Judy Chicago looms large in twentieth-century art history survey courses. Her installations Womanhouse (1972) and The Dinner Party (1979) are essential viewing. On the other hand, her reception in the art world has been less rosy. Despite Chicago’s prominence in art historical narratives, her first career retrospective exhibition wasn’t held until 2021 (“Judy Chicago: A Retrospective” at the De Young Museum in San Francisco).
The exhibition “Judy Chicago, Turning Inward,” at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, displays a selection of Chicago’s works pulled entirely from the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation. Curated by Bruce Guenther, the show offers an opportunity to consider the work of this legendary artist as well as Schnitzer’s impressive acquisition prowess. At the media event on June 1, Jordan Schnitzer mentioned that he has more than 440 of Chicago’s works, so this is a small sampling of the larger holdings. The Foundation, according to Judy Chicago’s website, “has acquired my extensive print archive and is supplementing it with additional significant works with the goal of making the foundation a ‘go to’ place for my work.”
The stand-out work of the show is Pasadena Lifesavers Red Series #3. This work, newly acquired by Schnitzer, is not the obviously feminist imagery for which Chicago is best known but sets Chicago up as an artist firmly working within twentieth-century art world currents. One of a set of fifteen paintings built around color systems, in it Chicago sought unique combinations that departed from traditional expectations of primary, secondary, or tertiary colors. Made of sandwiched layers of plexiglass, car paint, and acrylic panel, the work has an immediately appealing luminosity. It is no wonder that Schnitzer, after seeing four examples of the Lifesavers paintings at the De Young retrospective, had to have one for his collection. It is unusual to get to see a collector’s acquisition so immediately in a public venue.
The works in the museum entryway – Pasadena Lifesavers; the sculpture Clear Domes on a Red Base; a painting (Small Early Painting) from 1961; and a serigraph (Flashback, Version 2) from 1965 – set up Chicago’s career and equally establish Schnitzer’s deep collecting impulse and interest in Chicago’s oeuvre.
Born in 1939, Chicago was only 22 when she made the small painting; it was made before she graduated with her MFA in 1964. This is nine years prior to her public renunciation of her married name Judy Gerowitz in Art Forum with the announcement: “Judy Gerowitz hereby devests [sic] herself of all names imposed upon her through male social dominance and freely chooses her own name: Judy Chicago.” A copy of the magazine ad is in the display cases to the right of the paintings.
The imagery of both the painting and the serigraph prefigure her exploration of “central cores” in her later feminist work. The bright palette of Pasadena Lifesavers reprises in the place settings of The Dinner Party. Guenther recounted that Chicago did not recognize the three domes seen in Clear Domes on a Red Base as breasts and a belly until Chicago’s Feminist Art Project co-founder, Miriam Schapiro pointed it out to her in the studio, but this imagery clearly ties to the feminist representation with which Chicago is most associated.
So even prior to her breakout moment as the “mother” of feminist art, Chicago’s works contained the foundational ingredients: symbolic cores, bright jewel tones, and a predilection for non-traditional studio materials.
Spray paint, plexiglass, and acrylic, however, were the same materials that the male “art bros” of the time were dabbling in. Chicago’s breakthrough came a few years later, when she instead embraced materials typically denigrated as “feminine”: embroidery and ceramics. Though these materials were part of the 1972 Womanhouse installation, it was The Dinner Party that brought these materials to their full potential.
Now permanently installed at the Brooklyn Museum, The Dinner Party, is present at the OJMCHE exhibition in several different works including preparatory drawings, prints, and draft banners. The standard explanation of the composition of the table, with thirteen place settings on each side of a triangle, is that it is reminiscent of the Last Supper. Guenther suggested that in fact, the communal meal was instead inspired by the Jewish communal meal of the Seder that Chicago encountered at her aunt’s home. The hanging banners include a reference to Eden.
The two works with the clearest connections to Judaism are at the back of the exhibition: a set of six paired lithographs and woodcuts inspired by the Song of Songs, and the large stained glass work Logo # 3 from Chicago’s Holocaust Project. The prints are of special technical interest because of their combination of the two rarely paired print mediums (lithography and woodcut). The stained glass Logo, astutely installed on the stairway up to OJMCHE’s Holocaust education exhibits, includes colored references to all of the populations targeted in the Holocaust as well as flames and barbed wire. A collaboration with her husband, Donald Woodman, the Holocaust Project was critically reviled (though to be fair, so was The Dinner Party) but is an appropriate inclusion here given the venue.
While the works in the show range from Chicago’s earliest canvases to her late-career performances (On Fire at 80), this is not a large-scale retrospective but instead an intimate smattering of works produced over a long career. The early works in the entryway are a highlight, and in conjunction with the display case of sketchbooks, set up the expectation of a rough chronology. But that isn’t fully followed through the rest of the show. Viewers with little background knowledge of Chicago’s oeuvre and projects may struggle to connect the dots. In part this seems due to the competing interests in showcasing the highlights of Schnitzer’s collection on the one hand and emphasizing Chicago’s Jewish connections on the other.
With that said, viewers looking to engage with examples of Chicago’s work will be well served by this exhibition. It is an ideal opportunity for the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation to uphold its commitment to sharing its collection rather than keeping it out of view in storage. Though the Foundation lends works to museums across the country – in 2023, many of the Chicago works will head to an exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York – this summer, the works have stayed in the local community, and we can see them at OJMCHE.
“Turning Inward, Judy Chicago” is on view at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education June 2-September 23. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11:00 am -4:00 pm and is located at 724 NW Davis Street.