On ViewJeffrey Deitch
September 7 – November 2, 2019
In a February 1970 talk at Pomona College Judy Gerowitz proclaimed, “I will not make art that looks as if it was made by a man, I want to make art that looks as if it was made by a woman.”1 Eight months later in an Artforum ad for her solo exhibition at Jack Glenn Gallery in Corona Del Mar, California, Gerowitz would announce her new chosen name: “Judy Gerowitz hereby divests herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and freely chooses her own name: Judy Chicago.” Judy Chicago: Los Angeles at Deitch presents for the first time the works that Chicago made after graduating from UCLA in 1964 and before officially announcing herself a feminist in pursuit of defining a feminist art in 1970.
Presented in one vast open space, Chicago’s early works speak to each other and reveal an inherent resistance to a male-centric approach and constitute Chicago’s first mature body of work as a maker of multifarious art objects.
Through the exhibition sightlines, connections are made between discrete works on paper, sprayed acrylic paintings, heavily patterned car hoods, geometric minimalist sculptures, and photo documentation of Chicago’s Atmospheres, colored-smoke performances. One of the more curious works in the show is a small serigraph, Flashback (1965), made up of yellow, green, red, and blue hard-edged geometric shapes. This is the least quintessentially “Judy Chicago” style work in the show, as it is completely devoid of any biomorphic shapes or personal iconography. However, the print has an idiosyncratic relationship with a sculptural installation across the room. Rearrangeable Rainbow Blocks (1965), a grouping of a dozen rectangular shapes in bold yellow, red, green, orange and purple. In a 1974 interview with Lucy Lippard, Chicago explains that she began to make minimalist sculptures based off the geometric shapes in her paintings in 1965. The suggestion of movement in the dynamic composition of Flashback is echoed in the arrangement of the Rearrangeable Rainbow Blocks, and as her title suggests, the blocks are actually meant to be rearranged, bringing back subjectivity into the otherwise stoic and removed qualities of male-dominated Minimalist discourse. The blocks have a playful quality to them and are inherently inviting in nature. One might also read this as Chicago’s critique of the male-centric Minimalist scene; “boys and their toys”.
In the same 1974 interview with Lippard, Chicago recounts the work of this period as her reckoning the with primarily formal concerns of the time, a way of trying to compete with her male peers. What is evident in the presentation at Deitch is Chicago’s unwillingness to embrace a “male” aesthetic. As Lippard notes in her interview, Chicago is really holding both stereotypically male and female aesthetics at the same time, making visible the tensions between “hard” (masculine) and “soft” (feminine). Foreshadowing her later work, Chicago was pursuing non-traditional techniques, taking both auto-body and boatbuilding courses to learn industrial methods of painting to produce her car hoods and construction basics to fabricate her large-scale minimalist sculptures. The car hoods, though produced in a “masculine” method, play on the gendered clichés of car culture like pinups and feminized hood ornaments. Chicago spray-painted these hoods with imagery from her rejected graduate school paintings, densely patterning them with brightly colored, biomorphic imagery. The car hoods are the most reminiscent of the core focus of her later work: highly aestheticized female anatomy rendered in bold graphic designs.
If the majority of the work in the show exemplifies Chicago’s confrontation with art world conditioning (doing as the boys do), then the most radical break in the exhibition are her Atmospheres. In 1969, just before her pivotal shift towards feminist art in 1970, Chicago began staging ephemeral colored-smoke events throughout Southern California with her female art students. In photo and video documentation, Chicago’s Atmospheres are a revelation in pure expression of color and liberation from fixed aesthetic standards. The time-based nature of the work and organic qualities—billowing clouds of hotly hued smoke painting the sky—became the antithesis to the narrow constraints of Minimalism which she had been grappling with. These performative actions made in collaboration with her students were her prelude into a feminist art practice which rejects conventional, patriarchal standards of art making and embraces new, collaborative, and experimental forms. What Judy Chicago: Los Angeles truly showcases is how Chicago grappled early on with her place in a male dominated discourse. We see the methods through which she challenged and defied normative conventions, working to define a practice that would push the dialogue of contemporary art forward in the direction of feminist interests.
- Judy Chicago, “Talk: Pomona College February 1970,” published in Rebecca McGrew, It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles 1969 - 1973, exhibition catalog (Los Angele: Pomona College Museum of Art, 2011), 131.