Sunday, March 31, 2013

From the Feminist Lending Library: Becoming Judy Chicago


“…an art critic...told her that she would have to choose between being an artist and being a woman.”

I first encountered Jen Kennedy and Liz Lindens book swap... in a private tour for Bibliography Week attendees of the Center for Book Arts exhibition, Brother Can You Spare a Stack? (January 18-March 30). I made a note to self to bring an item to put into circulation the next time I was in Manhattan. Since the intention of the book swap is to facilitate community-based knowledge production in the face of university and library privatization (1), the most appropriate book in my collection seemed to be a 1976 reprint of Our Bodies, Ourselves. In this landmark publication by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, women shared intimate details of their reproductive health and sexuality, forming an incredible resource in the pre-Internet era.

In exchange for donating Our Bodies, Ourselves, I picked up a biography of the artist Judy Chicago by Gail Levin since I enjoyed her biography of Lee Krasner. Becoming Judy Chicago (Harmony Books, 2007) may sound like a familiar title since a book called Becoming Georgia O’Keefe was published recently. Back to the books in the FL, coincidentally, Our Bodies, Ourselves is mentioned twice in Becoming Judy Chicago: once as a book on Chicago’s reading list for students, and again in a quotation accusing Chicago of never moving past the Our Bodies, Ourselves era with her subject matter of vulvas, birth, and other ‘female subjects’.

The biography I took home to Canada is actually a publisher’s proof, which is interesting from an editorial standpoint (for instance, the photos the text references are absent). As much as Levin might cringe at the thought of an uncorrected proof falling into hands for which it was never intended, she’d probably also dig the serendipitous visual effect shown in this photo (see left). She opens the book with several paragraphs describing the cover photo, in which the artist is posed as a boxer in the same ring where Muhammad Ali trained, mocking the machismo of the art world. This publicity stunt marked both a change in gallery representation and her name (from her married surname to a nod to her hometown that doubled as a divestment of “male social dominance” [2]). The orange ‘give a book, take a book’ stamp of the Feminist Library on the inside front cover frames her face and when the light shines through, it looks a bit like a halo and a bit like her face has been reproduced on a coin. Either way, Chicago’s greatness is implied. It’s fitting, considering that Levin champions Chicago, for example, in calling her a pioneer of Minimalism and in defending her collaboration, The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light.

Personally, I struggled with Chicago’s self-importance in her first autobiography and never made it to her second one. Levin points out that bristling against her chutzpah is both common and unfair, and is rooted in the genius label seeming mismatched with a woman. Indeed, an art critic Chicago dated once told her that she would have to choose between being an artist and being a woman. Fortunately, Levin balances Chicago’s fearlessness and pride articulated in her personal letters and diaries—which are quoted extensively—with a measured tone. She delves deeply into her past, but not at the sake of credibility: it was impressive to read that Levin interviewed a female lover of the otherwise straight artist and that she, like the two lovers, agreed to protect Chicago’s identity. She does, however, fill in a number of gaps from Chicago’s autobiographical writings, providing names where Chicago did not.

Chicago has had a very full life. She was raised in a secular Jewish household watched by the FBI for her parents’ communist politics. On her father’s deathbed—when she was 13—he explained why he was a communist, which contributed to her own social justice advocacy over the years, encompassing the civil rights movement and feminism. She began taking art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago at age five and although she dropped out of UCLA briefly to join the New York art scene, she still received her Masters of Art at age 24, at which point her work had already been covered by Artforum. (Even with the aid of dextroamphetamine, the timing is remarkable.) But she was just getting started: Chicago formed the first feminist studio program at an academic institution (at Fresno State College and later the California Institute of the Arts, where she organized Womanhouse, a student installation that captured the nation’s attention). Eventually, she took time off as an instructor to focus on the monumental collaborative installation, The Dinner Party, which finally has a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. She has been married to three artists—widowed by the first when she was 24; divorced from the second after ten years of marriage; and happily married to the third since 1985. She reinvested all of her finances in her art, waiting until she was in her fifties to purchase a home (a former railroad workers’ hotel that she and her husband renovated along with professionals).

The book breezes through the later years, making it feel like Levin's coverage of Chicago's life needs to be divided between two volumes, like her own take on her life. All in all, though, it’s a good read.

(1) http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base/gallery/Kennedy_Linden.php?i=2937)
(2) Qtd. on p. 2