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Q&A: Judy Chicago

Her L.A. days in the '60s and '70s, when she helped to establish the city's reputation for art, are revisited in several Pacific Standard Time exhibitions.

October 30, 2011|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • Curator Rebecca McGrew, left, and Judy Chicago flank the artists Car Hood (1964) at the Getty Center. Chicago learned spray painting in auto-body school.
Curator Rebecca McGrew, left, and Judy Chicago flank the artists Car Hood… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

In the great game of word-image association that is art history, when people say Judy Chicago, they picture "The Dinner Party." An installation with dozens of hand-painted table settings dedicated to important women throughout history, the 1970s work elicited impassioned debate, fast becoming a national symbol for feminist art in all of its disruptive power.

But before she painted a single vulval-looking plate and even before she co-founded the groundbreaking Woman's Building in Los Angeles in 1973, Chicago had begun a serious career in L.A., making works that are prime examples of Finish Fetish, Light and Space and earthworks. And she often outdid her male colleagues with her level of training and commitment: She went to auto-body school to learn how to spray paint car hoods, and she went to pyrotechnics classes to learn how to work with fireworks.

Several of these early works, made during the 1960s and early '70s, are now on view at several venues as part of the Getty-funded museum initiative Pacific Standard Time. The Getty's "Crosscurrents" exhibition has a Corvair car hood spray painted with a bold design by Chicago. And the museum at Pomona College has included in its show, which revisits its institutional history circa 1970, photographs documenting the fireworks-based pieces she did by placing flares on Mt. Baldy.

In January, Chicago will return to town from her home in New Mexico to help kick off the PST performance art festival. Expect a bit of spectacle: For one of her works, she will revisit an early fireworks piece and attempt to "blow up," in husband Donald Woodman's words, the Pomona College football field.

To learn more about this early, sometimes explosive, work, The Times visited the Getty earlier this month with the artist, who is 72, and Rebecca McGrew, who co-curated the Pomona show.

What do you think visitors coming to these various shows will learn about your work?

Judy Chicago: I was just talking about this [at a lecture] in Long Beach, how there are many forms of censorship. I said that is another form of censorship I have experienced: covert censorship, where the only work of mine allowed to see the light of day in terms of real visibility is "The Dinner Party." My roots in Southern California and my participation in the art scene here have been erased. But I was very active in the Southern California scene. I did my first print at Sam Francis' print shop. I hung out with John Chamberlain and that's how I ended up going to auto-body school to learn to spray paint. I was not really one of the boys, but I sure hung out with the boys.

From everything I've heard, the L.A. art scene at that time was as macho as could be — extremely inhospitable for women. Were there exceptions? Were there men in positions of power who went to bat for you?

JC: Absolutely. I did have support of individuals — Rolf Nelson, my first dealer; John Coplans, the curator [at the Pasadena Museum of Art]; and my first patrons, who I met in 1969, were Stanley and Elyse Grinstein. What I didn't have, and saw my male peers having, is systemic support, where their careers would be moved along. For me it would be: I finally get some attention and it would have no implications. The work doesn't get sold, it doesn't catapult my career. I get my work in a major show at the Jewish Museum ["Primary Structures" in 1966], and then nothing happens. I'm not asked to be in a New York gallery. I don't get opportunities. ... Because of my marginal status as a woman artist, none of the guys said to me: 'When you have a piece in a major show in New York, you get on an airplane and go to New York.' I didn't know that.

Rebecca McGrew: In researching our show, we came across the typed transcript for the lecture that [museum director] Hal Glicksman invited Judy to give at Pomona in 1970, which I think is an incredibly fabulous example of a woman finding an authentic voice about her struggle to be an artist during such a male-dominated moment. Judy talked about growing up in such a supportive household and not realizing that you couldn't do what you wanted as a woman until she got to school at UCLA. She talked about the lack of women's representation in art history. And then she said she would not take any questions from men in the audience.

JC: The audience went crazy.

RM: There was one moment in the transcripts in brackets where it said, "fight." You could just picture it, and this was in conservative Claremont.

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