In Conversation with Judy Chicago, Icon of Feminist Art

Christine Kuan
Jun 2, 2014 3:38PM

In celebration of iconic feminist artist Judy Chicago’s 75th birthday this year, there will be more than ten major exhibitions in her honor, taking up over 20,000 square feet of exhibition space throughout the United States. Chicago is a renowned artist, educator, author, and activist. Recently described as a “feminist visionary” by The New York Times, her life and work has been dedicated to art and expanding public access to information about women artists. We sat down in her apartment in New York City to talk about her life’s work, technology, and the art market today.

Christine Kuan: It’s really amazing to see your early works and The Dinner Party in person at the Brooklyn Museum, because your work is in every textbook! How did the idea for that show come about?

Judy Chicago: Well, that was Brooklyn Museum curator Catherine Morris’s idea. As appreciative as I was of all the attention that The Dinner Party brought me, it was also frustrating. I used to say, I hope that before I die it will become evident that The Dinner Party was only one work in a really large body of art. When “Pacific Standard Time”[Getty Museum’s initiative documenting and celebrating southern California art from 1945-1980] happened, it began to wedge open a space for people to look at other aspects of my production. I was very prominent in “Pacific Standard Time,” in eight museum exhibitions and three solo shows, and I remember that Catherine Morris and Mary Kershaw, director of the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, both came to see the shows at the same time. And they began to talk about doing tandem shows, looking at two aspects of my career: my L.A. years and my New Mexico years. And because it happened that that plan was going to take place in 2014, people just kind of got on the bandwagon when they realized I was going to turn 75 this year. Before I knew it there’s this whole thing happening all over the country, which is great because I’m occupying somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 square feet of exhibition space.

CK: Does this level of national exposure signal a new level of interest for your work and for women artists?

JC: Yes, in terms of visibility, but at an institutional level there’s still very little change. There’s an artist in L.A. named Micol Hebron. She is doing this great project that has spread all over the country. There are young male and female artists going to galleries and counting the numbers of women and putting the data online. So they feel elated when they go to a regional gallery or a small gallery and they discover there’s 60% women in the show. Right? But what that disguises is the fact of how little change has been happening at an institutional level.


The three paths into art history are major museum solo exhibitions, permanent collections, and monographs. So in terms of monographs, in the 1970s, 1.5% of art books were devoted to a single woman artist. In 2014, it’s 2.7%, which is a shockingly paltry amount. In major museums, women represent only 3% to 5% of permanent collections. In fact, when I was having my conversation with Jeffrey Deitch in April, after he saw my Mana Contemporary show, he asked, “Is there work for sale here?” and I said, “Everything’s for sale, Jeffrey. This is a commercial show.” And I said, “In fact, after the New York Times article, I wrote to Tim Nye, my dealer, my gallerist, and I said, ‘Well, do you suppose you can get Big Blue Pink,’—which is one of the big Flesh Gardens in the Brooklyn Museum show—‘into the Museum of Modern Art now?’” And Jeffrey looked at me. And I said, “I’m not in the MoMA, the Whitney, the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou…”

CK: Are you kidding? I’m shocked.

JC: I know, at the Brooklyn Artists Ball, I’m telling you that several young artists got down on their hands and knees in front of me. I’m like, “GET UP!! FOR GOD’S SAKE!!” It was the awe factor, artists saying, “Thank you so much,” “You’ve inspired me,” “Without you, I couldn’t be working.” Ever since, I’ve been witnessing the fact of my impact.

CK: Can you talk a bit about your early works in the show, such as the Dry Ice Environment and your works with fireworks? Everyone talks about Cai Guo-Qiang’s radical use of fireworks, but you were doing it in the 1970s. It’s very fascinating to me that these early works are large scale, outdoor, and public, but are not recognized as important aspects of your oeuvre.

JC: Right, I started in 1968 and there’s a lot of my work that remained unknown for a long time. For example, when “Pacific Standard Time” opened, we ran into Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, whom of course I’ve known forever from L.A., and they said, “Oh, Judy! We were just talking to Richard Prince, and we asked him if he knew your Car Hoods. And he said no. And we said, ‘Eat your heart out!’” And then somebody at the Mana show said, “Gee, wouldn’t it be cool to have a show of Judy’s Car Hoods and Richard Prince’s Car Hoods?” One of the reasons that Donald [Woodman] and I spent ten years working really hard on an estate plan and trying to figure out what to do with our work was because I knew that other than The Dinner Party, the rest of my body of work could be completely erased, because it’s not in all these major collections. It was of great concern to me.

CK: So many people today don’t know the work of women artists, and so many kids that I’ve taught have said they are not “feminists.” What are your thoughts about this new anti-feminism?

JC: I talk about this in my recent book Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education. When women were first allowed into university education, no thought was given at all to the fact that they were being introduced to an entirely male-centered curriculum. This is true of art history classes, too. There are now add-on courses: add-on ethnic studies, women’s studies. But there has not been a transformation of the curriculum so that everybody—male and female—studies what men and women did, taught, thought, and created. I’ve been hearing this from countless young women who have interviewed me, who have consciousness but had to seek it out. The ones who went to CalArts had to find in the archives the feminist art program that had been excised from CalArts’ institutional memory.

Audrey Chan is a young Asian American performance artist in Los Angeles who, in 2007, with a group of other people—you know the feminist year when there were all those shows?—organized a conference. She really wanted me to come. She had such a deep need to connect intergenerationally with me, she started performing as me. And she did this fabulous video called How I became a feminist artist without living through the ’70s. Because institutions are not facilitating these connections, young women are having to do it all themselves. What I set out to do was to try and change that. That’s why I started the feminist art programs, that’s why I did The Dinner Party. I set out to try and make it possible for young women not to have to invent their own role models.

CK: What do you think of the art world today compared to when you started out?

JC: I come from a time when nobody thought they were going to make a lot of money being an artist. The idea was to be taken seriously as an artist and, for me, to make a contribution as an artist. Things have changed so much. For so many artists today, either the original strong impulses of their work gets watered down as they get absorbed into the arts system, or they start producing work because they have the support of the large galleries, which are giving them lots of money, so they start producing sort of knock-offs of earlier work in new materials, in expensive materials. And those original impulses seem to disappear and those new works seem to be just money-driven—they are just making another money-driven object. I think it’s very difficult to stand up to the marketplace. I mean, in a certain, bizarre way, because I’ve been excluded from it, I’ve benefitted from it; it’s allowed me to pursue my own vision. For me, art has to have real substantive meaning.

CK: Artsy is doing something radical in some sense by combining art education and collecting on the same platform. What are your thoughts on digital technology and education?

JC: In 2001, Karen Keifer-Boyd, who is a professor of art education and women’s studies at Penn State, wanted to know if I thought my teaching methods could be adapted to online. And I said, “Absolutely not.” Live and learn. Fast-forward to 2014, my art education archives are now at Penn State—The Dinner Party K-12 curriculum is online there in perpetuity and it’s being made available all over the world. Penn State is in the process of establishing an online dialogue portal as part of my art education archive to facilitate an international dialogue about the future of art education, which is what I call for in Institutional Time.

CK: What do you hope the next generation will come to understand about your work?

JC: My goals have been to make a contribution to art history, and to help transform the changes in consciousness that have happened in the last 30 to 40 years around race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, into real institutional change that will allow everyone in the future to have access to the diversity of the human spirit as it’s been expressed in art. I want to see that translated into our institutions—our museums and universities. It’s a big challenge for the next generation, but that is the challenge. And to not get sidetracked by money, fame, and celebrity, and to think that that substitutes for meaning, connection, and contributions. Because as hard as my life has been and is, I would not have lived a different life.

Interview conducted in New York City on April 18, 2014.

Photo: Judy Chicago at the Brooklyn Museum, photo by Donald Woodman

Explore “Chicago in L.A.: Judy Chicago’s Early Work, 1963–74” on Artsy. On view at the Brooklyn Museum, Apr. 4th–Sep. 28th, 2014.

Explore “The Very Best of Judy Chicago” on Artsy. On view at Nyehaus, Mar. 6–Aug. 1, 2014.

Explore "Challenge Yourself: Judy Chicago’s Studio Art Pedagogy" on Artsy. On view at The Judy Chicago Art Education Collection at Penn State, Mar. 24 – Jun. 13, 2014.

Explore "Surveying Judy Chicago: Five Decades" on Artsy. On view at Palmer Museum of Art, January 21–May 11, 2014.

Explore "Judy Chicago: Circa ’75" on Artsy. On view at The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Jan. 17 – Apr. 13, 2014.

See Judy Chicago: Major Exhibitions 2014.

Christine Kuan