JC: One of the interesting things that's happened because of Pacific Standard Time is that I've seen all the guys — Billy Al [Bengston], Bob Irwin. I've been blown away at how they are proud of me. Bob said the funniest thing at one of the openings: 'I want you to know how great it is that I think you are finally getting long-overdue recognition. We all know what a hard time you had.' But then he said, 'After what we put you through, if you could survive that, you could survive anything.' [Laughs and shakes her head.] But I appreciate finally being accepted by them as one of them. That's what I always wanted. I just wanted to be seen as an artist among artists.
In the Getty catalog for "Crosscurrents" they call you Judy Gerowitz instead of Judy Chicago, as if to distinguish between your early work and your explicitly feminist work that began around 1970, when you took your current name. Do you think that's a fair distinction?
JC: They wanted to do it for historic reasons. I thought it was weird. I didn't like it for one of the same reasons I changed my name in the first place. I started out using my maiden name, Judy Cohen, but then I noted there were too many Cohens showing art. So then I decided to use my first husband Jerry's last name, Gerowitz, because it was more unusual. Then Jerry was killed. So I'm 23, I'm a widow, people are coming up to me saying I know your parents — but they were his parents, and I felt like I didn't have a name. So [my dealer] Rolf Nelson had started calling me Judy Chicago because of my accent, and he always wanted me to change my name. A lot of artists had underground names at the time: Larry Bell was Ben Luxe and Ed Ruscha was Eddie Russia, and we all listed our phones under our other names. So when I decided I wasn't going to put up with this any more, I wasn't going to try to make art like a man anymore, I wasn't going to be in drag anymore, the hell with it, I was going to be myself, I wanted to do some sort of symbolic gesture announcing it. So I decided to take Judy Chicago. Everyone called me Judy Chicago anyway.
In your 1975 book, "Through the Flower," you sounded ambivalent about your early work, writing about how you suppressed more feminine or personal content to make the sort of slick, abstract, minimal forms valued by men at the time.. Do you still feel torn about that work?
JC: I think some of that work is really strong. Even though I did it for the wrong reasons, by stripping my work down as I did to its formal elements, I discovered a lot of formal control. And in the early '70s when I was thinking maybe I wanted to give up painting and sculpture for performance, I decided not to. I had spent 10 years developing that work, and I didn't want to give it up. I wanted to figure out how to fuse it with my real content.
So tell me about the "atmospheres," and why they're worth revisiting this January.
RM: I think they are incredibly interesting as a more fluid or feminist sort of earthwork. After the flares are placed in the ground and lit, the smoke dissipates through the space and starts to blur and feminize the landscape. Instead of the rough, hard edges of the rock forms you get with other artists, these pieces are really softening the landscape. Instead of excising, cutting into the land like James Turrell has been doing with Roden Crater — moving things around with big equipment, Judy is working with the landscape. She's modifying the land instead of obliterating it.
Can you talk about how you got involved with fireworks in the first place?
JC: I can remember exactly where I was when I thought of doing the first fireworks piece. My studio in Pasadena was on the corner of Raymond and Colorado, so the Rose Parade went right by us, underneath our windows, and we'd always have a New Year's Eve party there. So I thought, wouldn't it be nice to do something for all the people on the street? So we blocked off Raymond Avenue for one full block and did this big, collaborative street piece on New Year's Eve — it must have been 1967. I don't remember where I got the idea to line the street with fog machines, but it was a way of trying to bring the whole street together. We put screens on the buildings, the group Single Wing Turquoise Bird did projections, and people did performances — the street was filled with all this activity. I remember mounting a big color wheel on one of the klieg lights, so now we've fogged the street and the smoke rising up into the air is colored from the color wheel on the klieg lights. When I saw this colored light in the air, I thought: I am going to do these fireworks.
Everyone calls you a painter, but you've made so many types of work: painting and sculpture, performance and installation, and works that hinge between these.