Stages

Judy Chicago has had a busy year. In addition to opening The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the artist turned 80, opened an art space in New Mexico for her nonprofit Through the Flower, and launched the Judy Chicago Research Portal, which collects the archives of her writing, educational materials, and visual works. The website for that project states that Chicago started the initiative “as part of her efforts to overcome the erasure that has eclipsed the achievements of too many women,” displaying her desire to create an enduring legacy. Thinking about her own departure from this world and what she’ll leave behind has prompted three fascinating series of work, and her continued evolution proves why she remains on the cutting edge after decades. 

The End is broken up into three distinct rooms for each of its series, like a guided journey into the underworld, and its guards helpfully recommend that viewers absorb the exhibit in its intended order. The first examines death as an abstract concept, the second finds Chicago’s personal musings on her own demise, and the third considers the death of the natural world. There is a strictly enforced “no photography ” rule throughout, in contrast to the wall text encouraging hashtagging around the rest of the museum, which prods viewers to stay in the moment and engage with the material. 

Despite Chicago’s wide-reaching body of work and frequent focus on political and historical issues, her art has often approached those ideas through a lens that points inward. The first room, titled “Stages of Dying,” repurposes Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief to portray a figure who bears a resemblance to Chicago grappling with the concept of death across several panels. Chicago is unabashed in showing the full humanity and raw emotions of a woman who is elderly, nude, and bald, all rarities in artistic depictions. Her distinctive cursive handwriting is a fixture in these porcelain paintings, and in an interview with Artnet, Chicago says, “because the subject matter was so personal and intimate, I wanted it to be in my own hand. I wanted it to go from my hand into other people’s hearts.” 

Next, in the “Mortality” room, the artist takes a hard look at her own oblivion without flinching, and has gone so far as to preemptively cast her own face and hands in a bronze “death mask,” a tradition typically reserved for after a person dies. Her likeness appears serene, with her head lying on a pillow, a smile on her lips, and her hands clasping lilies. The hyperrealistic heavy bronze serves as a foil to the surreal, stylized collection of black glass paintings that follow. Chicago is a multi-talented craftswoman, adept at choosing the right material for a given work, and her typical technical mastery and ability to move easily between mediums is on display. Glass painting is a painstaking process, requiring the colors to be built up layer by meticulous layer, and going into the kiln for firing multiple times. 

One series of these glass paintings titled “In the Shadow of Death” considers the views of various philosophers and writers, etching out choice passages like crib notes. Most of these thinkers have a pretty positive spin on death, and some of the accompanying imagery is a bit more lighthearted than the rest of the exhibit, particularly a gleeful skull-faced character. 

The next of the glass paintings form “How Will I Die,” which plays out as a choose-your-own-adventure of possible fatal outcomes that Chicago has contemplated. “Will I die screaming in pain?” the artist wonders in one particularly visceral panel depicting her writhing figure. “Will I die in bed with my cat Petie by my side?” asks another. These scenes are illustrated with another Judy Chicago avatar, this time with her famous red hair. One panel shows Chicago laid out, an outline of her head rising upward with the text “everyone wants to die peacefully.” Her body rests on a reflective swath of iridescent paint that acts almost as a mirror to place the viewer in the scene. The reveries are deeply personal, but they evoke fears and worries that are shared by all. 

In the first two rooms, Chicago leaves space for ambiguity and interpretation, but the “Extinction” segment of the gallery, the finale, conveys an utter clarity of message and purpose. This room features another bronze casting, this one an assemblage of animals that looks over the room, their detailed, lifelike appearances undercut by the inclusion of an incongruous alligator purse. Chicago’s work has never shied away from uncomfortable truths, and here she has black glass paintings, each displaying a different ecological atrocity wrought by humans using vivid and sometimes violent imagery. Jarring illustrative elements, like the jagged zigzag edges of fins chopped off of sharks and a cross section of a beluga whale being sliced open for its caviar, along with a tin of the stuff, mark the otherwise delicate rendering of nature scenes. The handwritten captions relay upsetting facts and figures, which frantic crossouts sometimes interrupt.

As the year and the decade draw to a close, it’s a fitting time to contemplate endings, and an apt opportunity to see The End before it closes in late January. The End is not light fare for an afternoon at the museum, which is precisely what makes it such a vital experience. By the end of this terminal journey, a viewer may be unsettled and emotionally spent, and it’s rare that art can provoke such a vigorous reaction. It’s enough to make a person feel alive.

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts to Jan. 20, 2020. 1250 New York Ave. NW. $8–$10. (202) 783-5000. nmwa.org.

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