Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
BELEN – Judy Chicago’s tumbleweed of purple curls crowns her head above purple lipstick, purple nail polish and neon turquoise glasses as she relaxes in her Belen Hotel home.
Tuxedo, the black and white cat, wanders through the restored space as Chicago discusses decades of struggling through multiple projects with little to no support from the established art world.
Forty-two years after “The Dinner Party” opened to eviscerating reviews, the Belen resident is finally receiving the credit her fans have longed for her.
Chicago will turn 82 on Tuesday, in time to release her autobiography “The Flowering” (Thames and Hudson) in a PBS livestreamed conversation in bookstores across the country. San Francisco’s De Young Museum is giving her a career retrospective, as is Santa Fe’s Turner Carroll Gallery. The book opens with a foreword by Gloria Steinem.
On Saturday and Sunday Chicago will create a smoke sculpture in the Belen Arts District on Becker Street, accompanied by art exhibitions, gallery tours and wine tastings.
This is a woman accustomed to hearing “no” and doing it anyway.
“The Dinner Party” features three 48-foot-long tables assembled into a triangle with 39 intricate place settings, each dedicated to a notable woman, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson. Her intention was to rededicate the history of Western civilization to the women left out of it. Today the piece stands in the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Art Museum.
In the “Birth Project” (1980-85), Chicago portrayed maternity dresses, birth traditions and issues enveloping motherhood and the birth experience. She watched a live birth, returning home in tears. Using birth as a metaphor for creation, her tapestries flowed with emotion and spirituality. Screams rent some of the women’s mouths.
The “Holocaust Project” (1985-1993) consists of a tapestry of 12 images combining painting, stained glass and photographic techniques with her husband, the photographer Donald Woodman.
Once again, predictably, the critics hated it.
Then something changed.
When “The Dinner Party” was finally installed at the Brooklyn Museum in 2002, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote, “It’s almost as much a part of American culture as Norman Rockwell, Walt Disney, W.P.A. murals and the AIDS quilt.”
In 2019, the “Birth Project” traveled throughout the country.
“Donald and I often say it’s like a miracle,” Chicago said of her newfound acceptance.
She remembers a Tuesday while she was working on “The Holocaust Project” in Santa Fe. She realized her bank account would be empty by Friday. Then something finally sold, creating an unexpected windfall.
It was a pattern that repeated itself throughout her career. She had never owned a home until she turned 60.
Given the recent impact of the #MeToo movement, it’s easy to wonder if Chicago’s work was prophetic.
Born Judy Cohen in lower-middle class Chicago, she changed her name in 1969 to “assert my independence.” She trained at UCLA in the ’60s, moving from minimalist sculpture toward the images of female genitalia and radical feminism that made her famous or infamous, depending on your point of view.
“I never wanted children. I never wanted a family,” she said. “I find it very foreign that the purpose of life is to be happy. What I learned from my father was to make a difference.”
Her father was a Marxist and a union organizer who led vibrant political discussions in their home.
“He treated everybody the same,” Chicago said. “He said, ‘Everybody looks the same on the toilet with their pants down’.”
Chicago spent the pandemic writing her autobiography and, as always, creating art. She was used to the solitude.
“I felt guilty because everybody was having such a hard time,” she said. “I would never have been able to write the book (without the quarantine); everything stopped.”
She also created a new series of prints, “Life On Pause,” during the shutdown. Colorful images of her smoke sculptures hang on the walls of her Through the Flower art space, down the street from her home. The prints reveal neon-colored smoke billowing around trees and snaking around trellises like ghosts, dependent upon the will of the wind. Chicago works with someone licensed in pyrotechnics.
“It’s a way that I can make art that has nothing to do with the market,” she explained.
When the Times’ glowing “Dinner Party” review was published, Chicago called her friend Henry Hopkins, the former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who premiered the piece in 1979.
“I called up Henry and said, ‘Am I a different artist today? Is the “Dinner Party” a different piece?'”
“That’s what art is like,” she said. “It’s a discovery.”