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Judy Chicago’s memoir settles old scores with the art world

Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party,” 1979. (Collection of the Brooklyn Museum, gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation)

If you asked an artist during the second half of the 20th century what their art was about, the answer might have dealt with the idea of the canvas as an arena for action, or the paring away of extraneous elements of the picture plane, or the attempt to make art when all formal problems had already been explored. If you ask an artist today the same question, chances are good they will say that their art is about gender and identity. Artistic permission to explore these subjects was a result of a wave of feminist artistic theory 50 years ago, and “The Flowering,” Judy Chicago’s memoir, is an intimate account of this period by one of its biggest names.

Born Judith Cohen in Chicago in 1939, Chicago received from her parents the greatest gift a child can get: an unwavering belief in herself. From her early years, they encouraged her artistic leanings, and money was found for art lessons even after her father, a labor organizer, died young. Her parents also instilled a formidable work ethic in young Judy. For all her life, she has worked several hours a day at her art.

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As a young artist living in Los Angeles, Chicago immediately ran into discrimination from the male establishment. An art critic told her, “You know, Judy, you have to decide whether you’re going to be a woman or an artist.” (It helped, given this purportedly necessary choice, that Chicago had no desire to become a mother.) Female artists of the period had to prove that they were as tough as men, and after art school, Chicago took a course in auto body spray-painting to be able to work in the acrylic-on-metal medium that was used by many in the macho art crowd. She also changed her name to the gangster-sounding Judy Chicago. Feminist thought was in the air, and when Chicago became an art teacher, she taught only women. Much of her teaching was by practical example: Take yourself seriously, set up a real studio, learn to use tools yourself and work, work, work.

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Her belief in herself was on full display in 1974 when Chicago, though struggling to make her monthly nut, decided to begin a five-year project that would cost the equivalent of $1.2 million today. “The Dinner Party,” Chicago’s most famous work, is an installation consisting of a triangular table with 39 place settings, each bearing the name of a famous mythological or historical woman.

Although Chicago describes herself as “a pussycat,” she’s actually hard as nails, and although her shut-up-it’s-my-piece-we-do-as-I-say attitude was necessary to drive the project to completion, several volunteers left, vowing never to work with her again.

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When “The Dinner Party” was finally exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1979, the vulval imagery of the plates attracted national comment. The show drew large crowds and was popular with the public, but most art critics hated it, declaring that it was feminist propaganda, not art. Subsequent exhibitions around the country and overseas over the next 15 years would largely be held at temporary venues, not museums.

Today “The Dinner Party” is on permanent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, where Chicago says that it accounts for 20 percent of the visitors to the institution. Is it about art or feminist theory? Is the Sistine Chapel ceiling about art or Catholic theology? Time tends to dim the philosophical and religious underpinnings of a work, leaving it to be judged primarily on aesthetic standards, and this will happen one day with all of Chicago’s work. In the meantime, “The Flowering” is a revealing account of an artist of grit and gumption who set the pattern for much of the art being made today.

Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic in Beacon, N.Y.

The Flowering

The Autobiography of Judy Chicago

By Judy Chicago

Thames & Hudson. 416 pp. $39.95

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