Judy Chicago wears rose-colored glasses, not that she needs them. The artist behind the notoriously yonic The Dinner Party celebrates her 75th birthday this year with major museum exhibitions all over the country, including Santa Fe, Oakland, and Cambridge. Her exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum opened earlier this month, and she returns the favor on Saturday with A Butterfly for Brooklyn, a large pyrotechnic display in Prospect Park. So what does she have to be upset about? To hear her tell it: plenty.
It’s not that she has any complaints about her own career. Chicago has been a household name in contemporary art since she completed The Dinner Party, a triangular table set with vulval ceramic plates dedicated to notable women, in the late ’70s. Sappho, Josephine Baker, Emily Dickinson, and even “Fertile Goddess” are given places at this imagined meal. When The Dinner Party came out, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum were the only large institutions to show it. The opening at the Brooklyn Museum in 1981 was the largest reception in the museum’s history. During its first presentation, 100,000 visitors came to see it. Since going on permanent display at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the museum in 2007, the number of people who have viewed her landmark work has grown to almost 1 million.
Looking back on her years of struggle as a female artist in a male-dominated art world, Chicago says, “Where I am now is a miracle. The Dinner Party has done so much for me.” But if The Dinner Party is the art equivalent of a power anthem, Chicago worries it’s made her a one-hit wonder. “For the longest time The Dinner Party was the only thing anyone associated with me. I used to say, I hope before I die people will come to see The Dinner Party as only part of a large body of work.”
That time has arrived. “Chicago in L.A.: Judy Chicago’s Early Work, 1963–1974,” is the first cohesive look at her beginnings. The works are bold and self-assured, like Birth Hood, 1965, a car hood painted with slick automotive paint so that it looks like the wings of a moth, or Rainbow Pickett, 1964, a row of Easter-egg–colored plywood beams that ascend in height to over 10 feet. These and other works in the show take the formal language of minimalism, but reject its strict austerity. Like the artist herself, her works are nothing if not colorful.
On the day of the press opening, Chicago was wearing the aforementioned tinted glasses as well as gold sneakers. She’s a petite woman, but her personality towers. She regaled the crowd with tales from her first disappointing visit to New York, which included a meeting with Harold Rosenberg, a well-known art critic at the time. She brought her slides; he brought a hard-on. “He made a pass at me, and I told him to get fucked,” Chicago said with a laugh.
Reflecting on the 40 years since that compromising exchange, Chicago marvels at her own accomplishments. “Can you name another permanent installation for a woman artist, anywhere? I can’t.” But while she’s thrilled about her achievements, they only magnify the barriers still facing women. “I’m occupying around 30,000 square feet with all the work that will be in museums this year. There’s not a museum in the world that would accord that much space to a single woman artist.”
Though she’s achieved many milestones herself, Chicago is restless on the subject of the impediments facing other women, and isn’t afraid to name names. “It kills me that at the National Gallery, a tax-funded institution, the collection is 97 percent male and 99 percent white,” she says. “There should be a class-action lawsuit!” She’s critical of museum initiatives to tip the balance and has lived through enough to know the phony from the genuine: “MOMA announced that they’re devoting 2015 to women artists. That was a ’70s strategy; all we want is 50 percent!”
Despite all her success, there are barriers Chicago herself has yet to break. “Not one of my works is in a major museum collection, other than the Brooklyn Museum or LACMA. Not MOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Met, the Whitney . . . ” For readers who may not find that surprising, keep in mind that Chicago is one of the most important visual artists of the past century. In fact, the very term “feminist art” is attributed to her.
She is also critical of those who believe the art world has made an about-face. “People say everything’s changed in the art world, but it’s mostly at an entry level. There are lots of women and artists of color showing in regional shows, small galleries, independent and alternative spaces, group shows, but you get up into the top institutions and nothing has changed,” Chicago says. “It’s a long history struggle. There’s definitely been a profound change in consciousness, but translating that into institutional change is a really big job.”
Chicago is happy to take on that task. She wrote a book called Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education (Monacelli Press, 2014), which details her 50 years of teaching and testifies to the ways she has seen and heard art education keeping women out. “I’ve been hearing stories for years, and I’m disappointed to hear that things haven’t changed since I was a student,” she says. “It infuriates me that women pay these outrageous tuition prices and have to seek out the history of women in art. These women pay to educate themselves.”
Chicago is hopeful that her book will inspire others to change outdated pedagogical practices to be more inclusive of women. But for now, she has the immediate future to contend with. Saturday’s A Butterfly for Brooklyn will be her biggest pyrotechnic project to date, and there’s still a lot to do. More than 1,000 fireworks must be hand-inserted onto the Prospect Park lawn in the week before the event. She’s done two “butterflies” before, one in Oakland in 1974, the second in Pomona in 2012. This will be the first on the East Coast.
“Pomona was kind of practice,” Chicago says, laughing. “There will be a much larger number of effects in Brooklyn. We’re going to have thousands of individual pieces: saxons, rockets, flares, and strobes. And lots of color! Red, pink, purple, fuchsia, white, silver, and gold.”
She’s giddy talking about the Butterfly, and rightfully so. It’s a momentous event for her, and very symbolic. “Butterflies have come in and out of my work for years, but it’s always been a symbol of liberation,” she says. “I stopped in ’74 because I couldn’t get the funding to continue expanding my ideas. I’ve waited 40 years to work at this level of complexity and scale.”
She smiles. “This is the best birthday present in the world.”