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“Judy Chicago”

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts to Jan. 5

You don’t have to hate women to hate Judy Chicago’s art—but that’s the minefield in which the feminist artist has erected her best-known work. The Dinner Party is art by, for, and about women, designed as much to defeat the judgment of traditional (male) critics as to celebrate womanhood.

The piece, which now belongs to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, is not included in “Judy Chicago,” the retrospective of the artist’s work currently on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Yet it’s at the center of the show, represented by some sketches and a few test firings of its 39 vulva-themed plates representing the great women of history. The piece is Chicago’s magnum opus, her most stunning cunt stunt. Indeed, the artist’s hapless quest for another subject as sweeping and distinctive as The Dinner Party’s is one of this exhibition’s subliminal themes.

When I first saw The Dinner Party some 20 years ago, I did hate it. But not because it’s feminist. I would also have scoffed at 39 place settings designed to present the history of masculinity. And not because I—unlike some formalists—was incensed that the piece dared to have content at all. I not only accept content in art, but actually enjoy agit-prop, as long as it’s not banal. But The Dinner Party is banal, as well as reductive—which shouldn’t come as any great surprise from an artist whose idea of a revelation is that women are “organized around a center core,” a estimation of the vagina’s significance that seems more appropriate to pornography than to feminism.

Defining women as their genitalia, Chicago and her assistants produced a series of plates that combined vulval, floral, and seedpod imagery with more specific historical signifiers. The plates were then placed on elaborately decorated mats and runners, in a display that supposedly exalted the domestic craftsmanship of millennia of unknown women potters and embroiderers. The strategy was to honor traditional female attributes rather than to challenge male prerogatives—which just might reflect Chicago’s frustration at her failure to become an art-world star. Rather than break into “male” art’s playhouse, she’d build one of her own. Indeed, driving ambition is another of “Judy Chicago”‘s narrative threads.

If The Dinner Party hailed anonymous craftswomen, it nonetheless took an utterly traditional view of greatness: It presented an alternate pantheon, a sort of Baseball Hall of Fame recast by Chicago’s developing feminist-historical consciousness. The artist’s definition of womanhood’s greatest hits was downright Nietzschean: She placed Emily Dickinson, Margaret Sanger, and Sacajawea at the same table with Theodora, the Byzantine empress who was one of the leading murderers of the ancient world. At this banquet, greatness had no moral aspect.

“Judy Chicago” begins 15 years before the 1979 unveiling of The Dinner Party, and the early work is revealing. The former Judy Cohen took her nom de airbrush from her hometown—after exhibiting as Judy Gerowitz, a name derived from her first husband—but she became a professional artist in L.A. The show’s first few galleries are pure kandy-kolored tangerine-flake Southern California art: bright, glossy, and hard-edged. Influenced by the “finish fetish” scene, Chicago enrolled in auto-body school to learn how to spray-paint. The earlier pieces, which include a painting on an actual car hood, show how she applied her hot-rod-decorator skills: 1969-1970’s Pasadena Lifesavers—Red Series #4 and 1973’s Through the Flower (now the name of Chicago’s foundation) depict both organic and inorganic objects organized around that symbolically female “center core.”

You don’t have to accept Chicago’s viewpoint to appreciate these pre-Dinner Party appetizers. She really was as good as the boys, even if her spray-paint pieces do bear a certain resemblance to stoner panel-truck decoration—or perhaps cover art for a never-released Carole King or Joy of Cooking album. (Even didactic later work such as 1985’s Driving the World to Destruction would look cool on the side of a van—or least look more appropriate there than on a museum wall.) The exceptional level of work(wo)manship in these works is one clue that The Dinner Party is as much autobiography as it is gyno-mythology. In saluting the generations of unknown women who studied and practiced to excel at their crafts, Chicago was also extolling her own dexterity.

So it’s ironic that ideas ultimately drove Chicago’s skills from her work. As her concepts began to grow in scope—and to require expertise she didn’t have the time or dedication to acquire—the actual making of her art increasingly became the responsibility of others: the embroidery and ceramics in The Dinner Party, the weaving

and needlework in 1980-1985’s The Birth Project, and the photography of her second husband, Donald Woodman, in 1983-1987’s The Holocaust Project. (Woodman is also the subject of 1986’s The Powerplay Series, a group of anguished portraits on an ain’t-masculinity-a-bitch theme.)

With these large undertakings came the issue of being an authority figure who takes primary credit for the labor of others. Chicago defends herself by noting that many famed male artists have maintained studios whose artisans do much of the actual work of art-making, and that artists aren’t sufficiently well compensated to pay their assistants. And also—a tad defensively—that women who want to be paid are bourgeois. One thing that Chicago has never done, however, is submerge her own self (or career aspirations) in a communal identity. Even as she extols the value of collaboration and the contributions of unknown craftswomen, “Judy Chicago” remains the name above her titles.

In retrospect, The Dinner Party does seem to be the peak of Chicago’s output, even if the work that precedes it is more likable. Those 39 plates and various supporting objects are exquisitely designed and made, and are downright subtle compared to what followed. Chicago was once the model student—dare one say the “good girl”?—who mastered her techniques and researched her subject matter. But when she later evokes the Great Goddess—one of the more dubious constructions of New Age feminism—it’s as “a figure researched by prominent anthropologist Marija Gimbutas.” Chicago’s 1970-1980 work may be propaganda, but all its footnotes are in order.

Both the art and the thinking deteriorate in the second half of the show, which features titles such as Crippled by the Need to Control and pieces that basically turn earth-mother ideology into throw rugs. Chicago’s oversimplifications become even more simplistic in Holocaust Project murals such as The Fall, in which rape leads to agriculture to industry to witch-burning to abattoirs to Jews’ being shoved alive into ovens. Hiroshima, Vietnam, vivisection, American slavery, and harassment of gays and lesbians are all part of Chicago’s vision of the Holocaust, a cosmic reductio ad absurdum of the evil that men (literally) do.

In “Judy Chicago”‘s last two galleries, grand designs return to a personal scale. Autobiography of a Year (1993-1994) is a series of small, loose drawings and paintings of such domestic subjects as Woodman and the artist’s cats, with notes on her feelings: “[H]appy sad angry” and “I get anxious” are typical of these jottings’ profundity. Another set of drawings illustrates such sayings as “Home sweet home” and “An apple a day,” as if to concede that Chicago’s quest for wisdom has led only to cliche.

Of course, Chicago had to do large, confrontational work—or something equally attention-getting—to get to the point at which her doodles would be exhibited in a museum. She certainly wasn’t wrong to recognize that women artists were (and are) less likely to break through than their male peers, although she recently conceded to the Nation’s Arthur C. Danto that she (in his words) “did have a tendency when younger to explain her difficulties through the fact that she was a woman.” Indeed, Danto notes, Chicago (then Gerowitz) was included with the likes of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Ellsworth Kelly, Tony Smith, and Anne Truitt in a 1966 Jewish Museum survey of minimalism—a pretty big break for an artist whose work and career are based on the premise that she had to make her own breaks.

The current exhibition is a tale of how admirable skills yielded to crude ideas, although reasonable people may differ as to when the balance definitively shifted. The Dinner Party is certainly a work of great influence, and it may also be a great one. But for all of Chicago’s lip service to community, universality, and the essential vulvaness of half the population, her highest priorities have been her own work and her own success. As much as any retrospective by an art-world Attila such as Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, “Judy Chicago” is a one-person show. CP