Sunday, June 16, 2019

Judy Chicago and The Birth Project at the Harwood Museum of Art Taos

Judy Chicago: The Birth Project, from New Mexico Collections 1981-1987
The Harwood Museum of Art, Taos 575-758-9826
June 2 - November 10, 2019

"Creation of the World: Needlepoint 1" 1985 with Vicki Thompson Wylder

The name Judy Chicago is the first result in the Google search engine when looking for information about Feminist Art. It can be concluded that more than likely she is the preeminent Feminist Artist. Chicago is best known for her multimedia installation “The Dinner Party” (1974-79), formatted as a triangular table with place settings set to honor 39 historic women. Installation of The Dinner Party, known for it’s use of imagery of vaginal ceramic plates, also utilizes embroidered textiles. At the time of its showing, The Dinner Party, sparked an 87-minute debate in the U.S. House of Representatives over whether it was art or pornography.

*Can you name five women artists? In 2016 the National Museum of Women in the Arts asked this question. Soon it became a hashtag calling attention to the fact that women are not treated equally in the art world.

Depictions of birth are rare in the history of art. Frida Kahlo and Leonardo de Vinci may be the only artists who had ever broached the subject before Judy Chicago created an astounding amount of work for The Birth Project. 

Foetus sketches, Leonardo da Vinci

Unfortunately, Chicago decided to not participate in any press interviews in Taos and instead sent two very competent representatives to speak for her. Viki Thompson Wylder, formerly of the Women’s Studies Program at Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts and Megan Schultz, Studio Manager for Chicago/Woodman did an admirable job of answering my queries. The following are 24 questions from an interview during a pre-press briefing held at the **Harwood Museum of Art.

Robert Cafazzo: In a few words can you describe the Birth Project?

Viki Thompson Wylder: This is a rather large showing of the Birth Project. It’s very complex, so it has a number of layers of things that it’s doing. In art terms it is redefining what art and craft are. According to Judy’s idea of what art and craft is. For Judy art comes about through intention. Craft comes about through a focus on skill alone. Where meaning is not part of the deal. The smallest work in the exhibition id “Creation of the World” 1984 petit point embroidery, with the largest which is filet crochet at 8’ x20’ titled “Birth” 1984.

RC: Is it merging art and craft or is it breaking new barriers?

VTW: It’s breaking new barriers, it’s not craft.

RC: How has the Birth Project been exhibited through the years? Has it been exhibited in Craft Museums, in Fine Art Museums, either or, exclusively one or the other?

VTW: I don’t know about this, I do know another series called “Resolutions: A Stitch in Time” was shown at what was once the Craft Museum in NYC. 

Megan Schultz: I think the majority of the exhibitions have been in museums and a lot of University galleries.
If they were art spaces, they were either Museums or Galleries, but she also wanted these pieces to be shown in places like hospitals, libraries, birthing centers. Today most of the work belongs to museums.

RC: How all encompassing is the Birth Project, as to depicting birth?

VTW: There are layers, mythology, mythological associations with birth are very important, but also Chicago has said that she wanted to show the real. So you have a piece like this for example, where obviously pain is involved. She wanted to show the celebratory. These crowning images, a crowning image to me is all about celebration. She wants to honor birth, she wants to talk about women feelings about birth. Look at a piece like this which is called “Birth Tear/Tear” 1982, that deals with what some people have called maternal ambivalence. On the one hand the woman is very happy to be giving birth on the other hand there are all sorts of other feelings that come along with it when you’re raising children. I’ve looked at this a bit and believe she’s at least twenty years ahead of her time in developing images about that. 

Dr. Thompson Wylder emphasizing the work "Birth Tear/Tear" 1982

RC: How many people were involved in creating work for the Birth Project? Where was most of the work done, was it spread out across the country?

VTW: There were about 150 needle workers. Eighty-four what are called exhibition units were completed. An exhibition unit is something like this where you have a textile and then all these documentation panels. It was important, she felt to particularly tell you something about the woman whom she collaborated. In this case it was Jane Gaddie Thompson. So, you see a photograph of Jane Gaddie Thompson. 

RC: There’s a sampling of her (Jane Gaddie Thompson’s) needlework exhibited as well.

MS: In the back of the Birth Project book it lists everybody that had worked on it. There were more than even the needle workers, there were a lot of people involved.

RC: Where they (the needleworkers) from a particular region in the country?

MS: All over the country.

RC: Overseas as well?

VTW: One person from Canada, one person from New Zealand.

Members of the press at the Judy Chicago Press Conference, "Birth: Fillet Crochet" in background at the Harwood Museum, Taos

RC: Is most of Chicago’s work some form of collaboration or is it different from this and how is it different?

VTW: Well, I’ve looked at this word collaboration a lot over the years. Collaboration simply means that you’re working together. It does not dictate how you’re working together. I think a lot of people have criticized that term not really knowing exactly what it means. These are all Judy’s images, if you take or look at these black panels (the information cards in the exhibition) sometimes it will tell you that Judy actually painted on a canvas and then the needle worker stitched on top of that. Or sometimes you will have something like this where there is drawing that happened with directions on it given to the needle worker. The needle worker then translates the image. There are all sorts of ways that this happened. 

RC: This was so many years ago that communication wasn’t available through emails or updates on how things were going from the needle workers. How much supervision was done once the collaboration of the makers began?

VTW: Things were often done through mail, but there were regular reviews that were done, she would travel around the country. Needle workers might come together in one part of the country. She’d look at what they had done up to that point and say, I like this we need more… There was a permanent center in Houston where they would meet, other places were not permanent where they would meet. Sometimes, she’d just go to a persons house and interview the person and look at the work. Works could take up to four years for completion.

MS: I think too there are some great interaction with the needle workers suggesting either materials like batik. Judy wasn’t so sure about batik and then thought, oh this is great. There was some back and forth. The needleworkers were the ones who got to select what kind of stitch they were going to use. A lot of them took that very seriously, selecting specific stitches and techniques for certain areas to create more dynamic sensations.

VTW: I have to emphasize that Judy did have to approve what they chose. What Meghan had said about the needleworkers having… that there was at times a give and take between the needleworkers and Judy. One of the needleworkers is quoted as saying, we are creating within Judy’s creation.

MS: I think that sums it up perfectly.

The emotionally charged "Smocked Figure" 1984 with Megan Schultz
This and the sample study on display to its left are for me the most powerful works in the exhibition

RC: How do you think families and children are going to react to this exhibition? 

VTW: I think kids will react just fine. I think that sometimes, it depends on the parents attitude when they bring their kids. I feel like none of these images are… …I don’t know… Well I’ll say, Judy felt like she softened these images by doing them in textile. So if you look at a photograph of a woman giving birth it’s not the same as looking at these and all the layers of meaning that have been put into this work. 

MS: The point of this too is to generate conversation. These pieces elicit really interesting conversations, and if a parent is ready to have that conversation with their child they can do that. It’s up to them.

VTW: You’ll notice in some of the work imagery of the papillon is evoked, which Chicago has used as a motif during her career. You’ll see butterfly imagery shows up time and time again.

Papillon/butterfly imagery is used in art to represent the launching of creative thought

VTW: The other thing I’d like to say is that one of her points is that everyone on this earth to this day was born. This is the way we all got here. Actually it’s kind of a hang up we have in our culture that we don’t talk about it more and recognize it and honor it more. 

RC: How should people view this exhibition? What can they get out of it?

VTW: Well, I can tell you what I got out of it. To me all of these images change the perception of who women are and the power that women have. Almost inherently have. All of these women that you see in these images understand their own power. They feel it, they’re confident about it. The big message that they convey is that we are simply looking at the fact that they are birth images. 

RC: How much of the Birth Project has been changed through the years? Have there been additions, has work been removed?

VTW: The things that have been added are prints, a print series that she did right at the end in 1985. That’s what you see when you first come into the first hallway.

MS: They (the Harwood Museum) now own a full set of these prints.

Dr. Thompson Wylder speaking with "Myth Quilt 2" 1984 in background

RC: Is the “Through the Flower” museum (in Belen, New Mexico) project moving forward?

MS: We are on schedule towards our grand opening of July 20, 2019 which coincides with Judy’s birthday.

RC: Is there a way to support the “Through the Flower” project?

MS: We are always looking for volunteers.

RC: From your point of view can you describe Feminist Art?

VTW: Feminist art is certainly not monolithic. Feminist art is about everything and it incorporates almost every style you can possibly think of, but feminist art allows women to express themselves as fully as they can. 

RC: Is there a Judy Chicago manifesto?

MS: No. There is that print ***“What is Feminist Art” 1977, lithograph that may cover this though.

RC: What is meant by her inclination toward populism or the populist impulse?

VTW: She wanted her work to be relatable to a great wide audience. If you take Abstract Expressionism, for example and you contrast it with something like this. Abstract Expressionism is for a very defined audience who somehow are on the inside to understand it. Where with this they might like it or not like it but they can certainly relate to it.

RC: What new projects is Chicago working on? Big? Small? 

MS: Her newest body of work is a major series “The End: a Meditation on Death and Extinction”, it’s debuting September 19, 2019 through January 20, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 30 paintings on black glass, along with seven painted porcelain works. She’s also had a lot of interest in her fireworks which she started in the late 60’s, early 70’s. They’re smoke bombs, they’re called “Atmospheres”. 

Megan Schultz looking on at the installation of The Birth Project at the Harwood Museum, Taos
The display case is full of examples of needlework by various craftspeople who worked on the project, "Birth: Fillet Crochet" and "Birth Tear/Tear" 1985 to the right

RC: What does Chicago love about making art?

VTW: In the book, The Birth Project (Doubleday, 1985), one of the things she talked about is how she loves being in her studio creating. That the impulse to create, is just… I feel like it overwhelms her. 

MS: There’s many, many days where she’ll just stay in her studio and work.

RC: Is she currently mentoring any artists? Has she ever taught at a university and where?

VTW: She has taught at several universities. She did a series of semester long stints in the late 90’s at Vanderbilt and University of Indiana or Indiana State in Bloomington. The work that her students produced at the end of this is pretty amazing.

MS: She taught at Fresno in the early/mid 60’s along with several institutions in southern California.

VTW: Woman House was the result of when she taught at Fresno. Women House was a student project, which became nationally known. There is a whole body of literature about that now and it’s still being written about. 

RC: What about the room that The Dinner Party has been installed in, which has been supported by the Sackler family. A family that is in the news for its supply chain of the drug Oxycontin? Do you have a stand on this type of what is being called ‘dirty money’?

MS: Elizabeth Sackler, it’s her foundation. Elizabeth removed her self from that part of the family long before the controversy of the… People understand that Elizabeth is not part of that and are not going after her or criticizing her, but I can’t answer that. The Brooklyn Museum would be the better one to answer this. 

RC: Was Chicago involved in the ‘Chicago Imagist’ group of the late 60’s?

MS: No

RC: Is Chicago currently or has she ever been a Guerrilla Girl? Does she feel akin to the group?

MS: No

* My personal choices for naming five women artists, historically are Georgia O'Keeffe, Alice Neel, Hilma af Klint, Elaine DeKooning & Louise Bourgeois. As for contemporary artists my choices include Cecily Brown, Susan Rothenberg, Ellen Gallagher, Jenny Saville & Kiki Smith.

** Please note that “The Birth Project” at the Harwood Museum, may not be for everyone. The Museum has created a suggested pathway that allows visitors to choose to avoid the exhibit entirely. This gives visitors a way to still enjoy the rooms dedicated to Early Taos Artists, Taos Modernists, the Agnes Martin room and Spanish Colonial sections of the museum during the Judy Chicago exhibition.

*** “What is it? they ask her wherever she goes. Yes, what is it? they say. Does it have a size or a shape, a form or a color. How will we know it? they ask. Do you know you’re doing it when you do it? they demand. What does it feel like to do it? Is there such a thing? they inquire wherever she goes. Some say yes, some say no, some don’t care.
What is feminist art? It is art that reaches out and affirms women and validates our experience and makes us feel good about ourselves. Femisinist art teaches us that the basis of our culture is grounded in a pernicious fallacy - a fallacy which causes us to believe that alienation is the human condition and real human contact is unattainable. This fallacy has divided our feelings from our thoughts, this fallacy has caused the planet to be divided as are the sexes. Feminist art is art that leads us to a future where these opposites can be reconciled and ourselves and the world thereby made whole.
For her, the canvas represented her own being and the process of making art was symbolic of the life process itself. It was to be discovered, not manipulated; nourished, not controlled. And yet there was beauty here also, the beauty of the human spirit and despite all the pain these paintings caused her to experience, the artist in her was forever moved by the art, however flawed the consciousness which created it.
Why was it that she could see all the world’s values reflected in the art she saw? Weren’t art and life separate? Like men and women, good and evil, body and mind?”
Excerpt from Judy Chicago, “What is Feminist Art?” 1977 lithograph 12.5” x 10

There have been many artist studio ateliers throughout the history of art, where the master artist has many apprentices working under the guise of the better known name brand. Can an ethical case be made for having others manufacture art for an artist? As part of the NYC East Village art scene of the early 80’s the artist Mark Kostabi rose to fame. Kostabi took Warhol’s factory format to another level. Hiring (at $5. per hour) artists fresh out of art school to crank out paintings of his iconic faceless mannequin in every day situations. Today the art world is full of artists having others produce the actual artworks from the concepts of the brand name artist. Some of the better known blue chip artists working this way today are Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, and Jeff Koons. All of them receive bad press for how little regard they give to the people making the actual art. Chicago has had her share of this as well. It is noted that it took up to 400 people to work on “The Dinner Party” and 150 to create “The Birth Project”. 

“She (Chicago) used other women artists to help create her 1979 piece "The Dinner Party". She stole the idea of getting other women to help her from Joyce Wieland, but unlike Wieland, Judy Chicago never paid the people who worked for her. The project took 5 years to complete and she has since received a bad reputation for exploiting the work of other artists and taking the credit for herself.”
From: An overview of Feminist Artists of the 20th Century, The Art History Archive, 2005

“I don’t want to be a Latin American painter or a woman painter or an old painter. I’m a painter.” 
Carmen Herrera 2019 participant in the Whitney Biennial

Guerrilla Girls as seen at Tate Modern 2016

“Artists should stop making art only for the one percent and start making some art for the rest of us. 
Our anonymity keeps the focus on the issues, and away from who we might be: we could be anyone and we are everywhere. 
We believe in an intersectional feminism that fights discrimination and supports human rights for all people and all genders.” 
the Guerrilla Girls

"I remember myself when I was a young woman. I didn’t want to be identified as a woman artist, because, from my point of view, it was like saying: “Hey, she’s just a woman!” My work would be reduced or somehow marginalized.” 
Judy Chicago

"I believe in art that is connected to real human feeling, that extends itself beyond the limits of the art world to embrace all people who are striving for alternatives in an increasingly dehumanized world. I am trying to make art that relates to the deepest and most mythic concerns of human kind and I believe that, at this moment of history, feminism is humanism.” 
Judy Chicago

In the summer of 1980 “The Dinner Party” was installed at the Boston Cyclorama, which is where I viewed it. It is now on permanent installation in what some would consider the controversial ****Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art wing of the Brooklyn Museum.

****“We have heard repeatedly from Arthur’s widow, Dame Jillian Sackler, and Elizabeth that because Arthur died before the existence of Oxycontin, they didn’t benefit from it. But he was the architect of the advertising model used so effectively to push the drug. He also turned Valium into the first million-dollar drug. And a similar drug, MS Contin, was released while he was alive, which was only a few molecules away from Oxycontin. The brothers made billions on the bodies of hundreds of thousands.” Nan Goldin for Artnet News

"L'Origine du Monde/Origin of the World" Gustave Courbet 1866
I chose to add this to the post due to the fact that when I saw it online recently I thought to myself, that sure does look like...

Several months ago I reached out to Judy Chicago when I began reading articles about the struggle involved and lack of support in the community of Belen, NM towards the Through the Flower Museum. There had been many assumptions of what a Judy Chicago Museum might be. I sent an email to the website provided link. The person was quite nice in their response and promised to bump my inquiry up to the next person. My thinking was that perhaps a Judy Chicago Museum would go over better in Santa Fe or in Taos where the arts communities might embrace such an idea. The only type of response I wound up with in the end was to be put on the mailing list. 

My idea for an interview with Chicago had originally been to ask for a sit down one on one meeting as a type of ‘My Dinner With Judy Chicago’ style interview. Instead Chicago has built a wall around herself in which ‘handlers’ create a hands off atmosphere. I felt that I couldn’t even broach the subject to have a sit down dinner party with Judy Chicago. A missed opportunity, as it seems a natural format to interview her in. Perhaps someone else will do this in the near future. Through the years groups have gathered to create their own 'Dinner Party' themed get togethers. Off the record I did speak to someone about not be granted an interview directly with Chicago, their reply was: “It’s about crafting her image. Which means she’s very selective about who she speaks to.” 

I appreciate that I was given time to meet with, and the thoughtful answers provided by Viki Thompson Wylder and Megan Schultz, who assured me that Judy would just rather be in her studio making art.

An autographed copy of "Judy Chicago, an American Vision" by E. Lucie-Smith 2000 is currently available at Two Graces, Taos, NM

"Once I could actually be myself and express my point of view, both personally and professionally, I recognized that through my art, I could contribute my values and attitudes as a woman to the culture in such a way that I could affect the society." from the book by Judy Chicago 'Through the Flower, My Struggle as a Woman Artist' 1973

Without the influence of Judy Chicago there would be no Pink Pussyhat Project. Chicago has been an enormous influence in the art world, recently she is receiving the acknowledgement she deserves.

To read more about Judy Chicago I suggest these two links:

Photograph of Agnes Martin by Donald Woodman (spouse of Judy Chicago)
is currently available at Two Graces, Taos, NM
This framed photograph once hung on the wall of Martin's residence at the Taos Living Center.

A portion of the interview will be printed in Taos Magazine for the July issue cover story, that issue will include official photographs of the artworks.
All imagery of artworks copyright of Judy Chicago, unless otherwise noted. Photographs in this article are meant to enhance the writing and to help clarify some of what I have written about. All photographs of the exhibit were taken by me during the press conference.