Women and Art
An interview with Judy Chicago
By John W. Whitehead

From Gadfly Nov./Dec. 1999


"My resistance began early on, when I was a child," writes Judy Chicago in Women and Art: Contested Territory, published this fall by Watson-Guptill Publications, New York City, and co-authored with art historian Edward Lucie-Smith. "I set my sights upon becoming the kind of artist who would make a contribution to art history." However, the paintings that young Judy Cohen, as she was known then, saw in the Art Institute of Chicago were "sending a contradictory message." Degas' sensuous women, for example, seemed content simply to lie and be gazed at. In fact, Chicago came to see that much of the work proclaimed as great art denied her "experience and feelings as a female person." She writes that from her childhood on, "I set myself against these images because they did not have anything to do with me." Thus began the crusade and eventual legacy of Judy Chicago to create feminist art that would not only encompass and express the entire being of women, but also change the world.

With her 1970 pioneering work The Dinner Party, Chicago thrust the female experience into the mainstream of art. A massive installation in the form of a triple Eucharist, The Dinner Party singles out thirty-nine women who altered the course of history. The work made use of skills that have traditionally been thought of as feminine, such as stitchery and china painting.

The Dinner Party was immediately controversial. Many viewers took offense at the imagery. (The plates at The Dinner Party were inspired by the shape of the vulva.) But Chicago has said that her primary goal was to celebrate women's achievement in the face of great odds.

Despite the controversy that has surrounded the work, including attacks from the floor of the United States Congress, The Dinner Party is now recognized as a key event in the history of the women's movement. It is also a defining moment in the history of art. It signaled the return to content which had been lost in the abyss of Minimal Art of the late 1960s.

With the creation of The Dinner Party, it may have seemed to many, even to Chicago, that she had arrived as an artist and that women could finally take a great leap forward towards achieving parity with men. But much personal and professional pain followed. Chicago even contemplated suicide several times, as she discusses in her autobiography Beyond the Flower (Viking Penguin, 1996). However, she pressed on, producing the Birth Project, the Holocaust Project and other controversial work. The Dinner Party has yet to find a permanent home.

Gadfly spoke with Judy Chicago shortly before the opening of a major retrospective of her work, which is at Indiana University in Bloomington until October 31, 1999, travels to the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo, Florida, for the winter, then moves to Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in the spring of 2000. (For a full schedule of the tour, visit

Your passion is feminist art, right?

JC: I am a feminist artist but, after all, there was no term "feminist art" when I started out.

In your book you essentially say that you coined the term.

I did coin the term when I was in Fresno in 1970, where I started the first feminist art program.

Can a man be a feminist?

Oh absolutely. Donald, my husband, considers himself a feminist. That's cool. Feminism is a philosophy that has two hundred years of thinking behind it. The media has done a real number on the term. People have accepted the media's idea of what feminism is, but that doesn't mean that it's right or true or real. Feminism is not monolithic. Within feminism, there is an array of opinions.

It's obvious from history that women have been marginalized, or greatly more than marginalized...


Do you think the situation has improved? Do you see progress?

There's no question that many more women artists are showing worldwide now than they were when I was a young woman, and that's really great. Remember back thirty years and the taboos that surrounded that and the kind of self-censorship that women practiced. You couldn't help it. You were told you couldn't be a woman and an artist. With my early work I got eviscerated by my male professors, and so you learned to disguise your impulses, as many women have done. And that's definitely changed.

Now, on an institutional level, the change has been minuscule. The collecting policies at most major institutions continue to be less than five percent women and the major exhibitions tend to be very minimal in terms of women.

You write that women tend to discount their accomplishments. Do you think this is because of how they have been treated in the past?

If you go to any of our major museums and walk through the gallery of historical art, you see the repeated representations of women by men. These have become the iconic images through which both men and women frame their ideas about what it means to be a woman, and some of those images are totally misogynous images, as Edward [Lucie-Smith] and I discuss in Women and Art.

When a young girl, for example, stands before Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, what goes through her mind? You write in your autobiography, Beyond the Flower, about your experiences as a girl looking at such paintings.

I talk about how confusing it was to me as a young girl when I was studying at the Art Institute [of Chicago]. There would be all these images of women as objects, and so of course the first confusion is, Well, am I the model or am I the artist? [The question] is exemplified pretty incredibly by that Laura Knight painting which is the frontispiece in Women and Art. She is standing there looking at the models as if she is thinking to herself, am I the artist or am I the model? It's a fascinating painting. So that's the first thing in terms of female aspiration. The Picasso is basically a brothel image and it is also an image of disfigured women.

Dehumanized women.

Yes, dehumanized and disfigured. It's not just looking at the painting, it's the idea that the painting has been canonized as great art.

Picasso was a misogynist, wasn't he?

Oh, my God, Edward refers to Francoise Gilot's autobiography in which she talks about Picasso burning her with a cigarette. I think that one of the things that is really interesting about Edward's process in Women and Art is that he talks about how feminist art theory has raised more questions in terms of art that have been simmering but left unaddressed. For example, what does it mean that we canonize images of rape, that we canonize artists who are misogynists?

The status of Picasso indicates the degree to which even though there has been a change in consciousness, that change has not been translated institutionally. And that is where a lot of my efforts as an artist have been going, in terms of trying to make an institutional change. I think that until that happens, progress is ephemeral.

In his paintings of women, Willem de Kooning's brushstrokes are like stabs. What do you do with his paintings? Should they be excluded from museums? If you go to any art book, de Kooning is listed as one of the great artists of the twentieth century.

I don't personally believe in censorship, but censorship has been practiced. And the way it has been practiced becomes evident when you look at Women and Art—the numbers of women artists whose work is not hanging in the museums across from the Picassos and the de Koonings so that there can be an equitable playing field. That's what I would like to see—where you get to see his side, his view, and then you get to see her view, and then you get to make up your own mind. That level of openness and dialogue has been shut down by an art community that has controlled representation and insisted that only male representation has been important.

Why aren't there more women's paintings in museums?

That's one of the big questions, and I have to tell you that this is not always an issue of gender. A lot of women in positions of power have been as misogynous and as anti-female as men, maybe more so. For those of us who are interested in seeing a more equitable society, the issue isn't whether the person is a man or a woman, the issue is what kind of program they are putting forward.

Can art be neither male or female? What I'm asking is, do men and women have to view art on the basis of gender?

Ah, well, do I wish that we lived in a world where gender didn't figure so prominently? Of course. Do I even think about myself as a woman when I go to make art? Of course not. I go to make art as who I am as a person. The fact that I am a woman comes into play maybe in the kinds of things I'm interested in or in the way I structure a canvas.

You don't think that men and women view things differently? Is a man going to paint a different kind of painting than a woman? Are paintings by men going to be more violent, for example?

That is the age-old question: Is it nature or culture? We can't actually see what the real differences are between men and women because we live in such a culture-bound world. Do I think there are fundamental differences between men and women? Yes probably. In the 1980s, there was this argument by some feminist theorists that gender is a shifting construct. I agree with that to some degree. However, for most people, being a man or a woman shapes their lives and experience dramatically. In some ways, you and I are different and in some ways we are not different. And some of that is based on gender and some of it is not. So do I think there is a definitive answer to that question? No. Do I think it matters? No. I think what's important is to give space to the range of human experience.

You've said that the larger purpose of art is to communicate. What should art communicate?

Whatever an artist is interested in communicating. When we look at the history of male art, we are not looking at a bunch of men who said, let's go make violent images of women. We are looking at images that were made because of who that person is and how he sees the world. And the way he sees the world has been shaped by a misogynous culture. Therefore we can appreciate the incredible achievement of a Picasso painting formally while at the same time being conscious of the content.

In Women and Art, you point out that challenging the masculine nature of God has been one of the goals of feminist art. You include Yolanda Lopez and one of her paintings, Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe. Do you think this painting sufficiently challenges the concept?

Not one painting. In fact, that's one of the points of Women and Art. In the sea of white men's art, one painting by a woman can't even be perceived. One painting can't possibly have that power. But if in the museum there were a lot of paintings by women who have made images of the female as the divine, then maybe it could begin to have an effect. But no one image can do that by itself.

Isn't there a thin line between challenging an old, reinforced conception of art and reinforcing it?

Absolutely. There is a very thin line. I think that one of the questions I raised in Women and Art is that if we can't use the historic language of art because so much of it is misogynous, what language are we supposed to use as women artists? If we can't use the female body, for example, because there is such a thin line between representation and colonization, then what are we supposed to do?

To build a new language, that's a big job. And you have to remember that feminist, oppositional art is only thirty years old. Certainly there were antecedents to it—one could mention a lot of earlier women. But still they worked more in the tradition of art. There wasn't yet an openly female tradition for younger women to work in. So women are at the beginning of building a language, and not all women are conscious of it.

Do you see your art as political?

No more than Picasso was political.

Then when people like Congressman Robert Dornan saw your art as political...

Do we have to talk about him?

Well, that was the big flap. They opposed a multicultural museum that would house The Dinner Party.

The thing that was so great about that was all these guys were debating a work of art they had never seen.

But the point is they made it into a huge political issue, and obviously that doesn't set well with you...

Well, it blocks the permanent housing of The Dinner Party. But the scariest part was sitting there listening to those guys debating The Dinner Party, which I know something about. I kept thinking to myself, if they know so little about what they are talking about now, what does that mean about the rest of the time they are talking? It scared the hell out of me.

You have a chapter in the book on maternity. Is motherhood an impediment to being an artist?

I think it has been difficult for women—very very difficult. A lot of this came from my experience working with women in my Birth Project. A number of them were creative women who were also mothers, and they all talked about the conflicts that they experienced, conflicts that I myself didn't want to have to deal with, which is one of the reasons I never had children.

You make a good point that in museums you very seldom see art that depicts the birth cycle. Do you think that is because men fear it?

You know that painting by Jonathan Waller in our book? Waller did a whole series of images of his wife giving birth. And do you know what happened? He lost his gallery. None of the work sold. Obviously, what we are talking about are very deeply entrenched attitudes towards the body. They are shared attitudes in the culture, and they are destructive to all of us, men and women. Why shouldn't people grow up knowing what the birth process is like?

In a chapter from Women and Art titled "Casting Couch and Brothel," you recount visiting a strip club in San Francisco. You wrote that you felt revulsion and pity when you saw the dancers gyrating for pay. But many of these dancers—and many academics—claim that exotic dancing is a liberating form of expression. Can a dancer get up there and do what you saw her do and say it's legitimate art?

Well, remember I told you that feminism has many faces and many opinions? But in Women and Art there is a quote from a woman who happens to be an artist and she used to be a sex worker. And she is really aggravated with the academics who [argue that pornography is okay]. I think that her point of view just about says it all. She obviously has no patience for that idea.

Some people say that their life is their art. For me, making art is a very specific act that involves creating a symbolic reality. The idea that other things are art, I just don't accept any of that.

In Beyond the Flower, you write, "I also learned that the purpose of life was to make a difference, a goal that has shaped my existence." Have you made a difference?

That's not really a question for me to answer. That's going to be an historical question.

What do you think?

When I did my book tour for Beyond the Flower in 1996, I spoke at the Smithsonian, and the woman who introduced me said, "Do you have any idea how much impact you have had?" And I said no. Because I really didn't. And because I have been subject to such horrendous public and written criticism—personal vituperative criticism—it was hard to judge or evaluate. I just had to isolate myself in order to keep going, so as not to be battered to death by the art world resistance and this level of criticism.

Then last year I had an exhibition in Taipei, and there were many many people at every lecture and public event, and this young woman from the gallery said to me, "Judy, don't you realize that all over the world people are studying your work?" And I said no, I had no idea. And she said to me, "You ought to get out more often."

So I have begun to realize that my work has reached the other side of the world. I feel like I have at least begun to make a contribution, but my most significant concern has to do with whether my actual art will be preserved for future generations or be erased. For me that would mean that I hadn't succeeded, because the visual objects I have spent my life making are the things I want people to have access to, not just my words or my ideas, but my art.