‘My time has come!’: feminist artist Judy Chicago on a tidal wave of recognition at 84

<span>‘For most of my career I was up against a brick wall’: Judy Chicago photographed in her New Mexico studio by her husband, the photographer Donald Woodman.</span><span>Photograph: Donald Woodman/The Observer</span>
‘For most of my career I was up against a brick wall’: Judy Chicago photographed in her New Mexico studio by her husband, the photographer Donald Woodman.Photograph: Donald Woodman/The Observer

On-screen interviews can be a bit low-key, the victim of time lags and muffled human connections. But not the one on which I’ve just embarked, an experience I can only describe as psychedelic from the off. First to appear on my laptop is Donald Woodman, who sits and chats to me while we wait for Judy Chicago, the celebrated artist and his wife of 38 years, to arrive (a position in which I suspect he quite often finds himself).

Woodman, who is a photographer, has bleached blond hair, bright blue glasses, and gold polish on his nails, which he now waves at me. Apparently, he and Chicago have been going to the same manicurist for years, a routine so entrenched, it’s virtually part of their artistic practice. “It’s fun,” he says. “When I got married to her, I was wearing nail polish. You can’t let only the women adorn themselves. But it’s also a break from work, because it means I have to sit down for two hours.” The couple are famous workaholics, and their days – they live and work in an old railroad house in Belen, a small town in New Mexico – begin early and end late. “Last night, Judy came in and went straight to bed without any dinner,” he tells me, and I can’t quite tell from his tone whether he is proud or completely exhausted. (Maybe both: he is, after all, 78, and Chicago is 84.)

And now here she comes: Rainbow Two. Like her husband, she has bleached blond hair, blue glasses and lustrous nails. Unlike him, she is wearing vampiric purple lipstick (that, or she has been sucking a felt-tip pen). “Three’s a charm,” she says, in the moments before Woodman scoots. But this is all I’ll get in the way of small talk. Chicago needs to know – immediately! – if I’ve a seen a copy of Revelations, a book (to be precise, “an illuminated manuscript”) she wrote in the 1970s, but which is only now to be published for the first time on the occasion of a forthcoming show of her work at the Serpentine Gallery in London. “When Hans Ulrich [Obrist, the artistic director of the Serpentine] came here to see me, he was driving me crazy with his questions,” she says. “Do you have any unrealised projects? [he kept saying]. So, finally, I said: ‘Well, I have this manuscript’, and he looked at it, and he said: ‘Oh, my God, Judy, this provides the theoretical underpinnings of your entire career.’”

At first, she was confused by this (though flattered, too: it’s obvious). But then she reread it herself, at which point she knew Obrist was right – and also, possibly, a curatorial genius. “This is very overwhelming to me,” she says. “My vision… I realise that it prefigures everything. It underlies not only my career, but my goals, right? And now it’s also in the process of transforming people’s understanding of me and my work.”

I had two lives. My [establishment] art life, where I was shit, and a life with this unbelievably huge audience I was building

Personally, I think this is moot. I struggled to get through it, put off by the chapter titles – Revelations of the Goddess is one; The Yearning is another – and the fact that I’ve read much better writers than Chicago on, among other feminist icons, Georgia O’Keeffe and Virginia Woolf. Both the text and the book’s swirly illustrations bring to mind joss sticks and yoni workshops (sorry, but they do). But never mind. Chicago, whose confidence is legendary, seems not to notice me hesitate to give an opinion and, in any case, has too many of her own to spend time on mine.

“For most of my career, I was up against a brick wall,” she says. “But resistance [to my work] has begun to crumble, and [the attention] is threatening to turn into a tsunami.” The reason for this, she believes, is her great prescience; only now is the world beginning to fall in step with her radical ideas: “I was working out of a totally alternative art historical paradigm, one I first began to discover in the late 1960s, when I started my self-guided research tour of women’s history and women’s unknown cultural production.”

Her recent shows in the US have, she goes on, had “rapturous” reviews, largely because people have “begun to grasp that I was talking about an alternative to the patriarchal narrative, inside which my own art fits”. How is it that the name of the French artist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) remains so little recognised? Why don’t more people know that the foundational book of modern feminism is not Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) but Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies (c1405)? Answer: because, as she points out in Revelations, such women were “completely erased” from the record.

Again, all this is moot, and I’m pretty certain, too, that Chicago wasn’t the first to notice the structural unfairness. But perhaps she can be forgiven for enjoying her moment in the sun, after so long in the shadows. The Serpentine exhibition, which will bring together new and little-seen work and will be the artist’s largest solo show so far in a UK gallery, comes hard on the heels of several others, most notably a mammoth survey of her career at the New Museum in New York. Suddenly, she’s everywhere, including on the runway at Dior, where in recent years she has twice collaborated with the fashion house’s creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri (there is a Chicago-designed handbag). And she can’t get enough of it all, whatever she likes to say about commercialism. The love. The praise. If she were a cat, she would be purring.

“I don’t know if he’ll be OK with having this quoted,” she says now. “But Massimiliano [Gioni, the New Museum’s artistic director] did a lot of private tours of my show, and one of them was for [the German artist] Anselm Kiefer. It was over four floors. The first was early work, the third and the fourth were later work. The second was The Birth Project [a piece, created between 1980 and 1985, that used images of childbirth to celebrate motherhood] and PowerPlay [a series produced 1982-1987 that explored the gender construct of masculinity].” A brief pause. “Yeah… So, I wasn’t surprised he didn’t like that floor. But he really, really liked the show a lot, and what he said to Massimiliano was interesting. He said: ‘Judy did what she wanted in her career. Not like me. I did the same thing over and over again.’ I thought to myself: well, that’s why you made gazillions. But I also thought it was true. I had five decades of uninterrupted art-making.”

* * *

And it is true. From the outset of her career in the late 1960s, Chicago pretty much ploughed her own furrow; she scrambled for funds; she was often ignored and sometimes ridiculed. Wasn’t it lonely? Didn’t she get despondent? She insists not. “I was never interested in the market; I didn’t even understand the market. How many young artists can look forward to that, rather than being scooped up and turned into product-makers, dumped as soon as their products don’t sell? And because I didn’t get the traditional rewards, I made making art my reward. I had clear goals, which were: making a mark on history and articulating an alternative vision, and I’m now very close to achieving those goals.” Doesn’t an artist want their work to be seen? But I’m missing the point. “I had two lives. There was my [establishment] art life, where I was shit, and then I had a whole different life with this unbelievably huge audience I was building.”

The Dinner Party became the piece that everyone wanted to see and nobody wanted to show

Between 1974 and 1979, she made the piece for which she’s now best known: an installation called The Dinner Party, which celebrates the lives of 1,038 notable women (at the Serpentine, visitors will be able to go on a virtual tour of it, guided by Chicago). It comprises a triangular table, 48ft (nearly 15 metres) long at each side, with 39 place settings, each one designed to reflect the accomplishments of the woman whose name is embroidered on the runner beside it (think Hildegard of Bingen, or Elizabeth I, or Emily Dickinson). Beneath the table is a “heritage floor”, the names of a further 999 women (Catherine of Aragon, Colette, Clytemnestra) inscribed on its tiles. But there’s something else. Uh oh. Each plate is decorated with a vulva. Is this vulgar or beautiful? Reductive or bracingly political? Opinion has long been divided. The critic Robert Hughes thought it cliched and cheap. The artist Cornelia Parker has said that she would like to see it “binned”. But at the Elizabeth A Sackler Centre for Feminist Art in the Brooklyn Museum, where it’s now on permanent display after years in storage, its presence is said to account for a third of visitors.

It was The Dinner Party – first shown at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art in 1979 – that brought Chicago the audience she describes. “When it encountered all that resistance, it became the piece that everybody wanted to see and nobody wanted to show. Around the world, people organised to tour it. I had no money, no formal career, no market; I was in debt and I’d lost my marriage [her second marriage, to the sculptor Lloyd Hamrol, had ended in divorce]. I had only two things: a burning desire to make art, and hundreds and hundreds of letters from people saying: if you do another project like this, I would like to be a volunteer.” (The Dinner Party had been made with the help of numerous amateur embroiderers.) These letter writers went on to become the workforce behind The Birth Project, which also used needlework: women who attracted a lot of interest in their communities and some of whom gave interviews. “What I’m telling you is that I had a worldwide audience that didn’t care at all about the New York Times.” It might have taken 26 years to find a proper home for The Dinner Party but, so far as she is concerned, it was a smash hit long before it ever arrived in New York.

* * *

Chicago was born Judith Cohen in – this may be predictable – Chicago (she changed her name in 1970, hoping to make a feminist statement, only to find she needed her then husband’s signature for it to be legal). Her background wasn’t privileged: her father, Arthur, worked nights at the post office; her mother, May, was a secretary. But theirs was a liberal family – Arthur was active in the Communist party and found himself on the sharp end of McCarthyism – and her aspirations were encouraged. At three, she began to draw; at five, she started attending classes at the Art Institute of Chicago; in due course, she went off to the west coast to study for her degree. It wasn’t until graduate school in the mid-60s, however, that she began to settle into her themes, her professors apparently horrified at a piece titled Bigamy, in which an abstract penis was “stopped in flight” before it could unite with an abstract vagina (this was inspired by the death of her first husband, Jerry Gerowitz, in a car crash in 1963, a tragedy that left her devastated).

She is often grouped with other first-generation feminist artists, particularly Carolee Schneemann; like Schneemann’s, her practice is interdisciplinary. She went to car body repair school to learn how to use an airbrush; recent work incorporates smoke, and, at the Serpentine, she will deploy an AR (augmented reality) app. Women of her era were required to make sacrifices if they wanted to get on in their careers, and she would never have been able to achieve all that she has, she believes, had she had children. Equally, it has also been very important to have an ally in the form of Woodman (he is her third husband).

“As manly as Donald is,” she says, “he is a total rebel against the construct of masculinity, which is my kind of man. When I met him, he had just finished being Agnes Martin’s assistant. He had lived for seven years in a tipi on this property, where he built her a house. For a long time, he did not fit in. For a long time, he thought it was because there was something wrong with him. It wasn’t until we got together, and he began to understand feminist principles, that he realised that there was something wrong with the gender expectations that had been placed on him.”

Younger generations have got to get off their phones and get on with the work of organising for change

They met in Santa Fe, where she had gone to paint; they kept bumping into each other. “Now, as handsome as he is at 78, he was drop-dead gorgeous then, which caused a number of my friends to say to me: are you blind? I was not, but I wasn’t looking either.” She launches into a long story about a “very politically incorrect” New Mexico holiday that celebrates the Hispanic conquest of the Indians, during which Woodman turned up at picnic with another woman in tow, which made her so jealous, she felt as if she was in high school. Ten days later, they went on a date, which turned into “an intense week together”, after which she kicked him out – because true love, or so she thought, didn’t happen like that. But she couldn’t get him out of her mind. “I arranged for him to come over and, at lunch, which I don’t usually eat, he said: I’m not interested in a casual relationship; I want us to get married.” Three months later, they were. “Now, I would not recommend that path,” she says. “But it worked for us.” I hadn’t expected her to want to talk about this kind of mushy stuff but she sounds, if I am honest, utterly blissed out.

But I can also sense she’s itching to get back to work, her eyes sliding in the direction of an assistant who’s off-camera. In the moments before she disappears, we talk briefly about life for women in the US today. Does it strike her as ironic that, just as people discover her work, rights are being rolled back? “Am I surprised by the pushback of patriarchy against change?” she asks, her voice not precisely withering but certainly somewhere approaching it. “Absolutely not. That’s what the whole of the last 500 years of history has been: women pushing forward and the patriarchal structure pushing back.” Will it get worse before it gets better? “I’ve no idea. I don’t have a crystal ball. Part of it has to do with how younger generations respond. They’ve got to get off their phones and get on with the work of organising for change. But I don’t know if they’re going to do it, or if they’re just going to sit there and put their goggles on and retreat into an alternative reality.” She flashes me an inky smile and, with a single click, my wild trip is over.

  • Judy Chicago: Revelations runs at the Serpentine North Gallery from 23 May to 1 September