SITTING ON THE hardwood floor of Flanders Contemporary Art gallery two weeks ago, watching an oddly funny video about Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party at the opening of her retrospective exhibit, I turned to see whose toes were poking me in the butt. It was an old, frail woman, probably about 80. Looking around at the dozens of women there in middle age and beyond, I realized that thesewere the masses I'd read about--the ones who'd flocked to see The Dinner Party back in '79 and so frightened the highbrow critics. I know these people. You know these people. They're my mother, my grandmother, my mentors, my idols. They're the ones who got mad in the '70s, and many of them are still a hell of a lot angrier than your average riot grrrl.
I say I know these women--but I am not one of them. As a women's studies major in college, I ultimately found that academic milieu grating in its earnestness and piety--qualities which are hallmarks of Chicago's work. Viewing her art in 1996, it's easy to focus on its shortcomings--an over-reliance on text to explain itself, an often jarring didacticism, and a humorless religiosity. Yet her new autobiography reveals a woman more ambitious, responsible, and contradictory than than her work might suggest.
This is in fact the second autobiography from an artist who admits she was determined from childhood to become famous. In 1975, just as her career was taking off, she presumed to publish Through the Flower, detailing everything from her Saturday art classes as a kid in Chicago to her multiple orgasms. This new volume briefly covers that book's terrain, and goes on to describe the following 20 years: the evolution of her art (which most recently explores topics like masculinity and the Holocaust--thus the book's title); her many personal losses (a divorce, the deaths of her husband, father, brother, and mother); and her increasing discomfort with our society's prescribed role for its artists. To Chicago's credit, the book organically combines the stories of her artistic and personal lives; unfortunately, it also suffers from overly dry, academic prose. Fun, juicy reading this is not. Still, like her art, it matters.
As an ambitious young woman in the macho L.A. art scene of the '60s, Chicago tried her damnedest to fit in. She smoked cigars (before it was a femmy fad), learned auto painting, took her hometown as an "underground" name, and made big, ballsy art. She also meticulously censored the female forms which had always come naturally to her. Looking back, she dwells on her youthful tunnel vision, a single-minded determination both to make good art and have her intelligence acknowledged (she recounts, somewhat illogically, being "oblivious to the stares of male students and... indifferent responses of professors" when she raised her hand in class). The chasm between her need for artistic--and, thus, male--approval and a furious commitment to her own sensibilities was opening.
Ironically, her goal was (and remains) not so unusual: To make monumental, important art, no matter the cost to her personal life (which has been heavy). In the age-old tradition of artists using assistants or apprentices, she has unapologetically relied upon hundreds of volunteer artisans to render her designs in needlework and ceramic. The trouble was, after establishing her female-oriented aesthetic, she specifically chose "private," then-taboo topics, such as women's history, craft, and biology with The Dinner Party (1979) and Birth Project (1988), and forced viewers to see their universal significance. For women, it was no stretch: To see the vagina used as a symbolic device in The Dinner Party's 39 plates, the way we've seen phallic forms employed all our lives, was a thrill. Men, on the other hand, tended to see it as a simplistic, didactic "obsession."
Chicago's art is purposely didactic, intent on "decoding" the mysteries of modern art for the masses. Smart as she is, her naiveté persists, and she still doesn't seem to understand why male critics didn't "get it": They felt both talked down to and threatened. Much male criticism was patently destructive (The Dinner Party has been called "grotesque kitsch" and "pornographic garbage"); perhaps, in light of this, she subconsciously nurtures that tunnel vision to protect her artistic vision.
Chicago doesn't whine about it, but one of the starkest themes of her story is that, despite her work's huge popularity, the big American museums have shunned it. (As she also notes, to be a famous artist does not mean to be a rich one.) The monumental Dinner Party, for example, has been seen by half a million people, but mostly in warehouses and alternative spaces, and it still has no permanent housing. Considering the zeitgeist both economically and artistically, it's strange indeed that museums don't recognize a mother lode of a hungry audience when it's staring them in the face. Strange, and cowardly.
A male colleague once said Chicago's work made him want to look away, "as if he had seen a lady publicly lift her skirt and display her bare thighs." At points I had the same the response to Beyond the Flower. Still, I wish more artists made me so uncomfortable. CP
Beyond the Flower: From the Seventies to the Nineties is on view at Flanders Contemporary Art (344-1643).