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Born in Chicago in 1939, Judy Chicago is an artist, author and teacher. A legendary figure among the feminist artists who emerged during the 1960s, her most famous work is “The Dinner Party”. Made between 1974 and 1979, this installation represents more than 1,000 women from history, 39 of whom are symbolised by place settings inspired by butterfly and vulvar forms. Housed in the Brooklyn Museum since 2007, the fact that it took nearly 30 years to find a permanent home reflects the controversy it provoked.
This week, Chicago’s 1964 “Car Hood” sculptures will be on display at Riflemaker Gallery in the Spotlight section of Frieze Masters.
When did you first realise that women’s creativity was being suppressed?
I didn’t see the larger picture at first. Rather I encountered resistance to my female-centred biomorphic imagery from male professors in graduate school. When I emerged into professional practice in Los Angeles in the 1960s, I was constantly told that I “couldn’t be a woman and an artist too”. Because I was raised in a family that believed in equal rights for women, I always knew that I was encountering sexism, but it took a while before I understood my experiences in a larger historic context.
In the 1960s, when you tried to show the curator Walter Hopps, director of the Pasadena Museum of Art, your sculpture “Rainbow Picket”, he refused to look at it. Why was that?
At the time I had no idea, but I was devastated. Years later, I saw Walter and he tried to excuse his behaviour by stating that in the 1960s women in the art world were either “artists’ wives or groupies” and he didn’t know how to deal with the fact that (as he said to me) my work was stronger than a lot of the men’s.
You have said that in the late 1960s you felt as if you had disconnected from yourself as a woman and that teaching female students helped you rediscover yourself. In what way did it help you to do that?
In order to be taken seriously in the LA art scene of the 1960s, I had to excise any hint of my gender from my work. By helping my students learn to be professional artists without having to do that, I helped myself reconnect with my own authentic impulses.
Your installation “The Dinner Party” is famous as a pioneering work. Yet it has also proved enormously controversial, even being debated in the House of Representatives. Why do you think that is?
That’s really an art historian’s question. I am gratified that my work has proved to be so meaningful to people, even provoking the Queen of Norway to proclaim on National TV that the “Dinner Party” is her favourite work of art. And of course, it draws thousands of people from all over the world to see it at the Brooklyn Museum where it is permanently installed.
Certain feminists have objected to your use of the vulva as a symbol of womanhood on the grounds that it reduces a woman to a sexual persona. How do you respond to that?
They have no idea what they are talking about.
Who are your inspirations?
Goya, Otto Dix and other artists whose work speaks to the human condition. Women artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Emily Carr, who opened the way for women to be ourselves, and the diarist Anaïs Nin, who was my mentor in the 1970s and inspired me to write, although I never imagined that I would end up publishing 14 books.
At Frieze Spotlight, your “Car Hood” series from the 1960s will be on display. How did you come to spray-paint cars with images of male and female forms?
“Bigamy Hood” deals with the death of my father and my first husband. “Flight Hood” features a butterfly image and deals with the desire to become free. Of course, “Birth Hood” deals with the subject of birth and includes an image of the birth canal.
What challenges do you think women artists face in the 21st century?
There are still obstacles for women artists at an institutional level and in terms of auction price. But there are new obstacles for all artists in terms of being able to build a sustained career and not have one’s work become a victim of either the market place or current styles.
In the 1980s, you and your husband Donald Woodman worked for eight years on a work entitled “The Holocaust Project.” Why was the subject so taboo within the mainstream art world of the late 20th century?
The Holocaust is one of a number of subjects with which I have dealt that make people uncomfortable. One strategy to avoid dealing with these is to try and kill the messenger, as they say.
Over the course of your career the market in contemporary art has exploded. Do you think such a strong market might be detrimental to the quality of art?
I find a lot of contemporary art boring because it is overly academic, revisits earlier ideas, deals with trivial subjects or is merely decorative. Perhaps that is a consequence of the market.
Do you think women artists are affected in any particular ways by the explosion of the market?
On the plus side, there are many more venues for women to exhibit and that is to be celebrated.
What advice would you give to a young woman artist today?
Believe in yourself, pursue your own vision and don’t give up. (That is advice I would give to all young artists.) In terms of women, I’d add that it is essential to learn the history of women’s art, and particularly feminist art, so that you can build on what women have done rather than repeat it, which is the tragic, historic cycle in which women are still caught. It is that ongoing cycle that “The Dinner Party” is intended to overcome.