, Chicago introduced female performers into her interventions. In her 1972 “Atmospheres,” women whose nude bodies were painted purple, orange, and green mingled with clouds of the same colors. Surrounded by a spectacular desert landscape, they resembled goddesses in the throes of a ritual that honors Mother Earth.