Escaping the Categorical Descriptor: The Artwork of Judy Chicago
Marissa Brodney

"When men and women actually think of themselves as equals, the world will have changed."
—Patricia Smith, Feminist Jurisprudence

Art and politics, like men and women, share the kind of magnetic attraction that often leads to marriage. Resulting unions are sometimes productive, sometimes explosive, occasionally incompatible. Artist Judy Chicago has married art to feminism, under a chuppa. Judy Chicago is a feminist. She describes her art as rooted in feminist principles.i Judy Chicago is Jewish. Her art deals with Jewish themes. But there is no one kind of "feminism," just as there is no one brand of "Jewish," and to say that Judy Chicago's art is Jewish Feminist is about as descriptive as saying it's artistic.

Feminism is a multifaceted movement united by a common desire to overturn patriarchy.ii There are classical feminists and radical feminists, modern feminists and postmodern feminists, Marxist feminists and relational feminists. There are feminists who resist association with militant movements, feminists who would still gladly burn their bras in the streets, and feminists who rightly call themselves feminists for no reason other than they support the idea of gender equity...whatever that means. Mary Wollstonecraft wanted to abolish marriage. Postmodern French feminists laud woman's place as "The Other" in a male-dominated world.iii Carol Gilligan and fellow relational feminists see men and women as entirely different moral animals.iv

Judy Chicago's feminist mission rests largely on re-introducing the female body, through visual symbolism, into artistic and historical spheres that have become predominantly male. Vagina imagery appears commonly in Chicago's work, as aesthetic and physical reminders of female presence. Many of her pieces deal explicitly with historical events, in which representations of the female contribute to crafting a more gender-balanced conception of history. Then, like fellow feminist artist Cindy Sherman, Chicago calls attention to the act of gazing—and to the male gaze—in many of her pieces. To "gaze" is to do more than look. It is to hunger more than to see. It is to drink in an image, to take it in without worrying about the consent of the viewed; it is a silent power struggle, in which many do not realize they constantly engage.

As a young art student, a brush-wielding Judy Chicago studied the work of those masters who came before her. She found herself staring at canvas after canvas painted by male artist depicting female subject, and found herself asking, "Am I the model or am I the artist?".v Her own artistic growth has led her to direct her talents toward fracturing the male-dominated artistic canon, and the history to which it contributes, through insertion of the female and the unique ways in which women see the world. In 1970, she coined the term "feminist artist" when she started the first feminist art programvi at the California Institute of the Arts, which led to Womanhouse: the first installation "demonstrating an openly female point of view in art".vii

Art has become a means for Chicago to comment on both the way we see and what we choose to look at. Her most famous work, The Dinner Party, turns the male gaze on its head as it calls attention the female actors of history, the female gazers. It attacks the issue of what gets canonized. Thirty-nine women of action ranging from Hatshepsut to Sacajawea to Susan B. Anthony are given place settings at a triangular table measuring forty-eight feet on each side; the names of 999 other women are etched into triangular tiles covering the floor. Place settings make use of embroidery, sewing, and china painting, as a way to insert traditional female "crafts" into a work of high art. The stated aim of the piece, completed in 1979, is to insert the names and achievements of women into a historical record from which they have been largely omitted.

Many find the piece provocatively political. Inspired by the Last Supper, The Dinner Party is filled with more than just the names of women—it is laden with symbolic vaginas, in a piece rooted in the symbolism of religious piety. The traditionally-rectangular table is bent into a shape reminiscent of the pubic triangle, traditional female symbol, and is lined with plates inspired by the shapes of flowers and vulvas. The women of The Dinner Party, writers politicians or ancient goddesses, are figures of inspiration removed from canonical notions of patriarchy, Christian or otherwise. To encourage a gaze in their direction is to encourage action based on the examples they set. It is left for the viewer to wonder just how much irreverence is intended by Chicago's transformation of the solemn "Last Supper" into the sort of "Dinner Party" that seems to allude to Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.

The Dinner Party is currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art; this past February through July, Hebrew Union College curated an exhibit entitled Judy Chicago: Jewish Identity which was designed to accompany The Dinner Party. Judy Chicago: Jewish Identity attempted to navigate Chicago's body of work with an eye not only to its "feminist" mission and stylistic trademarks, but also with regard to Jewish subject matter and Chicago's own Jewish upbringing If it sounds like a lot to probe at once, that's because it is—and one gets the feeling it may be too much for any exhibit to tackle in a few galleries.

At times it seemed the exhibit at Hebrew Union College took Chicago's "feminist" descriptor for granted, glossing over and at times ignoring different kinds of feminism present in each of her "Jewish" works. It did not question the validity of seeing feminism as some easily definable category, as it asserted that Chicago had appropriated its ideology. It did not ask: what is feminine subject matter? It did not ask: how does one reconcile the notion of a feminist mission with pieces that emphasize the aesthetic more than the polemically political? It is precisely because there are no definitive answers to these questions that the questions themselves should highlighted as substantive.

Judy Chicago is an artist first and activist second. She presents images from which political statements may arise as interpretations. In Wall of Diptychs, lines from psalms accompany abstract and colorful images of male and female forms. Each gender's anatomy is visually magnified in pastels, and equally beautified, as Chicago paints the sexual body as something linked with the poetry of a historical Jewish tradition. Absent from this piece is the controversy surrounding the power dynamics of gender in Judaism today; Chicago instead emphasizes notions of continuity, tying physical coupling and genealogical continuity to the continual relevance of the biblical word. Some might argue that Chicago's attempts at equality conflict with the spirit of a tradition that instructs men to give thanks daily for not being women. Others might counter that Chicago focuses not on the body, but rather on the act of coming together to craft moments both personal and historical. The individuals that create these moments and this continuity must depend on each other to do so. Wall of Diptychs makes interdependence something beautiful, and makes the absence of shame its powerful statement.

Compare this to Double Jeopardy. In this work, black and white photographs of prisoners in concentration camps and Jews under attack are partially painted over with Chicago's re-drawn, colorful depictions of select individuals from the photographs. The images are grouped in panels, separated by clusters of rainbow-colored Jewish stars and the Greek female symbol. Confronted with images of inhumanity, told to look at suffering and starvation, the viewer is simultaneously reminded to think of women and the gender rights struggle that makes use of the rainbow banner. When I look at images of emaciated Holocaust victims hunched together in barracks, I resent being told to look at the gender of one sufferer over another.

It may be relevant to assert that Jews should be able to understand the subjugation of women, and use art as a medium to suggest as much. However, it is not clear that forcing these two struggles into the same work of art teaches the viewer anything. It may instead oversimplify two very different and complex struggles. What is really gained by combining images of starving prisoners with a 2-dimensional female symbol? How can that symbol evoke the physical fear in which many women worldwide are forced to live? I wonder whether grouping together both of these instances of oppression under an amorphously generalized sense of suffering takes away from the power that arises from evoking each.

It is evident that Judy Chicago's feminism combines in explosively different ways with her Judaism. The degree to which the political enters the sphere of her art varies, and can be disputed. Sometimes suffering is absent, and sometimes the focus is directed specifically to the way in which suffering is shared. The ghosts of religious man and religious woman in Under the Stones of Treblinka are divided as if by a mechitza onto separate canvases. Tombstones that surround them become an echo of the Ten Commandments' stone tablets. On his canvas, a man holds a Torah; on hers, a woman holds Shabbat candles. Both figures are dead. Neither is old. There is shared sadness in their separation, and they are co-mourners. Chicago asserts here that man's suffering is no more righteous than woman's; tradition may not allow her to hold the Torah that he holds in his arms, yet he presents the scrolls no more boldly than she presents her candles. And yet what is equally highlighted is woman's clear and definitive distancing from the Torah, the central symbol of Judaism. She cannot even lay claim to a spot on the canvas on which it appears. The extent to which the cleft between man and woman is commentary on Judaism itself and the extent to which the divide is due to tragic and fracturing historical circumstance is left for the viewer to ponder.

Sometimes Judaism becomes more metaphor than explicit subject matter in Chicago's work. The Four Questions has an unambiguously Jewish title that references the Passover Seder, but the work's subject matter is far from limited to Judaism. The four questions are a component of the Jewish Passover Seder in which the youngest child present asks why the night of the Seder is different from other nights, why we eat Matzo and bitter herbs, dip our vegetables twice, and recline. This youngest diner, the voice of innocence, queries a tradition prepared with ready answers. We eat Matzo because fleeing slaves could not wait for their bread to rise. Marror reminds us of slavery's bitterness, and dipping herbs twice reminds us of two kinds of tears. We recline because we have the luxury to do so. The queries Chicago poses in The Four Questions have no ready answers. "When do ends justify the means?' she wants to know, "What determines a quality of life?" The skeletons she depicts lying on hospital beds are not meant to be just Jewish ones, though the Seder analogy highlights the world's absence of response to these questions. Is this Chicago criticizing Judaism's ability to answer these queries, or even search effectively for answers? Perhaps, but the work does highlight that one of the first things Judaism teaches its youngest children is to question.

Sometimes Chicago's aesthetic devices become thematic in their own right. The Dinner Party turns the mediums of traditional female craft into components of the piece's subject matter. Much of Chicago's work makes use of weaving as a way to empower what has come to be viewed as a traditional female mode of expression. Whether the image of Penelope at her loom is seen as one of oppression or ingenuity has no bearing on the fact that weaving has long been associated with the feminine in the Western tradition. Extensive use of thread in works dealing with largely historical subject matter "ties" women into history in a very literal way. The technique of weaving recalled to me "threads" of history and the stories of which they are formed. To build a work of high art out of interlocking threads reinforces the notion of an interconnectedness founded on the principle that the feminine be allowed to flourish.

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A video screen set up at Hebrew Union College carried Judy Chicago's voice across the otherwise silent gallery, as she explained her artwork and how it came to be, ideologically as well as stylistically. Exhibits like this one tread a fine line between presenting valuable information and promoting interpretations. Using socially conscious terminology and broad brushstrokes to paint multi-layered pieces into categorical corners forces viewers to cross pre-assembled bridges to fascinatingly complex works. There is a good deal to unpack in Chicago's repertoire—both inside of and beyond the categories of "Jewish" and "Feminist." Granted, an exhibit's failure to address some of this nuance by no means detracts from a viewer's capacity or right to find such nuance as an individual critic. Where an issue arises, though, is when museum-goers have to struggle against presentations of text and voice in an attempt to hear their own reactions to works intended to elicit strong responses.

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Layering Chicago's voice atop her artwork suggests a forced blending of what Chicago stands for as an individual with what her art does. To conflate the two can yield false synthesis; sometimes art subverts connotations carried by categorical descriptors like "Jewish" and "feminist." Works saying fundamentally different things were classed together in Judy Chicago: Jewish Identity for no reason other than that they dealt with Jewish themes. Categorical lumping isn't an issue unless the emphasis on the 'Jewish' fails to take into account different and at times conflicting aspects of Jewishness.

Jewish identity can inform Jewish art just as any identity, feminist or otherwise, can inform art. But when one tries to describe art and artist using the same sentences, depriving them of words of their own—when an artist's "secular Jewish upbringing" becomes an exhibit's explanation for a piece's subject matter, there is a problem. There is a difference between seeing through Jewish eyes and seeing something Jewish—and there are many different definitions of what "Jewish" means. Sometimes the greatest strengths emerge from gray spaces, from the freedom viewers have to interpret and even misinterpret. For it is in entering these gray spaces, and in setting aside notions of what Judy Chicago might stand for as a "Jewish Feminist" when looking at her pieces, that one has the opportunity to discover new meaning within their frames.


i Judy Chicago, Donald Woodman, "Judy Chicago's Content-Based Art Pedagogy," Through The Flower, http://www.throughtheflower.org/page.php?p=41&n=3.

ii Patricia Smith, Feminist Jurisprudence ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 5.

iii Smith, Feminist Jurisprudence, 6.

iv Smith, Feminist Jurisprudence, 7.

v John W. Whitehead, "Women and Art: An Interview with Judy Chicago," Gadfly Online, Nov./Dec. (1999): http://www.gadflyonline.com/archive/NovDec99/archive-judychicago.html.

vi Whitehead, Gadfly Online, http://www.gadflyonline.com/archive/NovDec99/archive-judychicago.html.

vii Judy Chicago, Donald Woodman, "Judy Chicago," Through The Flower, http://www.throughtheflower.org/page.php?p=40&n=3.


Marissa Brodney is a Columbia College junior studying the way people look at each other. She sees you.
design by Zach van Schouwen