Smoke work by Judy Chicago.

At 80, Judy Chicago is Still Breaking Rules

The trailblazing feminist artist famed for her Dinner Party installation—the first grand-scale feminist artwork—celebrates eight decades this Saturday.

by Nadja Sayej
|
Jul 19 2019, 1:45pm

Smoke work by Judy Chicago.

“I cannot believe that I am going to be 80,” Chicago tells GARAGE. “Because of my life experiences, I have always been extremely aware of my mortality and therefore, never believed that I'd live so long.”

Chicago is far from retired; she’ll soon be opening an exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, where she faces her own mortality, and is opening her own museum called Through the Flower in Belen, New Mexico (the same city where she lives), this weekend. Did we mention a birthday display of fireworks? That’s not all, as this September, Chicago is having two solo exhibitions—at Deitch Projects in Los Angeles and at Salon 94 in New York. (If you want to support Chicago for her 80 th birthday, we suggest becoming a member of Through the Flower, which you can sign up for here).

The artist is the founder of the country’s first university feminist art program, brought craft into contemporary art in a serious way, not to mention introducing female genitalia in floral forms onto ceramic plates for the Dinner Party, which is on permanent view at the Brooklyn Museum. She also helped shed light on some of the greatest, not to mention overlooked, women thinkers, from Virginia Woolf to Georgia O'Keeffe.

To celebrate her enormous contributions to art history, education and feminism, we’ve rounded up eight ways Chicago broke all the rules in the art world in the past 80 years, with commentary from the artist herself—from running a wine company to opening a museum.

She fought with her art professors to study more women artists

When Chicago was studying art in 1950s at UCLA, she notes that her art history professor preferred to only preach the gospel of male thinkers in his class. “That was a long time ago,” said Chicago. “Although, the patriarchal thinking that shaped my professor's views is sadly still prominent in the men who run the country.”

She broke through being pigeonholed as the Dinner Party artist

Rather than stopping at her most critically acclaimed artwork, she had to fight hard to get beyond being pigeon-holed for the Dinner Party. “I used to say that I hoped I lived long enough to see ‘The Dinner Party’ understood as only one work in a large body of work,” she says. “That is just starting to happen, fortunately, with recent shows featuring my earlier works at ICA Miami and the Harwood Museum.” So, what’s she working on now? “My latest series of work entitled “The End,” tackles the themes of mortality and extinction both on a personal and global level. So, this year, my fans will literally be able to see Judy Chicago from the beginning to the end.”

She’s the first contemporary artist with a line of red wines

Perhaps? To help support the opening of her new museum, Chicago is launching wines along with Jaramillo Vineyards in Belen. There are two new Judy Chicago red wines – a petit Verdot blend, and a cabernet franc blend – which will have 30% of its sale proceeds going towards the new art space. Each bottle is emblazoned with Chicago’s signature and her artwork.

She ushered in hundreds of women artist assistants in the 1970s

Many of the assistants became lifelong friends, like Audrey Cowan who was a key project manager, and countless others. When asked how important was it to have a team of women working in your studio, Chicago points out the overlooked: “There were also men in key roles and they are often overlooked, so I find myself reminding people of this, which is funny.”

Her birthday cake is going to be “all the colors of the rainbow”

Just imagine what kind of birthday cake an artist turning 80 might have—something certainly spectacular. But traditional? Nah. “I designed a cake that mirrors the smoke colors that I am using for ‘A Birthday Bouquet for Belen,’ which both celebrates my birthday and the opening of the Through the Flower Art Space,” says Chicago. “The space will showcase my art and my husband Donald Woodman’s photography, as well as have rotating exhibitions featuring works by artists from or working in New Mexico.”

She still fights for transparency of women in art history

Imagine a time before Wikipedia, when encyclopedias were in use. And yet, some women were excluded from mainstream history books. Chicago worked tirelessly to shed light on women who were overlooked in history. “I have always said that The Dinner Party was a symbolic history in that – for each of the 1,038 women represented – there are thousands more who remain unacknowledged,” she said. And yet, it took Chicago decades for her work to be recognized by the mainstream, despite the flurry of exhibitions she has had in recent years. “I have no idea why,” says Chicago. “People keep saying that I was ahead of my time, I guess that's as good an answer as any.”

It took forever to get a permanent place for the Dinner Party

By far, the biggest challenge in putting together the Dinner Party came almost 30 years after it was made. “There were innumerable challenges, but the most daunting was achieving permanent housing at the Brooklyn Museum, which took almost 30 years,” says Chicago. “It is very gratifying that the piece now accounts for 20% of the museum’s audience.”

She keeps going, as her work is not done

Chicago is still on a self-proclaimed voyage of discovery. “That is what art making is for me; a voyage of discovery, one that has occupied me for decades,” she says. “I'll be done when I die.”