Judy Chicago - American feminist artist

Judy Chicago - American feminist artist


Judy Chicago, born Cohen, on July 20, 1939, is an American feminist artist, academician, art educator, and writer. She is best known for her large-scale collaborative art installations on images of birth and creation, which examine the role of women in history and culture.


Her mother, May, had a great love of the arts and passed on her passion. At the age of three, Judy began drawing and was sent to the Art Institute of Chicago for classes. At the age of five, she knew she "never wanted to do anything but art" and began taking classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. She enrolled, but was denied admission, and then attended UCLA on a scholarship.

While at UCLA, she became politically active, making posters for the UCLA NAACP chapter and later becoming their corresponding secretary. She earned a BFA in 1962, and received an MFA from UCLA in 1964.

Her husband, Jerry Gerowitz, whom she met in 1959 and married in 1961, died in a car accident in 1963. Devastated by the tragic death of her beloved, Judy suffered an identity crisis for several years.


During her college years, Judy created a series of abstract, yet easily recognizable works of male and female sexual organs. These early works, entitled "Bigamy", represented the death of her husband. Her mostly male teachers were appalled by these works. Despite the use of sexual organs in her work, Judy refrained from using gender politics or identity as themes.

In 1965, she presented work in her first solo exhibition, at the Rolf Nelson Gallery in Los Angeles. She was one of four women artists to participate in the exhibition. However, she did not participate in the "California Women in the Arts" exhibition at the Lytton Center in 1968 because she did not want to show "in any group defined as Woman, Jewish, or California. Someday, when we all grow up, there will be no labels." Chicago began working with ice sculpture, which is "a metaphor for the preciousness of life," another reference to her husband's death.


As she made a name for herself as an artist and got to know herself as a woman, she no longer felt connected to the Cohen family name, due in large part to her grief over the death of her father and the loss of her connection to her married name, Gerowitz, since her husband's death. She then decided to change her family name to one that was not linked to a man through marriage or inheritance.

At the same time, the gallery owner Rolf Nelson nicknamed her "Judy Chicago" because of her strong personality and Chicago accent. She decided that this would be her new name, and made the legal change of her last name, thus freeing herself from a certain social identity. However, she was appalled by the fact that she needed the signature of her new husband, sculptor Lloyd Hamrol, whom she married in 1965 before divorcing in 1979, to legally change her name.

To celebrate her change of identity, she posed dressed as a boxer and wearing a sweatshirt with her new name at an exhibition, and at her 1970 solo show at California State University, Fullerton, she also posted a banner across the gallery: "Judy Gerowitz hereby divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and chooses her own name, Judy Chicago." An advertisement with the same statement appeared in the October 1970 issue of Artforum.


Judy Chicago is considered one of the "first-generation feminist artists", a group that also includes Mary Beth Edelson, Carolee Schneeman and Rachel Rosenthal. They were part of the feminist art movement in Europe and the United States in the early 1970s to develop feminist writing and art.

At this same time, Judy began teaching full-time at Fresno State College, hoping to teach women the skills to express the female perspective in their work. At Fresno, she created an all-women's class and decided to teach off campus to escape "the presence and hence, the expectations of men". She taught the first women's art class in the fall of 1970 at Fresno State College, and then founded the first feminist art program in the United States, which served as a catalyst for feminist art and art education during the 1970s.


Along with Arlene Raven and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Judy co-founded the Los Angeles Woman's Building in 1973. This art school and exhibition space was housed in a structure named after a pavilion at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition that featured art by women from around the world. It housed the Feminist Studio Workshop, described by the founders as "an experimental program in female education in the arts."

"Our purpose is to develop a new concept of art, a new kind of artist and a new art community built from the lives, feelings, and needs of women."

During this period, Judy begins to create spray painted canvases, mostly abstract, with geometric shapes. These works evolved, using the same medium, to become more focused on the meaning of "feminine".

In 1971, she also created the Womanhouse project, in collaboration with Miriam Schapiro, a feminist art program at the California Institute of the Arts, the first art exhibition space to present a female perspective in art, attended by 21 selected female students. The idea for Womanhouse came from a discussion at the beginning of the course about the home as a place that women are traditionally associated with, and they wanted to highlight the realities of womanhood, wifehood and motherhood within the home. Judy believes that female students often approach art making with a reluctance to push their boundaries due to their lack of familiarity with the tools and processes, and their inability to see themselves as workers. "The aim of the Feminist Art Program is to help women restructure their personalities to be more consistent with their desires to be artists and to help them build their art-making out of their experiences as women."


Her participation in hundreds of publications in various parts of the world is a testament to her influence in the global art community. In addition, many of her books have been published in other countries, making her work more accessible to international readers. Judy's work incorporates a variety of artistic skills, such as needlework, balanced with skills such as welding and pyrotechnics. Her first book, "Through the Flower", published in 1975, "chronicles her struggles to find her own identity as a woman artist".


"Through the Flower" is also the name of her non-profit organization. Founded in 1977, it initially served to manage the funding and massive public support for her work "The Dinner Party" (1974-1979). Since its creation, the association has engaged in numerous initiatives to provide opportunities to learn about women's history through art and focuses on activities related to education and highlighting women's accomplishments in order to empower them, educate them and inspire social change through art.


Repeatedly honored for her innovative and extravagant work and her activism for women's rights, she received the Visionary Woman Award from Moore College of Art & Design, in 2004. In 2008, she was a recipient of the National Women's History Project Award for Women's History Month. She was also named by Time magazine as one of the "100 Most Influential People of 2018."

In 2021, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, and a major retrospective exhibition entitled "Judy Chicago: A Retrospective," her first-ever retrospective, was presented at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.

In 2022, she collaborated with Nadya Tolokonnikova to turn her "What if Women Ruled the World?" series into a participatory art project, enabled by blockchain, in hopes of giving birth to a Web3 community dedicated to women's rights.


Her notorious art projects include "Pasadena Lifesavers", "International Honor Quilt", "The Birth Project", "Powerplay" and "The Holocaust Project."


"Pasadena Lifesavers", created in the late 1960s-early 1970s, is a series of abstract acrylic paintings on Plexiglas, a work in which she explores her own sexuality, mixing colors to create the illusion that the forms "turn, dissolve, open, close, vibrate, gesture, wiggle". Judy credits "Pasadena Lifesavers" as the major turning point in her work regarding sexuality and the representation of women.


"International Honor Quilt" (1980) is a collective feminist art project, which accompanies "The Dinner Party". It consists of a collection of 539 panels of two-foot long triangular quilts that honor women around the world, women's organizations and issues related to women. In her autobiography, "Beyond the Flower" (1997), Judy discusses the launch of this work, stating that "people would be invited to submit their triangular quilts... honoring women of their own determination. By doing this, I intended to provide an opportunity for community participation and also to counter another criticism that had emerged, this time about my choices of women."

Her association "Through the Flower" donated the collection to the Hite Art Institute at the University of Louisville in 2013 to be available for research and exhibition.


"Birth Project" (1980 to 1985) is a work that uses images of childbirth to celebrate a woman's role as a mother. Although she is not personally interested in motherhood, Judy admires women who have chosen this path.

She was inspired to create this collective work because of the lack of images and representations of birth in the art world. The installation reinterprets the creation story in Genesis, which emphasized the idea that a male god created a man, Adam, without the intervention of a woman. She described the work as revealing a "primordial female self hidden in the recesses of my soul... the woman giving birth is part of the dawn of creation."

150 artists from the United States, Canada and New Zealand participated in the project, working on 100 panels, in quilting, macramé, embroidery and other techniques. Because of its size, the work is rarely exhibited in its entirety. The majority of the Birth pieces are held in the Albuquerque Museum collection.


In parallel with "Birth Project", she created "Powerplay" (1982), a series of paintings, drawings, large-scale cast paper and bronze reliefs. These two series have in common that they deal with subjects rarely represented in occidental art. The "PowerPlay" series was inspired by her trip to Italy, where she saw the masterpieces of Renaissance artists representing the Occidental art tradition.

Focusing on the violent behavior of men, with images of facial expressions and brightly colored male body parts that express aggression and power, she also depicts vulnerability. She depended "upon [her] own sense of truth, working from observation, experience, and, of course, [her] rage at how destructively so many men seem to act toward women and the world at large."

By depicting male bodies, Chicago replaced the traditional male gaze with a female gaze. "I knew that I didn’t want to keep perpetuating the use of the female body as the repository of so many emotions; it seemed as if everything – love, dread, longing, loathing, desire, and terror – was projected onto the female by both male and female artists, albeit with often differing perspectives. I wondered what feelings the male body might be made to express."


"The Holocaust Project" (mid-1980s). With this project, Judy's interests "shifted beyond 'issues of female identity' to an exploration of masculine power and powerlessness in the context of the Holocaust."

She created this project in collaboration with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, whom she married in 1985. Although her previous husbands were both Jewish, it was not until she met Woodman that she began to explore her own Jewish heritage. Interested in illustrating the Shoah poem by Harvey Mudd, whom she met, she decided to create her own work with her own art, both visual and textual. She uses the Shoah as a prism to explore victimization, oppression, injustice and human cruelty.

The project consists of sixteen large-scale works in a variety of media: tapestry, stained glass, metalwork, woodwork, photography, painting, as well as Audrey Cowan's sewing work. The exhibition concludes with a work depicting a Jewish couple on the Sabbath, and spans 3,000 square feet, providing the viewer with a full exhibition experience.

The work, which took eight years to construct and documents the victims of the Shoah, was created during a time of personal loss in Judy's life: the death of her brother Ben from Lou Gehrig's disease and of her mother from cancer.


Her best known work is "The Dinner Party" (1974-1979). Widely considered the first epic feminist artwork, it celebrates the achievements of women throughout history.

Inspired by Gerda Lerner, it took her five years to create the work, which cost approximately $250,000. It consists of a large 48-foot/43-foot/36-foot triangle, and 39 place settings, each commemorating a historical or mythical female figure, such as artists, goddesses, activists and martyrs. Thirteen women are represented on each side. The embroidered table runners are sewn in the style and technique of the era in which the woman depicted lived. Many other women's names are etched into the "heritage floor" on which the piece rests. The project was made possible with the help of over 400 people, mostly women, who volunteered to help with needlework, carving and other aspects of the process.

Although art critics, mostly male, felt that her work lacked depth and that the dinner was just "vaginas on plates", she was very popular and captivated the general public. Judy presented her work in six countries on three continents and reached over a million people with her work. In fact, Jane Gerhard dedicated a book to her entitled "The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and The Power of Popular Feminism, 1970-2007".


In a 1981 interview, Judy said that threats and hateful criticism in response to her work caused the only period of suicide risk she experienced in her life, describing herself as "a wounded animal". She said she sought refuge from public attention by moving to a small rural community and that friends and acquaintances took on administrative support roles for her, such as opening her mail, while she threw herself into work on "Embroidering Our Heritage" (1980), the book documenting the project. "If I go forward now it's because of a network of support that's being built that will allow me to go forward. My destiny as an artist is totally tied up with my destiny as a member of the female sex. And as we as women move forward, I move forward. That's something that's very, very hard to accept because, it's like, I could not do it all the way either; but I've come a long way, I know I've come a long way. And that means that other women can come that far, and farther."





© Article écrit par Julie Henry Poutrel pour Adama Toulon.

© Photo: Donald Woodman. Work of art: Judy Chicago - CC BY-SA 4.0