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Judy Chicago: A Retrospective

Judy Chicago (b. 1939), "Immolation", from the series "Women and Smoke", 1972. Fireworks performance; performed in California desert. Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco. © Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph courtesy of Through the Flower Archives

Judy Chicago: A Retrospective
Media Image Gallery

August 28, 2021–January 9, 2022
de Young museum 

"What kind of artist am I? I'm determined to follow my own vision. I'm willing to risk everything. I'm dedicated to making a contribution–art historically, culturally and socially." –Judy Chicago 


SAN FRANCISCO – The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco celebrate pioneering feminist artist Judy Chicago with the first retrospective of her work. Spanning from her early engagement with the Californian Light and Space Movement in the 1960s to her most current body of work—a searing investigation of mortality and environmental devastation—the exhibition includes more than 125 paintings, drawings, ceramic sculptures, and prints, as well as ephemera, several films, and a documentary that chart the boundary-pushing path of the artist. Judy Chicago: A Retrospective is presented on the heels of the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote across the United States. 

“Judy Chicago is an artist of exceptional foresight and consequence, who is long overdue for the deep look into her artistic output that this retrospective will provide,” states Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “I am proud to say that Judy Chicago: A Retrospective is one in a series of groundbreaking exhibitions at the de Young that pay homage to artists who have historically been undervalued based on their race or gender.”

One of the founding forces behind the 1970s feminist art movement, Chicago became widely known for her landmark installation The Dinner Party. The massive work shone a spotlight on women’s contributions to history. It featured table settings that honored ancient female deities such as Ishtar and Kali, historical figures like Hildegarde of Bingen and Sojourner Truth, and artists in many mediums, from Emily Dickinson to Georgia O’Keeffe. Upon its completion in 1979, after more than five years of work and with contributions from dozens of volunteers, The Dinner Party was presented in San Francisco to large crowds and popular success, and proceeded to be shown to audiences on an international tour to 15 cities in 5 countries. Art critics, however, responded differently, annihilating The Dinner Party for its celebration of vaginal imagery and embrace of “feminine” craft. During the 1980s and 1990s, Chicago experienced a sexist and elitist backlash in which she was deemed too popular with the general public and too overtly political for the art world. Over the years however, The Dinner Party has become recognized as one of the iconic artworks of its time and Chicago’s entire oeuvre has moved back into the limelight and into the attentions of both critics and institutions. 

“If you live long enough, you never know what is going to happen. The retrospective at the de Young museum is a great opportunity for me to step out of the shadow cast by The Dinner Party,” says Judy Chicago. 

Judy Chicago: A Retrospective is the first exhibition to offer a comprehensive overview of Chicago’s astonishing career. Tracing the artist’s practice back to its roots, it reveals her unique working process – sometimes alone, other times collaborating with her husband, colleagues, or a wider circle of volunteers, and the origins of the formal and conceptual strategies she has applied throughout her oeuvre. Bringing together a representative selection drawn from every major series of her work, it also features sketchbooks, journals, and preparatory drawings that document her extensive process of research and development. 

Judy Chicago: A Retrospective reveals the continued radicality of Chicago’s practice, both in her choice of subject matter and embrace of media traditionally excluded from the art historical canon,” says Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “To this day, her art is activist in its foundations. It is driven by the need and desire for social justice and an insistence on aesthetic strategies that don’t require knowledge of art history or critical theory to be legible, while being informed by both.”

Judy Chicago: A Retrospective is on view from August 28, 2021 through January 9, 2022, at the de Young museum in San Francisco, which is the sole venue for the exhibition. The exhibition is organized by Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

In Detail 

Judy Chicago: A Retrospective includes a number of works that Chicago produced as a young artist in Los Angeles. Developed in response to the reigning minimalist aesthetic, painting series such as Pasadena Lifesavers and Fresno Fans, and sculptures such as Rainbow Pickett, demonstrate her early interest in fringe techniques. Having enrolled in auto-body school to learn practices that are not taught at art school, Chicago produced a number of spray-painted car hoods, hung on the wall like paintings. The series’ bold, biomorphic imagery is represented in the exhibition by works, such as Birth Hood, and Bigamy Hood.

After decades of trying to fit into the structure of a patriarchal society, and at a time of grief for the loss of her father and her young husband, Judy Chicago decided to change her name and history. In October 1970, she announced her chosen identity with a full-page ad in Artforum, divesting herself of “all names imposed upon her through male social dominance”. She proceeded to found the first feminist arts education program in the United States, and then co-found the Feminist Studio Workshop, and the Woman’s Building, celebrating and nourishing the creative growth and recognition of female artists from around the world. Judy Chicago: A Retrospective includes prints, films, and other archival materials celebrating Chicago’s pioneering educational role. 

A section is dedicated to Chicago’s first foray into “central core imagery” imagery, which became central to the conception of The Dinner Party. The Reincarnation Triptych (1973) is presented along with her earliest paintings, including Through the Flower 2 (1973), that openly embraced female sexuality and desire after having received harsh criticism for her series of biomorphic car hoods.    

The Dinner Party (1974-1979), permanently installed in the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, is represented by preparatory studies, cartoons, drawings, ceramic test plates as well as related archival materials as a project in the making.  In addition, the film Right Out of History: The Making of Judy Chicago's Dinner Party is on view, providing visitors to the exhibition an in-depth look at the extensive process involved in creating The Dinner Party.   

The Birth Project (1980–1985), which grew out of her research for The Dinner Party, was Chicago’s direct response to the absence of imagery related to birthing as one of the most foundational female experiences. As with The Dinner Party, she relied on the help of collaborators; creating the 80+ works in this series with the help of female volunteers all over the United States, Canada, and New Zealand. Painted and needle-worked images, such as Earth Birth, vividly illustrate creation and the process of giving birth through powerful female forms depicted as both divine and connected to the Earth.

The series PowerPlay (1982–1987) examines gender as a construct couched in ambiguity. Works such as Driving the World to Destruction and Crippled by the Need to Control/Blind Individuality portray exaggeratedly muscular male figures reminiscent of Renaissance-era nudes, grasping a steering wheel or physically handling females. Chicago inextricably links her protagonists’ performance of masculinity to a brutal struggle with their feminine inner selves, painting a searing portrait of patriarchy’s hunger for power and dominance.

The result of a charged eight-year investigation that began with her Jewish roots and heritage, but ultimately came to consider genocides around the world, the Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light (1985–1993) investigates the dynamics and manifestations of power beyond societal structures. Created by Chicago and her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, with the help of a group of artisans, the series is a haunting body of work that tackles our understanding of humanity. In the exhibition it is represented by The Fall, an 18-foot-wide Aubusson tapestry, and Rainbow Shabbat, a monumental stained-glass window installation.

Works from Chicago’s latest series The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2015–2019) confront visitors with a meditation of mortality and the human impact on the natural environment. Executed in multi-fired paint on glass and bronze, works like How Will I Die? cast an unrelenting eye on the process of dying, while Vulnerable, Targeted, and Poached portray animals whose near-extinction is caused by human (in)action.

About Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago is an artist, author, educator and humanist whose work and life are models for an enlarged definition of art, an expanded role for the artist and women’s rights to freedom of expression. Born in Chicago, Illinois, she attended the University of California, Los Angeles. Chicago’s work is in numerous private and institutional collections, including The British Museum, London, UK, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY, The Hammer Museum, University of California, Los Angeles, CA, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, National Gallery, Washington, DC, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, and Tate, London, UK. Chicago lives and works in Belen, NM.

deyoungmuseum.org \ @deyoungmuseum \ #JudyChicago

Exhibition Catalogue 
The exhibition is accompanied by Judy Chicago: In the Making, an illustrated 280-page catalogue copublished by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Thames & Hudson. Edited by exhibition curator Claudia Schmuckli, it includes essays by Janna Keegan and Jenni Sorkin.

Contemporary Art at the de Young museum
Overseen by Claudia Schmuckli, the Museums’ contemporary art program launched in 2016 to present the work of living artists in dialogue with the Museums’ unique buildings and permanent collections. In the program’s first four years, installations by Carsten Nicolai/Alva Noto, Hilary Lloyd, Leonardo Drew, DIS, Ranu Mukherjee, and Matt Mullican transformed the de Young’s Wilsey Court. At the Legion of Honor, Urs Fischer, Sarah Lucas, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Julian Schnabel, and Alexandre Singh each presented exhibitions in dialogue with the architecture and the collection of works by Auguste Rodin. The latest exhibition in the program, Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI, investigated effects of the growing human dependence on artifical intelligence.

Exhibition Organization
Judy Chicago: A Retrospective is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Lead sponsor: San Francisco Auxiliary of the Fine Arts Museums. Major support provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne, Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation and The Carl and Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation. Significant Support provided by Dior and Ray and Dagmar Dolby Family Fund. Generous Support provided by Jessica Silverman, Merrill Private Wealth Management, Lorna Meyer Calas and Dennis Calas, Salon 94, and Turner Carroll Gallery. Additional support provided by Leslee and Roger Budge, Tad Freese and Brook Hartzell, The Richard and Peggy Greenfield Foundation, and Chandra and Michael Rudd.

Media Sponsor: San Francisco Chronicle

Visiting \ de Young
Judy Chicago: A Retrospective is shown in the Herbst Exhibition Galleries at the de Young from August 28, 2021 - January 9, 2022. The de Young museum is open to the public Tuesday - Sunday 9.30 am - 5.15 pm. More information regarding tickets can be found at deyoungmuseum.org/visit-us. 

Public Programming
During the run of the retrospective, the Museums will host a series of virtual programs:

Wednesday, Aug 25, 2021 \ A conversation with Judy Chicago. Celebrate the opening of Judy Chicago: A Retrospective with the artist herself. Hear Judy Chicago shares insights about her upcoming exhibition Judy Chicago: A Retrospective, her art practice, and more in this conversation with Claudia Schmuckli, curator in charge of contemporary art and programming

Wednesday, Sep 15, 2021 \ She Bends: A film and conversation on Neon Art. Join us for a film & conversation with the women in neon exploring the process, science, and  conceptual growth of neon art. She Bends presents the trailer for “Of Luminescence” a film by She Bends artist & filmmaker, Jess Krichelle. The film is a meditative piece on women in neon, challenging the false dichotomy of art and science and celebrating the craft of neon glass blowing and the future of neon lights. She Bends is a movement empowering women in neon. They support a network of women who are bending their own neon art and pushing the boundaries of their medium beyond the confines of commercial signage. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2021 \ The Future of Museum Sustainability with Art + Climate Action. Meet a local group of leading arts professionals who have been working on the frontlines to build a more sustainable art world. Hear about their initiatives on encouraging museums and galleries to do audits of their organizational infrastructure and exhibition practices in view of changing tactics for a greener future. 

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young museum, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco, and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States.

The de Young originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park and was established as the Memorial Museum in 1895. It was later renamed in honor of Michael H. de Young, who spearheaded its creation. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in October 2005. Reflecting an active conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods, the collections on view include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art.

Media Inquiries
Helena Nordstrom, Associate Director of Communications \ hnordstrom@famsf.org