Purple Magazine
— The Cosmos Issue #32

an interview with judy chicago

art JUDY CHICAGO

and then all that has divided us will merge
and then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
and then both men
and women will be gentle
and then both women
and men will be strong
and then the greed of some will
give way to the needs of many
and then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance
and then all will care
for the sick and the weak and the old
and then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth
and then everywhere
will be called eden once again

excerpt from “The Merger Poem (The Dinner Party).” by Judy Chicago

interview by JEFFREY DEITCH
portraits by DONALD WOODMAN
all artworks copyright JUDY CHICAGO 

JEFFREY DEITCH — I was astonished when I saw your [sculpture] Car Hood in the “Pacific Standard Time” exhibition at the Getty in 2011. I was impressed to see how it encompassed Pop Art, Minimal Art, and the American vernacular, all with a powerful feminist subtext. When I saw the piece, I knew that I needed to meet you and get involved with your work. And I was able to, soon afterward, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where I was then the director.
JUDY CHICAGO — Right, that’s where we met.

JEFFREY DEITCH — Tell me about the genesis of the Car Hood series. There’s an extraordinary story about your going to auto-body painting school, one woman among 250 men.
JUDY CHICAGO — Jeffrey, I just want to tell you that when I met you at MOCA, and you said to me, “You’re one of my heroes,” I almost fainted on the spot. I had no idea that you knew anything about me or my work, much less that you admired me — because I had admired you from afar for a long time.

JEFFREY DEITCH — I had visited the installation The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum numerous times and studied the work. And the work that I saw in “Pacific Standard Time” and eventually the fireworks performances — and learning more about your hidden early work — just amazed me and led to our ambitious project of presenting a large show of the Los Angeles work at my gallery in Los Angeles in September 2019.
JUDY CHICAGO — All this has enormous meaning to me because we’re not only doing a comprehensive show of different aspects of my early work — painting, sculpture, fireworks, installations — and all of that has never really been put together before, but you’re also doing it in a Frank Gehry-designed building. Frank Gehry was my first landlord in Santa Monica, and his sister married my first gallerist. Frank was not particularly interested in women artists at that time — I don’t know if he ever was. And, as you know, I had a really difficult time in the first two decades of my career. Some of the sculptures that are going to be in the show are being reconstructed because I had to destroy them: I just couldn’t afford to store that much work. I stored some early work, fortunately, which the Getty curators unearthed for “Pacific Standard Time” — that began the process of people looking at my early work. This show means a lot to me because even though I had a really difficult time in the LA arts scene — which was very inhospitable to women — still, LA nurtured me, and I feel like the foundations of my work are in what I did in that first decade and a half of professional practice in California: the development of my formal language, my color systems, my approach to and interest in a wide variety of materials… Also, doing this show is bringing a lot of memories back, some of which were simply too painful for me to deal with at the time. Had I really acknowledged them or dealt with them, I probably would have given up. I had such a hard time and faced so much rejection and misunderstanding. Still, when I went to auto-body school, I learned for the first time that making art involved making physical objects, and I learned a sense of craft that I never had — about how you do things. I had a teacher at the auto-body school who said to me: “Judy, there’s no such thing as perfection. There’s only the illusion of perfection, and I’m going to teach you how to achieve that.”

JEFFREY DEITCH — That’s interesting advice.
JUDY CHICAGO — And what I did for many decades — probably until Autobiography of a Year in the ’90s… I disguised a lot of my content in this formalist language. But the feminism kept creeping out — so that you could identify it in Car Hood. And that particular car hood was my graduation assignment. I can’t remember what made me decide — probably I liked its shape, so I decided to spray a car hood.

JEFFREY DEITCH — It’s remarkable that it precedes Richard Prince’s famous car hood
paintings by decades.
JUDY CHICAGO — Yes.

JEFFREY DEITCH — It’s so totally American. It can be described numerous ways: as Pop Art, as feminist art, as something so intrinsically American.
JUDY CHICAGO — Well, there was really no feminist art yet because there wasn’t that term. Gail Levin, my biographer, says that the first time the term “feminist art” occurs is in my journals in Fresno in 1971. I knew I wanted to make a radical change in my work, and I went to Fresno with the idea of creating a feminist art practice. But I was always very superstitious: I always felt like I shouldn’t say something before I did it — or I wouldn’t do it. So, I never talked… And I could never understand my male peers, how they had people come into their studios while they were working, in the middle of processes, and explained what they were doing. Me, I never could do that. Like when I did the Pasadena Lifesavers, one set of which is going to be in your show. I painted all 15 of them over a year and a half, and when I finished each one, I slipped it into a rack, and nobody ever saw them until they were all finished and shown in Dextra Frankel’s 1970 show at Cal State Fullerton — which was also when Jack Glenn did that famous boxing ring ad. But, I mean, that’s always how I’ve been: very private in my practice. I still am.

JEFFREY DEITCH — I want to ask you about something quite unique to your work: I’m thinking of the Flesh Fan paintings, in particular. Unlike other painters, where there’s the surface and then there’s the paint on the surface, you embed the paint into the object, and you have a three-way fusion of the surface, the paint, and the content. It’s all together embedded in one object.
JUDY CHICAGO — That’s true, and the Smithsonian is doing this show of archival material they have — I didn’t even know they had it — around something that happened in the ’70s. Lucy Lippard, Arlene Raven and her colleague, another art historian, Ruth Iskin, wrote to a bunch of women artists around the country and asked them, “What is feminist art?” I made this little print for it called What is Feminist Art? And now they’re doing a modern version of it at the Smithsonian, where they’re going to show the old works with new works. So, they asked me to do a new one. But I read the text on the old one… There are, like, two texts: one in a personal voice and one in the third person. And in the third-person voice, it says something about: “She couldn’t relate to artists who imposed upon the surface of the painting — for her, the surface of the painting was like her skin. And she wanted the paint to merge with, and meld with, her skin.” Now I would say, looking back, that that is an inherently feminist attitude. Don’t you think?

JEFFREY DEITCH — Yes. And it’s also fascinating the way these paintings mixed figuration and abstraction. The flesh colors read as the body. If you look at the paintings quickly, they’re geometric abstractions. If you look more deeply, it’s the body abstracted.
JUDY CHICAGO — Do you know how long it has taken for that to be seen, Jeffrey? I mean, seen aesthetically and understood. I knew when I was making those paintings in Fresno that I was making this radical change. I was trying to figure out if there could be a feminist art practice and a feminist art education, and I was doing all this experimentation with my students with video and performance, and I was asking myself, “Do I want to change direction and do video/performance work?” — which a lot of women artists were doing. But I love objects. I love making art objects. And also, as you know, my goal from the beginning has been to become part of art history — to make a contribution to art history. And, of course, art history from somebody from my generation is painting and sculpture and, you know, objects. I mean, for me, that is still the highest form of art (I know this dates me, but anyway). So, I decided that I was going to continue to make paintings and sculptures. And in Fresno Fan, I was very consciously trying to use my minimal language to merge flesh and landscape and to make a gesture of opening. But when I showed all the Fresno Fans and all the Flesh Fans in that show with Jack Glenn in 1971, there was absolutely no response. There was complete silence. It’s just a good thing I put those paintings into storage. Good thing Brian Cooke of Cooke’s Crating charged me $200 a month, no matter how many works I kept sending to him. Because he’s from the old days, and it’s a great pleasure to me that Brian is crating the work for my new show, “The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction,” which will open at the National Museum of Women in the Arts two weeks after your exhibition.

JEFFREY DEITCH — In a way, it was very lucky that you were able to keep these historic pieces so that they can be placed now with museums and also that the most serious collectors understand what they are.
JUDY CHICAGO — Yeah, I know. It’s just… You know, I keep saying, “If you live long enough, you never know what’s going to happen.”

JEFFREY DEITCH — [Laughs] Now, let’s go from the object to the fireworks pieces. So, you developed a completely fresh approach to performance art. The fireworks pieces are environmental works, performance works, and dispersed objects — another example of fusing several approaches. And your fireworks pieces are especially notable for their color — you continue to be a great colorist.
JUDY CHICAGO — It was interesting because Philipp Kaiser wrote the essay on my fireworks for the upcoming monograph, Judy Chicago: New Views. When he was working on it, he kept calling me up and saying, “Judy, I can’t find any writing on these.” And I was, like, “There isn’t any writing on them, Philipp.” But Philipp had become interested in them when he did “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974” at MOCA.

JEFFREY DEITCH — Yes, I was the museum director when we presented that show.
JUDY CHICAGO — And he was the first person to put my fireworks in the context of land art, which is very interesting because the Nevada Museum of Art has become interested in my fireworks archives. They have a really big archive of land art, and Philipp and I did a conversation there recently. The museum got really interested in how different my approach to landscape was from some of the guys whose archives they have: you know, like Michael Heizer and James Turrell, and all the guys who dug up the earth and burrowed and bulldozed [smiles]. Again, it’s this re-reading of my work in the new context of critical perception. Before I did Fresno Fans and even before I went to Fresno in ’67 and ’68, I created these domes, some of which you’re going to have in the show. The way I did them was to overlay the domes and spray at different levels. I was already interested in three-dimensional color. But, looking back, it’s now that I understand… So, I’m operating in this unbelievably macho, minimalist environment — trying to be taken seriously. And I’m interested in a kind of color that my UCLA professors absolutely hated — they told me I had a horrible color sense, you know, but I kept going, developing color systems. I was encasing them in these forms, which I was doing at the same time as my fireworks. I now realize that I was preceding the gesture I was going to make when I moved to Fresno and went in this whole new, radical direction. What I was doing was liberating my color, which had been encased in these domes and in my formalist paintings, and just letting it loose in the air. And, you know, the most amazing thing happened — when I presented my fireworks piece in Miami this year, A Purple Poem for Miami, people wept. There was something about this pure gesture of color in the air that moved people. I was completely blown away by this, but I can trace it back to my decision to be myself. So then, I got really interested in fireworks, and I started training to be a pyrotechnician, which never happened for a variety of reasons. But I started with a different approach from conventional fireworks: I wanted to soften and feminize the environment — oh god, did I want to feminize the environment! I mean, I was so isolated in those days. You know, I was just reading an article about Luchita Hurtado in The Guardian. She’s getting all this well-deserved attention now, and I knew her in the ’70s — I remember her. Andrea Bowers has written the catalogue for her Hauser & Wirth show. I didn’t know Luchita Hurtado painted in a closet — did you know that? But that was what it was like for most women artists then. Most were “in the closet,” so to speak. But I was fighting to get out.

JEFFREY DEITCH — Well, I knew her because her son, Matt Mullican, lived upstairs from
me, in Little Italy.
JUDY CHICAGO — Oh!

JEFFREY DEITCH — And I would see her all the time. But it was never mentioned that she actually made art.
JUDY CHICAGO — Right.

JEFFREY DEITCH — Very admired, very respected, but she kept her art very private.
JUDY CHICAGO — That’s sort of where I’m going with this. In the ’70s, I set out to see if there were other women artists because they were completely invisible. I was one of the only women who was kind of taken seriously in the LA art scene in the ’60s and ’70s. And I was reading this article in The Guardian, and Luchita said that I was the only woman artist who supported her. So, I was just trying to sketch this environment of unbelievable isolation and how incredibly alone one felt as a woman artist. So, for me to start trying to liberate myself from that constraint, which I did through my fireworks… I mean, it was a gesture of liberation. And it was also a way of exploring my color systems because when I did that piece at the Pasadena Museum in 1970, I laid the fireworks out around that central pool, in circles, in colored circles, exactly like the Pasadena Lifesavers were laid out. So, I was
using the color systems that I had been developing and then mixing color in the air. And then, when I went to Fresno, I started incorporating my students in the works — again merging flesh and landscape, painting their bodies, doing performances in all these different places. At a time when you didn’t have to have permits, and you didn’t have to have a fire department there — you just went out and did it. Oh god! [Smiles] Can you imagine? I did one in the national forest! Stanley Grinstein flew over it…

JEFFREY DEITCH — [Laughs]
JUDY CHICAGO — In a plane that he rented to look down! Can you imagine trying to do something like that in a national forest in California now?!

JEFFREY DEITCH — [Shakes head] Not possible. There are a lot of things that aren’t possible today.
JUDY CHICAGO — But that’s important to think about in terms of what the ’60s and ’70s in LA were like. As hard as it was, there was also all this stuff that was possible.

JEFFREY DEITCH — So, that’s one of the reasons why this interview is interesting for today’s audience: that sense of liberation we had in art at that time, well, now you can just hear about it, read about it, and see the documentation. You can’t really do it anymore.
JUDY CHICAGO — No. Oh, no. And then there’s, you know, the pressure of the art market and how expensive space is for artists. You know, I painted Pasadena Lifesavers in my Pasadena studio, which was 5,000 square feet. Three of us paid $75 a month — together! We used to pay $25 each. Inconceivable, right?

JEFFREY DEITCH — Well, there are some places in the world where you can still do that, but…
JUDY CHICAGO — Yeah, where we are — in Belen, New Mexico!

JEFFREY DEITCH — But not in one of the art centers. Let’s close by talking about your upcoming birthday bash in Belen and the fireworks piece that you’re preparing.
JUDY CHICAGO — One of the things I’m interested in is whether or not we can demonstrate a different relationship between art and community, so that artists who live in a small town don’t have to think, “I have to go to New York,” or “I have to go to Los Angeles,” or “I have to ignore my local town because I’m focused on the major art markets.” There have been a lot of artists who’ve lived in New Mexico as if they weren’t there: they never exhibit there, they never interact there as artists. So, this seemed to be an opportunity for us to try and interact with our community. On my birthday weekend, there will be a series of events, including the opening of different spaces on Becker Avenue. I’m going to do A Birthday Bouquet for Belen — a fireworks piece on the street. A lot of my friends — including you, Jeffrey — are coming from around the country, which we hope will also draw a lot of people from the state. People in Santa Fe rarely go south of the Albuquerque Airport. So, we’re doing this big birthday bash for my 80th. What a great way to celebrate my birthday — to try and make a contribution to my community, and to demonstrate the power of art.

END

JUDY CHICAGO, BIRTHDAY BOUQUET FOR BELEN, SMOKE TEST, BELEN, NEW MEXICO, 2019 PHOTO DONALD WOODMAN / ARS, NEW YORK JUDY CHICAGO, PASADENA LIFESAVERS YELLOW SERIES #2, 1969-1970, SPRAYED ACRYLIC LACQUER ON ACRYLIC, 60 X 60 INCHES COURTESY COLLECTION OF ELIZABETH A. SACKLER PHOTO DONALD WOODMAN / ARS, NEW YORK JUDY CHICAGO, PURPLE ATMOSPHERE, 1969, FIREWORKS PERFORMANCE / SANTA BARBARA BEACH, SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA COURTESY OF THE ARTIST / SALON 94, NEW YORK / JESSICA SILVERMAN GALLERY, SAN FRANCISCO / JEFFREY DEITCH, LOS ANGELES / PHOTO COURTESY OF THROUGH THE FLOWER ARCHIVES BIRTHDAY BOUQUET FOR BELEN, SMOKE TEST, BELEN, NEW MEXICO, 2019 PHOTO DONALD WOODMAN / ARS, NEW YORK JUDY CHICAGO, SMOKE BODIES FROM WOMEN AND SMOKE, 1972, FIREWORKS PERFORMANCE / CALIFORNIA DESERT COURTESY OF THE ARTIST / SALON 94, NEW YORK / JESSICA SILVERMAN GALLERY, SAN FRANCISCO / JEFFREY DEITCH, LOS ANGELES PHOTO COURTESY OF THROUGH THE FLOWER ARCHIVES JUDY CHICAGO, SKY FLESH, 1971 SPRAYED ACRYLIC LACQUER ON ACRYLIC, 96 X 96 INCHES COURTESY COLLECTION OF ELIZABETH A. SACKLER PHOTO DONALD WOODMAN / ARS, NEW YORK JUDY CHICAGO, TAOS, NEW MEXICO, 2019 PHOTO DONALD WOODMAN / ARS, NEW YORK Judy Chicago, Rearrangeable Rainbow Blocks, 1965, automotive lacquer on aluminumCourtesy of the artist / Salon 94, New York / Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco / Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles Photo Donald Woodman / ARS, New York JUDY CHICAGO, PALE GREEN DOMES WITH SOLID CORE, 1968, SPRAYED ACRYLIC LACQUER ON SUCCESSIVE FORMED CLEAR ACRYLIC DOMES COURTESY OF THE ARTIST / SALON 94, NEW YORK / JESSICA SILVERMAN GALLERY, SAN FRANCISCO / JEFFREY DEITCH, LOS ANGELES PHOTO DONALD WOODMAN / ARS, NEW YORK

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The Cosmos Issue #32

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