The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Encountering Judy Chicago

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Art, Gender, and Rediscovery

When I first encountered Judy Chicago’s work as a college student almost three decades ago, her series The Dinner Party was an invitation to ponder the question of who I wanted to be in this world and offered possible answers in the form of symbolic representations of specific women as ceramic plates: mystic-saint Hildegard of Bingen, poet Emily Dickinson, physician Elizabeth Blackwell. The images are reminiscent of flowers, mouths, and vaginas, and the colors vary from plate to plate. The Susan B. Anthony plate is a three-dimensional, fleshy image resembling a crab, while the Sacajawea plate displays geometric shapes and vegetable-dye colors that recall the women’s art of the Shoshone tribe.

I went to the public library, checked out the book The Dinner Party, and never returned it. I had thoughts of using one of these images for a tattoo. Years later, when I returned to teach briefly at my alma mater, I went back to the library. They had a record of the overdue book, so I paid for it, and it still sits on my shelf.

Last summer, in Santa Fe on a writing retreat, I learned that Judy Chicago’s new work was being shown at the David Richard Gallery, as part of a nationwide celebration of the artist’s 75th birthday. She was to give a talk at the opening. I would be in the same room with Judy Chicago!

I made my way to the parking lot of the train depot, which I knew from dining at a nearby restaurant, and followed the tracks down to the gallery. When I walked into the cool, airy space, I was nervous and immediately fascinated by the work, a double nervousness. These pieces weren’t what I remembered from decades earlier. Instead, these heads—on paper, in ceramic, on and in glass—were what I needed to see now as validation of the choices I’d made as a writer over many years. I’d become sentimental about The Dinner Party, and these new pieces made me excited again.

In her new work, Chicago, who lives outside Albuquerque, has become interested in the relationship between the skin as the body’s surface and the bones and muscles that underlie that surface. Her recent focus has been the head and face, that part of our bodies that houses the mind, communicates with others, and expresses the self we project. Her interest emerges from the tradition of anatomical drawings, like those by Leonardo DaVinci or those upon which Leslie Adrienne Miller based her poetry collection The Resurrection Trade.

Several years ago, Chicago explored the human head in three-dimensional cast sculptures of a woman named Toby Shor, who was in the midst of cancer treatment. The Toby Heads—I saw one the next day at the New Mexico Museum of Art—concentrate on surface, expression, and form and communicate a quiet honesty about human strength and frailty. The more recent work at the gallery explores the relationship of the underlying anatomy and physiology of the face to the emotion that is expressed and, sometimes, feigned by the face we see. As Chicago put it in her talk, “I’m interested in what’s under the skin.” Or, as she said at another point, “I was interested in how a gesture could mean a variety of things.” Form or image, then, gives way to cause and effect, to multiple and layered meanings, to performance, to story.

These ideas captivated me in the paintings on glass and their accompanying drawings, which suggest what an anatomy student might see as she flays half the face of her cadaver, revealing the muscles and, in the case of Tasting the Mortal Coil, the skeleton. The colors are vibrant, like those reds and blues in an anatomy textbook. The transparency of glass is reminiscent of the plastic sheets that laid the human body in layers inside my childhood encyclopedia. Torn Up is the image of a person crying, with tears running off one half of the face and suffering evident in the underlying muscles and blood vessels on the other half of the face. Smiling Through Gritted Teeth shows the difference between upturned mouth and rounded cheek on the external half of the face and tension in the muscles and teeth on the flayed half. We often appear or try to appear as we are expected to be. We perform partly who we are and partly who we think we need to be in a given situation. The body is physical, but the body’s surface is social.

The social nature of the body is the larger context for Chicago’s work. In her recent book, Institutional Time, Chicago writes bluntly, “I have seen the careers of many women artists derailed by trying to ‘have it all,’ that is, a career, marriage, and a family.” Her own study of women throughout history led her to conclude that it would be difficult and perhaps impossible to become both a successful artist and a successful mother. Indeed, the career and biological clocks tick away simultaneously, sounding too much like time bombs, perhaps nowhere so in sync than in academic positions like the ones I’ve held, in which the tenure decision and one’s decline in fertility usually approach together.

I’ve concluded that same thing myself, though I have never announced such thoughts aloud or in my writing because, says Chicago, “it is still unacceptable to admit them.” We should not ignore or be silent, however, that choices about how we spend our time have long-term consequences and that we face and embody a variety of assumptions and pressures about responsibility, selfishness, and priorities. At least, as a woman who has chosen career over motherhood, whether I’ve chosen purposefully or more haphazardly through smaller decisions that added up, I can ponder my choice. I can include regret among my feelings. And I can be appreciative. As Judy Chicago “witnessed one woman after another curtailing or giving up her career for motherhood,” she became increasingly grateful that she lacked the urge to have children. As an adult, she grew “even more certain that I had a lot to say about life, about women’s circumstances, and about the world and its many injustices.” She decided to live an unbalanced life, and it paid off.

But it didn’t pay as well as if she’d been male. In the gallery talk in Santa Fe, art historian Kathy Biattista pointed to the difference in price points and earnings between Chicago and male artists like Jeff Koons, whose work Battista considers far less significant but whose individual pieces sell for tens of millions of dollars and whose net worth is reported to be $100 million.

Last July, Businessweek reported good news: six women had set personal records at art auctions, and three top-selling artists had increased their earnings by 3000% in five years. But the gender gap for visual artists is enormous: “Since 2004, works of art by the best-selling women have brought in 12¢ per dollar spent on those of their male counterparts, according to figures compiled by Bloomberg from the database of research firm Artnet.” Or as Judy Chicago, in her gallery talk, recounted, “There’s still resistance in terms of price points for women. There’s also actually an ongoing problem, and some of this is among women. I love your work. Your work changed my life. Buy something!” A friend recently mentioned a novel she really liked and said she’d give me her copy if it weren’t on her Kindle. But no, I must buy books by women. If I want to be compensated—as well as complimented—as a writer myself, I must invest in other women writers. Success, in this capitalist country, to at least some extent, is measured by money, and, by this measure, men, on average, are more successful. However else we measure success individually, we live by these societal terms.

It’s not merely a matter of value and compensation, of course. Access and exposure matter for artists of all types, including writers. Visual and performance artist Micol Hebron has spear-headed a project called Gallery Tally, which consistently finds that more male than female artists exhibit in gallery after gallery. Hebron found this trend not just in gallery exhibitions but also in the pages of ArtForum. VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts has does the same sort of tracking of writers. VIDA consistently finds that publications like the Atlantic, The Nation, New Republic, New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker, which are considered more prestigious and often pay more handsomely than smaller outlets, favor male writing. The score for those publications? Men win big, with 75% of that territory in both 2012 and 2013.

In her gallery talk, Chicago noted, “In the 21st century, I do not understand why women have to study what men do as part of mainstream curriculum, and men don’t have to study what women do and have done as part of mainstream curriculum.” When I saw photographs of The Dinner Party in that college women’s studies class, I learned what women do—but only a couple of men took that class. As we grow up and into adulthood, women learn to function in two cultures, two existences layered one atop the other. And of course, race, class, and other cultures intersect and overlap with gender. Maybe that’s why women acutely feel those issues of life balance, juggling, or deciding between family and career, trying to succeed in two cultures. Maybe men learn to function well in the culture of the New York galleries and the New Yorker and don’t see life balance as quite the same pressing dilemma. Being a woman has consequences. Being a man has consequences, too, and in the art world and the publishing world, the consequences tend to involve more benefits than drawbacks.

All sorts of excuses are given for the numbers: maybe the wage gap exists because women like the kinds of jobs that pay less, maybe women don’t send their writing to the Atlantic in droves and men do, maybe Judy Chicago’s work isn’t very good even though it’s changed people’s lives. But those are simplistic answers to small questions, not ways to explain what’s really going on.

As I walked among the pieces in that Santa Fe gallery and as I listened to art historian Kathy Battista and Judy Chicago herself talk about the artwork, my body trilled with intellectual excitement. I was moved by the validation this work offered: a grown-up version of what I’d felt when studying The Dinner Party and feeling invited, even pressured, into a tradition of women doing things in this world. I was reminded all over again that women’s work matters. The dilemma is that gender matters, that gender makes a difference, that we don’t want to belie distinction, but that distinction leads to privilege, an edge, or some subtle slippage from view.

“For me, art is about discovery,” Judy Chicago said that evening. “It’s about discovering what different techniques allow me to express.” Her Delft heads make old sense, as that material—ceramic and paint—draws from the same tradition of art out of which The Dinner Party rose. But I’d had no idea Chicago is meticulous with drawings and watercolors, which are, essentially, studies upon which she bases her glass paintings. Her plans are serious art, and she pushes those watercolors as far as that medium will allow her to go with a subject. Then, she moves on to another medium, a new direction, further in the world because of what’s on or in her mind.

Chicago was no expert in glass when she decided that glass was the medium to which she must turn for these anatomical paintings. So she went to the Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle, away from her home in New Mexico, to learn new techniques, just as she had learned to do complex embroidery years earlier for The Dinner Party, The Birth Project, and other series. Judy Chicago does not settle for what she already knows and can do. She seeks out collaboration. She is not afraid to set off, methodically, in an unfamiliar direction to master new skills—not in her thirties, not in her seventies. I wondered what would happen in this world if we each took these approaches over time and whether I had done this myself. New, different—that’s risky, that takes time. Those of us who do this probably get paid less.

“New forms allow new content,” Chicago said, as if speaking directly to me, as if she were telling me that, despite the pressure I feel to do one thing well and the fear I have of spreading myself too thin, it’s necessary to try things beyond my ken. The relationships between form and content, the possibilities of different interactions between structure and meaning—that’s what interests me too.

I myself am a new form, not entirely the person I was decades ago. I am both more and less and structured somewhat differently. Judy Chicago’s artwork, ultimately, is a decree: An artist must extend the tradition of discovery others have set by discovering for herself, then discovering again, all the while remembering what’s come before. I’m excited and motivated by that charge. I think I’m on the right track.

There weren’t many men in the crowd that day at the gallery. I wish there had been. I wish it didn’t matter whether men go to a Judy Chicago exhibit or go to see the film Wild. I wish it didn’t matter now in such a similar way to how it mattered thirty years ago when I was in that women’s studies class. We all learn about men, and that’s not a bad thing. I want men and women alike to understand, too, how motivated and talented and accomplished women have been, are, and can be. I want these tracks I’m on to lead to bustling stations, to destinations where we all can arrive.

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Art credits:

The Dinner Party: “Susan B. Anthony,” by Neil R, under Creative Commons; “Sacagawea,” The Dinner Party, by Lindsey Davis, under  Creative Commons; “The Toby Heads,” by the author.


Anna Leahy is the author of the nonfiction book Tumor and the poetry book Aperture and the co-author of the forthcoming Conversing with Cancer. Her essays won top awards at Ninth Letter and Dogwood in 2016 and have appeared at The Rumpus, the Atlantic, PopSugar, The Southern Review, The Pinch,, and elsewhere. See more at http://amleahy.com and @amleahy . More from this author →