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Artist in Profile (June ’14): Judy Chicago

Set to celebrate her 75th birthday next month, June’s artist in profile is…

Judy Chicago

Judy Chicago

Judy Chicago (image from JudyChicago.com)

Judy Chicago was born to a Jewish family in 1939 with the birth name of Judith Sylvia Cohen. From her home place Chicago, Illinois. She is known for her art and also as a writer, educator and feminist. Her family believed in equal rights for women which was rare at the time, although her family failed to tell her that was not how much of the world thought.

Her famous work, a multimedia project entitled “The Dinner Party” is five years in the completion and is considered by many to be her finest work. It features a long table upon which are 39 different illustrated plates. Each of the plates features a woman of some distinction and overall the piece is the story of women’s history in western civilisation

The Beginning

As a child, Chicago took art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and later studied art in Los Angeles at UCLA. She met her first husband, Jerry Gerowitz and they married in 1961. The relationship was rocky and stormy and Jerry died after two years of marriage in a car accident.

While Chicago was in graduate school, her style developed distinctive imagery of the female in her paintings. This imagery was deplored by one of her instructors, so she moved into sculpture. Los Angeles in the sixties had a macho pop art vibe and to try and prove herself in that genre, she attended vehicle body building and boat building schools as well as becoming apprentice to a pyro technician.

Detail of "The Dinner Party" by Judy Chicago

Detail of “The Dinner Party” photo by Lindsey Davis, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Many of Chicago’s early works were fibreglass and metal sculptures, firework installations and firework displays. She married her second husband sculptor Lloyd Hamrol during this period. Throughout this time she continued to develop explicit feminist and sexual imagery in her work.

Starting her career, Chicago worked at several California universities as a painting instructor and in 1970 launched the very first feminist art programme in the state university at Fresno. Following her own ideology, she dropped her surname of Cohen and adopted the name Chicago. To her, this avoided being part of the traditional naming conventions of bearing the name of the father or husband.

Famous Works

'Birth Garment 2' from 'The Birth Project'

‘Birth Garment 2’ from ‘The Birth Project’. Image from JudyChicago.com

Apart from “The Dinner Party”, other works included “The Birth Project,” images exploring birth and creation. The individual images were crafted into needlework by 150 craftspeople under Chicago’s direction. Her next large effort was “The Holocaust Project: From Darkness to Light.” The project combined photographs by Donald Woodman and paintings by Chicago. Included in the project were stained glass pieces and tapestries that Chicago designed. In 1993 the art work was debuted at Chicago’s Spertus Museum.

Later Career

A labour of love, the piece begun in 1994 “Resolutions: A Stitch in Time” took six years to finish. Combining needlework and paintings, Chicago created re-imagined traditional proverbs to incorporate a multi-cultural futurescape. In 2000 the work went on display in New York at the Museum of Art and Design.

'Lesbian Triangle' from the 'Holocaust Project' by Judy Chicago

‘Lesbian Triangle’ from the ‘Holocaust Project’. Image from JudyChicago.com

2002 saw a retrospective of Chicago’s work on paper, called “Trials and Tributes,” in Tallahassee at the Florida State University Art Museum. A further examination of the artist’s career was shown at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

In her long and robust career, Judy Chicago has received many accolades. She holds several honourary doctorates from Duke University and Smith College and in 2012; she was honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the Palm Springs Art Fair.

Taking inspiration from the women’s movement while rebelling against the male-dominated art scene in the sixties, Chicago worked with explicit female content. Her creative process produced works that recognised achievements of female historical figures or rejoiced in the unique experience of women. Chicago’s body of work has added women to historic record and enhanced their visual art representation.

Judy Chicago always chooses to create thought provoking art often stirring up controversy with some of her images. Her artwork is well-established and forms part of the collections of numerous leading art institutions.

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