Judy Chicago became the most famous feminist artist of her generation when, for her monumental Dinner Party (1974–79), she enlisted hundreds of women volunteers to contribute craftwork to her giant triangular table. On that table, Chicago set plates dedicated to notable women from history, from the goddess Ishtar to the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. But in lieu of food, she served each woman a unique ceramic vulva, decorated as a tribute to her work.
This iconic installation toured 16 venues in 6 countries, with a message to women everywhere: you are never alone, even if you find yourself isolated in the domestic sphere. And in 2001, The Dinner Party became the centerpiece of the Brooklyn Museum’s feminist art center.
Though clearly popular, The Dinner Party, like much of Chicago’s work, has also received plenty of criticism—for both its TERF-y equation of womanhood with vulvas, and for its whiteness. In 1984 critic Hortense J. Spillers pointed out that Chicago had included only one Black woman, Sojourner Truth, and represented her unlike the others, with faces instead of a vulva. Spiller calls the result “symbolic castration.”
Even though Chicago enjoys the status of feminist icon, and of being a household name, her retrospective at the New Museum in New York, titled “Herstory,” hasn’t exactly been a buzzy blockbuster. That’s probably because Chicago is not quite the artist we need right now: in 2024 she is known for a version of feminism that is popular and palatable, but also pretty narrow.
While many are tempted to write off Chicago completely, I find myself a nervous witness to a trend afflicting a younger generation that seems to feel that history—say, that of second-wave feminism—is bad, since people were more racist, sexist, and imperialist back then. They’re not wrong, but the attitude misses the importance of learning from history and from elders like Chicago: you can grow from others’ mistakes, and you would be wise to honor the trailblazers who made sacrifices to carve imperfect but important paths for change.
The reason I got into art history in the first place was to learn about how ideas like gender both morphed and persisted across time and culture. And yet, I know that it would be too simplistic to give Chicago’s art a pass for being a mere product of its time. She had plenty of feminist contemporaries whose work did age well, including visionary artists like Adrian Piper and Hannah Wilke. Instead of dreaming big, Chicago looked to history—or herstory—for answers, and in the process, got stuck in reverse.
Still, we can learn from Judy Chicago. One lesson is that, yes, her work feels out of touch. But this, in some respects, is a good thing. Its datedness shows that society has progressed beyond some of the basic and exclusionary ideas that belonged to her and to many others. Which, of course, is not to say that her celebration of women did no damage to the feminists who didn’t see themselves represented. The New Museum seems to have tried balancing this out by giving the first floor over to trans artist Jade Kuriki-Olivo, aka Puppies Puppies, an impressive talent placed in an awkward position.
The greatest lessons Chicago has to offer come from her early works in abstraction, since they tell the story of the artist Chicago did not become. Before The Dinner Party,Judy Chicago made minimalist, geometric sculptures and op art paintings in shades of pastels and pink, imbuing then-dominant styles with feminine flair. The language of avant-garde abstraction, she inadvertently proved, was by no means universal. It was, instead, deeply entrenched in masculine norms, often privileging cool rationality over warm feelings, and favoring restrained colors over “pretty” ones.
Rainbow Pickett (1965), which opens “Herstory,” was included in the landmark Minimalist art exhibition “Primary Structures” in 1965 at the Jewish Museum in New York, where its color palette set it apart from the other offerings, most of them by men.But beyond that early recognition, Chicago recalls in her autobiography that she experienced a lot of misogyny and dismissal from critics, curators, and collectors. She also noticed that while there were plenty of other female students when she was in art school, few of those women went on to become professional artists.
Chicago started researching women who enjoyed creative careers throughout history, hoping to learn from them. Soon, she turned this research into the subject of her art. In 1970 she founded a women-only art program at Fresno State College—a radical move at a time before women could open their own bank accounts in the United States. With her students and artist Miriam Schapiro, she filled an entire California house with collaborative experiments in feminist art. The energy of this endeavor is palpable at the New Museum, even through the grainy documentation laid out in vitrines.
Her first major series after The Dinner Party, “Birth Project”(1980–85), still offered glimpses of her compositional command. Rather than paintings, these gorgeous abstractions of birth scenes were done in needlework with myriad collaborators: here again, Chicago movingly celebrated a technique that had been feminized by society, and thus dismissed. But her reductive way of celebrating women once again spoils the project. It’s sad to witness a powerhouse like Chicago resort to praising women on such unimaginative terms: as life-giving forces. We have so much else to offer, and there are so many other ways to be a woman—which childless Chicago surely knows, having herself said, “there was no way on this earth I could have had children and the career I’ve had.”
Sadly, the newer works aren’t much more imaginative. On one floor of the show, for an installation titled “The City of Ladies,” Chicago curated a selection of works by more than 80 creative women, among them Hildegard of Bingen, Frida Kahlo, and Zora Neale Hurston. These hang under a banner Chicago first made for a 2020 Dior runway show that asks what if women ruled the world? With that banner, she doubles down on her reductive approach with a literal one-liner. The slogan glosses over the differences among the many women in “The City of Ladies,” plenty of whom surely envision a feminist utopia that dispenses with rulers altogether.
In those early abstractions, Chicago is actually quite capable of making nuanced art, of sidestepping the reductive didacticism for which she became known. The abstractions Chicago painted on car hoods are by far her strongest works. Her colorful, symmetrical, geometric compositions feel like Rorschach tests: are those forms you’re seeing genitalia between spread legs? The gorgeous yet confusing paintings make you think about the body’s presence while also reflecting on your own gaze.
But Chicago experienced too much misogyny in the body shop, so she walked out, and in her frustration, opted for a language that was more urgent, less nuanced. I’m sympathetic to her reasons, yet disappointed in her results. I left the show with the overwhelming sense that it’s really too bad society wasn’t ready to make space for that Judy Chicago, who was quite a promising artist.