Chicago presents images of male aggression and power, and where they have led, in works like “Driving the World to Destruction,” 1985. Sprayed acrylic and oil on Belgian linen, 108 x 168 inches. Photo: Adel Gorgy.
New York has art from every culture and epoch addressing every issue and topic, but there’s a distressing dearth of one major voice.
It’s been almost 40 years since Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party,” the monumental sculptural installation now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum, created a feminist tsunami that’s still rippling. Yet, the work of this mighty artist, writer, educator and activist is not often seen on the walls of museums and galleries in New York. It’s a shame. Her current exhibition at Salon 94, on view through March 3, is filled with wisdom and bite expressed through masterful paintings and seductive beauty. The works are rainbow-hued reactions offering moments of contemplation, and, like all of Chicago’s work, balance gravitas and grace.
Female art lovers have experienced countless cringe-inducing moments standing in front of everything from Sabine women to nubile nymphs to vacuous Odalisques to de Kooning’s ape-toothed harpies. Whether it’s a #MeToo moment, the swing of the pendulum or just the right time, Chicago’s series of monumental and small-scaled paintings from the PowerPlay series fill the downtown gallery with color, potent images and important questions. The paintings focus on male aggression and dominance and open conversations about the impact on women, on other men, on society and on the environment. Chicago, who’s as abundant in her laughter as in her outrage, shared thoughts about her work. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.Can you tell us about your show?
It’s called “PowerPlay: A Prediction.”A lot of it’s coming true.
I know. I wish it weren’t, but it is.Why are you re-examining these works now?
It’s [Salon 94 founder] Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn’s decision to show PowerPlay. There are many aspects of my work that are still unfamiliar to a larger audience, and PowerPlay is certainly one of them. It hasn’t been shown in New York since when I did it in the 1980s. One of the things Jeanne is doing is slowly introducing other bodies of my work into the contemporary art discourse. I think PowerPlay is incredibly pertinent right now.... Something that is just beginning to be discussed and that PowerPlay anticipated is the recognition that masculinity is as much a social construct as femininity. And masculinity — men — are way behind in coming to understand their behavior through a gender lens as women have been doing for 30 years…. Concepts of gender and sexuality have changed throughout history, and in terms of our own times, the discourse around gender is fairly recent. As Jonathan Katz said in his catalog essay, it starts, “Judy Chicago has lousy timing. She introduced PowerPlay before queer theory, gender studies, or masculinity studies.” So it will be interesting to see how it’s received and what kind of discourse it might create.How did you come to the subject?
I became interested in the gender construct of masculinity in the early 1980s after I made a trip to Italy and saw the great Renaissance paintings that I had studied. I thought, then, that if the Renaissance ushered in modern society, it also ushered in our concept of the heroic and the masculine. And so PowerPlay, which is a very large series of paintings, drawings, cast paper pieces, weavings and bronzes some of them in monumental scale, examines questions like why do men act like this, and what are the consequences of power as men have wielded it for other people, for the planet and for themselves?What conversations are you trying to open with the PowerPlay show?
I just hope PowerPlay can contribute to the discussion that’s just in very early stages.... There is all this range of abhorrent male behavior, everything from Al Franken groping women to Harvey Weinstein’s predatory criminal behavior. It’s all getting swept up in one big rug, and they’re not all the same. Some of it’s just unpleasant behavior, and some of it is really criminal. So I think there needs to be a higher level of discourse about the differences between that kind of behavior. Not that any of it is acceptable, but some of it is just obnoxious and some of it is really, really dangerous and needs to be stopped. But whenever a wound bursts, all this pus comes out and I think that’s what we’re seeing. I’m hoping that gradually there will begin to be greater insights brought to bear. Also, I really hope PowerPlay contributes to an understanding that sexual harassment and sexual predatory behavior is part of a global system of male terrorism that is intended, consciously or unconsciously, to protect male privilege.... So I hope that my work can contribute to the beginnings of understanding, awareness and change, because I believe men can change.Yet, you’ve said it’s not fair to define men as a body that’s all the same, any more than it is to define women that way.
Of course not. But just as we women, for the last 30 years, have been looking at the way in which the construct of femininity intersects with and shapes us as individuals, that conversation is just in the beginning in terms of men…There is a huge range of behavior among women in terms of their relationship to the construct of femininity. There’s a huge range for men, too.Your work is about empowerment. The same way that you’ve been able to empower women to see themselves differently, are you trying to empower men to have that ability also?
Absolutely. In fact I met my husband, the photographer Donald Woodman, right at the time I was finishing PowerPlay and he said something really interesting.... He said I had made, by that time, 15 years of images of alternative images for women that showed women in terms of history, and in terms of biology as powerful, active agents in contrast to some of the mythology about what we are. He said men never see alternatives, it would really great if you could fashion some. So, it was out of that I made an image called Woe-man… It kind of inverts the Freudian question. What do women really want from men? For men to be as vulnerable as a woman and as strong as a man.Your father was descendent from 23 generations of rabbis how does that affect your work?
My father broke away, and I grew up knowing almost nothing about my Jewish heritage…When Donald and I met, I was just getting interested in the subject of the Holocaust. We met, fell madly in love, got married and started working on the Holocaust project all at once. And by the end of the eight years, I realized that actually my Jewish heritage which I had learned a lot about by then, really had deeply shaped my work, particularly the concept of tikkun olam - the healing and repairing of the world. Even though my father had broken away and was a secular Jew, that concept was deeply ingrained in my upbringing and my family home, and I didn’t realize it till after I finished the Holocaust project.It comes through, because your work is deeply moral.
It’s moral as opposed to political, and part of that comes from my father who really brought me up to believe that I had an obligation to try to make a contribution to the world. I’ve had a fairly singular vision, and I’ve tried to express that through my work.Do you ever slow down?
I’m trying. I’m trying. [Laughter] Apparently not very successfully.