Can Judy Chicago make D.C. her sister city?

Eric Draper/for The Washington Post - Judy Chicago poses with her piece titled "Grand Bronze Head with Golden Tongue."

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Judy Chicago, the pioneering feminist artist, has some serious history in Washington, and it hasn’t always been pretty. Highlights include a major show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, more than a decade ago. And Chicago, whose 1979 installation “The Dinner Party” is one of the seminal works of feminist art in the last century, is the subject of a small tribute show at the same museum that opened Friday to honor her 75th birthday this year.

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But then there were the events of 1990, when she attempted to give “The Dinner Party” to University of the District of Columbia to anchor a proposed museum (devoted to feminist and African American art) in the then-empty Carnegie Library. It seemed like a good idea at the time: Chicago’s triangular table, with place settings for 39 iconic women, had been one of the most popularly successful works of contemporary art in the 1980s, when it toured the world. But by 1988 it need a rest, and a permanent home, and the cost of storing it was placing increasing financial pressure on the artist.

But Chicago didn’t anticipate the brutality of the culture wars. When news of the gift to UDC came out, the Washington Times opened the battle by casting it as a travesty of leadership. Although by one estimate “The Dinner Party” had attracted some 775 people every day it was displayed and would be a money-raiser for UDC (perhaps as much as $1.65 million a year in ticket sales and other revenue), critics seized on a small detail in the gift that returned between 15 and 25 percent of proceeds to Chicago and her nonprofit foundation.

Other critics, especially demagogues in the House of Representatives, attacked the work as pornographic and obscene for its lush renderings of female anatomy. The same political-journalistic machine that demonized Robert Mapplethorpe when his photographs were to be displayed at the Corcoran in 1989 went after Chicago, the UDC and the District, a perennial target in the dark days of the second Marion Barry administration. One particularly vile commentator, in the Washington Times, retailed an ugly description (from an adult bookstore owner) of the piece as “A dyke’s-eye view of some of the tough broads of the past.”

“That was appalling, watching that debate on C-SPAN, the quote-unquote ‘congressional debate,’ ” says Chicago in the office of the old hotel she uses as a studio and home in Belen. The debate saw the usual cultural warriors support an amendment to remove $1.6 million from the UDC budget. California Rep. Bob Dornan seemed to see the heavens falling: “This thing is a nightmare. This is not art, it’s pornography, 3-D ceramic pornography,” he thundered.

When the work became the target of attacks by conservative African American students, she pulled the plug. “At the point at which the students began to protest, I was like, you know what? I’m not doing this, because this is completely contrary to everything I stand for and everything I believe,” she remembers. What she stood for, she says, was “tikkun olam,” a phrase from Chicago’s past as the daughter of a Marxist and the direct descendent of a prominent 18th-century rabbi in Vilnius: Tikkun olam, to repair, not inflame the world.

Thus ended the possibility that Washington, D.C., might be the permanent home of an artwork that is now canonical, pictured and discussed in almost every serious textbook of 20th-century art and a continuing draw for audiences in New York City, where it was finally installed at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007.

‘Totally broke my heart’

Chicago has long since moved on, but it’s a curious feature of her career that past and present seem to coexist, that major projects of the 1980s and ’90s are still generating controversy, and even her early work, made in California in the 1960s and ’70s, is under reexamination. As the most prominent artist of the what is known as the “Second Wave” of feminism, Chicago helped lay the groundwork for a later generation of more art-world-savvy female artists, like Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer. As feminism evolved — or perhaps devolved — into just another subspecies of postmodern word games, Chicago remained true to her roots: engaged, political, and always aimed at a wide audience. She has lasted long enough now to be declared both passe and prescient, and there are critics who see her consistency of political vision as a strength that will only be recognized perhaps decades from now.

Chicago was prominently featured in the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions of 2011 organized by the Getty Museum, which explored art in Los Angeles from 1945-1980. Those shows reminded viewers new to her work of her significant role as a minimalist artist in 1960s and as a conceptual and performance artist, as well. Chicago’s own fluent prose, and prolific publishing, has made her voice seem a quiet but constant presence in cultural life, as she published two volumes of autobiography (“Beyond the Flower” in 1997 and “Through the Flower” in 2006), both of which laid out her vulnerabilities, anxieties and doubt in a way that might surprise audiences who find her art confrontational.

Those vulnerabilities, carefully contained by years of self-examination, still emerge when she speaks. She remembers her early years, in California, competing with “the guys,” male artists whose bravado and misogyny made life difficult for a young woman struggling to make a mark. Recently, the Getty Pacific Standard Time exhibitions led to a mini-reunion, of sorts, for Chicago and artists such as Robert Irwin, who was in the mix when she was a young L.A.-based artist.

“Bob Irwin said the funniest thing to me,” she remembers. “He said, ‘Judy, you are getting all this recognition, and it is so long overdue,’ and he said, ‘I know we gave you such a hard time when you were young, but you could look at this way, if you could survive us, you could survive anything.’ ”

Chicago laughs heartily at that, but only for a moment. “In some weird way that was probably true, but still.”

There’s an unresolved sadness in that “but still,” as there is in her memories of a key 1965 work, called “Rainbow Pickett,” a series of six minimalist trapezoidal forms leaned against a wall at 45-degree angles. The radicality of the work is in the “rainbow,” the pastel colors of the forms that distinguish them from the uniform blank whiteness of so much male-generated minimalist art of the same period.

“ ‘Rainbow Pickett’ broke my heart, totally broke my heart,” she says. Chicago remembers it this way: The work appeared in an important New York exhibition, where it was singled out by the powerful critic Clement Greenberg as one of the best works in the show. Yet when she had shown it earlier in Los Angeles, the influential West Coast curator Walter Hopps refused even to come and see it. Hopps, she says, saw women in the L.A. art scene as either “groupies or wives,” and years later he defended his slight to her and her work: “What was I supposed to do, how could I deal with the fact that you were making work that was stronger than a lot of the men? It was as if I saw a woman pick up her skirt, raise her skirt, roll down her stockings, I had to avert my eyes. Okay?”

Hopps died in 2005. Chicago ultimately destroyed “Rainbow Pickett,” though it was refabricated under Chicago’s guidance for an exhibition in 2004.

The frustration with men like Hopps, and with works like “Rainbow Pickett” — which was acclaimed but never, according to Chicago, led to larger opportunities — ultimately brought the artist to a crisis. The resolution was to divorce herself from the mainstream, male-dominated art world, and strike out on her own.

“I made a radical break,” she says. “I don’t think at the time I knew how radical a break it was. That has come to me in hindsight.”

Chicago changed her name — she had been born Judy Cohen and later became Judy Gerowitz after her first marriage — to recall her birthplace, not her father (a committed Marxist who died when she was in her early teens) or her first husband (who died in a car crash in the ’60s). She began teaching full time in Fresno, and joined a burgeoning women’s movement.

Faith Wilding, a performance artist and for a time a student of Chicago’s in those early years, remembers a heady, anarchic period of self-discovery among the women who surrounded Chicago: “We were reading women’s books. We were really thinking about gender, and sexuality, and how it has manifested itself in art and repression, and in aspects of everyone’s gender composition.” Chicago threw herself into a world of exploration and experimentation, an anything-goes attitude that embraced performance, installation work and head-on social and political confrontation. In her biographical writing, Chicago admits to being somewhat squeamish about the exuberant embrace of sexuality and the c-word, and the theatricality of the young women she was mentoring.

But no matter Chicago’s initial reluctance, Wilding remembers her fully in the fray: “It was really, ‘Oh, my God, can we really do this?’ And Judy was game for it.”

She also remembers Chicago as a probing teacher, who stressed the need for a professional relationship to an often hostile art world.

“One of the things that I learned from Judy is the way she would directly, very directly confront us,” says Wilding. “She challenged my fears, my hesitations, this kind of challenge to surpass myself in a certain way, to assert myself, to go for it, to dream big.”

Guess who’s coming to dinner

Chicago was dreaming big herself. “The Dinner Party” involved years of research, and a collaborative construction process that required some 400 assistants, skilled in ceramics and needlepoint and basic construction. The work was huge, a triangular dinner table measuring almost 50 feet on each side, with 39 place settings for each of the women specifically honored. Each plate was individually painted or cast to depict luscious folds and vulvic shapes that pushed the coy feminine flower imagery of Georgia O’Keefe to something more overtly celebratory and sexual. Emily Dickinson’s plate is a lacy roundel of pink, with a vaginal form smiling demurely in the center.

“The Dinner Party” was an enormous success, and it set the pattern for later work: Based on long periods of research, digging into primal subject matter, resulting in unorthodox, mixed-media art that defied boundaries and traditional definitions. But critics, many of whom found “The Dinner Party” too political and too unashamedly sexual, haven’t embraced Chicago’s latter work, which includes “The Birth Project” (1980-85), “The Holocaust Project” (1985-1993) and “PowerPlay,” (1982-1986) which focused on men, and the ways in which an enforced and rigid masculinity distorts emotion and character. Each of these was quintessentially sui generis in its materials and approach: “The Birth Project” involved extensive use of needlework and tapestry, “The Holocaust Project” included a large-scale stained-glass piece with photographs that had been extensively altered and retouched, and “PowerPlay” (which included images based on the angry faces Chicago remembered from the Washington debates over “The Dinner Party”) used tapestry, bronze casts and sprayed acrylic on fabric.

With the success of “The Dinner Party,” Chicago resolutely committed to working in forms that were both devalued by men (ceramics and textiles) and in a stylistic language that bypassed the austerity of modernism and the ironies and convolutions of postmodernism. At one point early in her career, when she was still competing with “the boys,” she learned spray-painting and automobile finishing techniques; later, she would develop a painted language that looks to many like van art, richly colorful, representational, slightly hallucinogenic and very smooth in its finish and color gradations.

Critics struggle with this work. Jonathan Katz, the scholar who co-curated the Smithsonian’s 2011 “Hide/Seek” exhibition of gay themes in portraiture, says they may miss the point if they get too hung up on the purely stylistic look of Chicago’s work.

“Those of us who are professionals in the field find it a little hard to take,” he says. Chicago’s work is “art that bypasses us, that seeks a larger population in a vocabulary that is familiar and eye-catching.” But the populist language doesn’t preclude subtlety: “The dominant reading of it, which is feminist, angry, male-bashing art, has really been mistaken and there is much more political nuance and a much more capacious understanding in its iconography than has been previously credited.”

Katz, who wrote the catalogue essay for a 2012 exhibition of “PowerPlay” in Santa Fe, warns critics not to condescend to Chicago’s work, which is still daringly sincere and political, two distinctly countercultural currents in an age that fetishizes the ironic, and the expensive, as validated by obscene prices of the mainstream art world.

Today, Chicago is back to teaching. She is about to publish yet another book, this one devoted to her pedagogy and to reforming what she sees as the dismal state of affairs in too many university art studio programs. In between lectures and openings, and traveling from New Mexico to teach at art programs around the country, she still manages to make work.

Musing and meows

One day, earlier this month, she showed a visitor her home base, an old boardinghouse in the dusty railroad town of Belen. On the ground floor she and her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, have studios where once there was a dining room and parlor. At the top of the wide central staircase is a small shrine to the cats who have called the Belen Hotel home, each one rendered by Chicago in painted ceramic. She is wearing a cat-themed sweat shirt, and one of the feline residents scratches at the coat of a visitor. It is a huge and comfortable space, though not grand or luxurious.

“Nobody ever dreamed that they were going to be millionaires by being artists,” she says of her early years. “The idea then was to be taken seriously as an artist, and to do serious work.” The current art market disgusts her — too much ephemeral and slick work, too many artists looking for a big payout without thought to forging a lasting career. She mentions the startling fact that she has never had a major career retrospective, though with numerous smaller shows during her 75th birthday year, and with her large presence in Pacific Standard Time, she is hopeful. Feminism isn’t done, she insists: Just look at the dismal representation of women in the National Gallery of Art. Just look at how works like “The Dinner Party” can still scandalize.

“I comfort myself with the fact that it took 25 years for ‘The Dinner Party’ to find a permanent home, to be finally looked at, you know, for people to get over their shock and be able to experience it as art,” she says. When it comes to her other work, she is in the long game. And the experience with “The Dinner Party,” including the troubled climate in Washington 14 years ago, helped teach her the value of independence, and persistence.

“I learned about the power of art,” she says. “I always believed in the power of art, but I learned from ‘The Dinner Party’ there was no going back from that. And I still believe in the power of art. It is going to be interesting to have so much of my art on display in so many places. It is going to be interesting.”

Judy Chicago: Circa ’75

is on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, through April 13. For more information, call 202-783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org.

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