By Noma Faingold
Fiercely feminist artist and writer Judy Chicago walked into a room at San Francisco’s de Young Museum on the morning of Aug. 25 to deliver remarks at a press preview of her first-ever retrospective titled, “Judy Chicago: A Retrospective.” She looked at least a couple of decades younger than her 82 years, sporting untamed curly, intensely purple hair, a sparkly black knit vest over a sheer purple long-sleeved blouse, black skinny jeans and sneakers.
Like her art, Chicago’s look does not follow any rules. Try boxing her in. She will have already moved on to something else.
Yet it is not her unconventionality, but her vibrancy that drew the attention of the two dozen or so members of the media at the event. Chicago warmly greeted a seated Jordan D. Schnitzer of Portland, her friend and an avid collector, who lent four of the artist’s pieces to the exhibit, which opened Aug. 28 and runs through Jan. 9, 2022.
“We talk all the time,” Schnitzer said. “She’s one of the most important artists of the last 50 years. She was way ahead of her time.”
Chicago stood off to the side, a little fidgety with anticipation, while Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, delivered his opening comments. He called Chicago a “very accessible artist” despite “her lifelong fight against the suppression and erasure of women’s creativity.”
Campbell said, “a retrospective is long overdue,” and predicted visitors would walk away from the exhibit “transformed by her art.”
Claudia Schmuckli, curator in charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, who worked closely with Chicago for nearly three years to shape the retrospective, said, “We have chosen to open the exhibition with her most recent work. We like the element of surprise a reverse presentation would offer.”
Covering six decades of Chicago’s work, Schmuckli said, “It was important to show Judy as an artist who is very much alive and has never ceased to make work that is deeply engaged with current issues and concerns.”
Schmuckli’s final statement in her formal introduction, which was peppered with intellectual flourishes, was directed at Chicago: “You still kick ass.”
Chicago, still best known for the installation The Dinner Party (permanent collection at the Brooklyn Museum), which took five years to create in the 1970s, started crying as soon as she stepped up to the podium, recalling the debut of The Dinner Party in San Francisco 40 years ago.
“I was here for the opening. Henry Hopkins (director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art at the time) said to me, ‘Judy, this is the culmination of your career.’ I said, ‘Henry, I’m just getting started.’”
The ambitious, provocative project, consisting of 39 intricate place settings, resembling female genitalia as a representation of historical and mythical female figures, is not at all the focus of the retrospective. Instead, the exhibition displays the artist’s process of creating The Dinner Party, featuring earlier “test plates,” archival material and a short film.
Throughout her career, Chicago (born Judith Sylvia Cohen and given the nickname Chicago after her home city, which she formally adopted as her last name) has repeatedly been dismissed by a male-dominated art world – critics, collectors, academia and museums. Yet she has been undeterred.
Chicago said not everyone gets the point of The Dinner Party, including one reporter at the press preview, who asked hypothetically what meal should be served.
She kind of laughed before delivering her response.
“There were these 39 women across centuries, profession, ethnicity, race, religion and few people knew many of them. Why? Because they had vaginas,” she said. “The plates aren’t vaginas. The plates are making a point about vagina-bearing people.”
Chicago never cared about money. Her uncompromising creativity has always been motivated by starting important conversations and confronting existential social issues. Her career evolution is all covered in the retrospective, including:
• “Birth Project,” a reinterpretation of the Genesis creation narrative and images of childbirth – working with women in Northern California over six years in the 1980s, using craft mediums like quilting and needlepoint to create the art;
• “PowerPlay,” large-scale paintings that re-examine masculinity, particularly in its destructive forms, inspired by Renaissance masterpieces;
• “Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light,” a collaboration with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, addressing their Jewish heritage and genocide;
• “The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction,” sounds the alarm on the environment/endangered species, with porcelain, glass and bronze sculptures, in addition to paintings.
“I’ve had a long, hard struggle with my marginalization by the art world,” Chicago said. “This retrospective is kind of overwhelming. I didn’t know if I was going to live long enough to see my work emerge from the shadows and now it has. For me, it’s like seeing it for the first time.”
Schmuckli said Chicago endured a lot of rejection and harsh criticism throughout her career. Writing helped (Chicago has authored several books, including her latest, “The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago,” 2021) but what kept her going was just being able to create.
“She always went back to the studio. It was a safe place,” Schmuckli said. “It’s the place where she’s been able to work through all her feelings.”
Chicago, whose studio and home is in Belen, New Mexico, started the first feminist arts program in 1970 at Fresno State. Her belief is that art “has the power to educate, empower and inspire viewers.”
Explaining her intention with her more recent work addressing the Holocaust (namely her 1992 piece titled “Rainbow Shabbat” in stained glass) and the endangered species series, Chicago again grows tearful.
“My vision for the future is one that requires the human race to change course before it’s too late,” she said. “I hope my art can lead us all out of the darkness we’re in.”
“Judy Chicago: A Retrospective,” is open now through Jan. 9, 2022, at the de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park. For more information, go to deyoung.famsf.org.
Special Event: “Forever de Young: A Judy Chicago Performance” (part of her Atmosphere series). The artist will create a multicolored, site-specific smoke sculpture on the lawn of the main museum entrance, Oct. 16, 5:30 p.m.