T his continues next week, when the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami opens a four-decade retrospective of her work, Judy Chicago: A Reckoning. The show goes beyond the Dinner Party, a triangular ceremonial banquet table celebrating the achievements of Western women from across history, to look at some of the Chicago’s lesser-known works, including her early paintings on car hoods, her spray-painted Minimalism, and her long-running collaborative needlepoint work from the 1980s, the Birth Project. In the spirit of discovering new sides of Judy Chicago, we rounded up five facts you might not have known about her life and career.
1. Judy Chicago was born Judith Sylvia Cohen
When Judy, a Chicago native, married her partner Jerry Gerowitz, she took his name and became Judith Gerowitz. But a few years after he died in a car accident, she staged a solo show at the gallery at California State, Fullerton, and announced in an Artforum ad that “Judy Gerowitz hereby divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and freely chooses her own name Judy Chicago.”
2. Chicago has devoted years to looking at masculinity, too
Although Chicago is most famous for her creative interpretations of female anatomy, in the 1980s she turned to the male body. Her PowerPlay drawings from 1982 to 1987 depict muscle-bound man-gods, creating and destroying universes in rainbow colours – making Chicago one of the pioneers of the notion that masculinity is a socially constructed gender too.
3. It took some 400 people to make The Dinner Party
In the 1970s, Chicago enlisted hundreds of artisans who worked in historically devalued "women's crafts," such as needlepoint and embroidery, to help her create the monumental work. Together they hand-painted china, stitched banners, made test plates, and cast thousands of porcelain tiles to generate one of art history's most significant examples of collaborative art.
4. Chicago has been criticised for excluding women of colour from the table
Some critics have pointed out that among the 39 plates set at the table, only two belong to women of colour: women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth and explorer Sacajawea. The feminist writer and The Color Purple author Alice Walker noticed in a 1979 Ms. magazine article that Truth’s plate was among the few that didn't depict a vulva (it instead shows three faces). “It occurred to me that perhaps white women feminists, no less than white women generally, cannot imagine that black women have vaginas,” said Walker.
5. Monet and Seurat were among Chicago's earliest influences
As a child, the artist immersed herself in the paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, “stopping often in front of the Monet haystacks and the beautiful Seurat,” she wrote in her memoir Through the Flower.
“When I was about 11, I became fascinated with Toulouse-Lautrec and the way he used reds.” Later, these works would influence her in a very different way: "I gave no thought to the fact that, while I was studying the colour, the images of women painted by artists like Lautrec were also penetrating my psyche, later to confuse me, the artist, who wanted to paint, with me, the woman, who I learned from these paintings, was supposed to be the model."