Judy Chicago, the feminist art legend, also happens to be a great travel agent. On an August afternoon in her adopted hometown of Belen, New Mexico, she sits down at the table in the art library of her new gallery space, Through the Flower, and excitedly maps out a coast-to-coast train trip that hits her concurrent exhibitions this fall. “You’d start in L.A. with Deitch,” she proposes, referring to a gallery show focused on her early years in California, then ticks off stops in New Mexico, New York City, and Washington, D.C. “Oh, and the monograph,” Chicago adds, referring to Judy Chicago: New Views, a book of essays and interviews, which was published in September. “They can take it with them, and read it as they’re going across the country!”
Chicago just turned 80, but with her purple hair, chunky jewelry, and eyes sparkling behind her signature blue-tinted glasses, she radiates an ageless creative energy, so it’s appropriate that this fall’s blitz of shows covers every chapter of her life in art—well beyond The Dinner Party, the massive banquet table installation for which she’s best known. At its 1979 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art debut, the 39 elaborate and anatomically suggestive place settings, each a tribute to a great woman in history, shocked (mostly male) art critics; for decades afterward, Chicago worked largely outside the gallery system. Only in 2007 did The Dinner Party gain a permanent space, in the Brooklyn Museum—a hard-won confirmation of Chicago’s stature in American art.
Chicago started drawing at age 3—when she was still Judith Cohen. She took on her new name, from her city of birth, in 1970, in the middle of the seven-year period covered by her current show at Jeffrey Deitch gallery in Los Angeles. Fresh out of art school, Chicago was a rare woman in the male-dominated L.A. art scene. To prove herself, she worked with unwieldy “macho” mediums: She painted car hoods with bright, abstract shapes, set off pyrotechnics in the desert, and erected towering fiberglass columns. In her 1975 autobiography, Through the Flower, she recounts a generally supportive male critic telling her, “You know, Judy, you have to decide whether you’re going to be a woman or an artist.” Yet revisiting this difficult time has been “just thrilling,” Chicago says, as the show has given her the chance to reconstruct several early sculptures that she was forced to destroy because she couldn’t afford to store them—a problem her better-supported male colleagues seldom faced, she points out.
She shifts back to trip planning: “Of course, they can come here to Belen and see the Through the Flower Art Space,” Chicago says. The gallery, which exhibits selections from the archives of Chicago and her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, opened July 20th, on Chicago’s birthday, and represents a new, more public phase of her life in Belen. Thirty miles south of Albuquerque, the town is better known as a rail-freight hub than an arts enclave, but that suits Chicago just fine. Since the mid-1990s, the couple has lived here in the turn-of-the-century Belen Hotel, enjoying what Chicago calls the “psychic space” afforded by New Mexico’s distance from the coastal art scenes. But with the opening of her gallery, visitors are already flocking: “I can’t believe we had traffic on a Wednesday!” she crows.
It’s vindication after last winter, when a conservative faction of church and city council leaders learned of The Dinner Party and killed a proposal in which the town would have paid the part-time salary of the gallery manager in exchange for half the revenue from the space’s gift shop. Yet she’s still heartened by the town’s patronage of her work. Walking to the front window of the gallery, Chicago points to a list of donors; the majority are from Belen. “It was incredible! Our little town raised $80,000,” she says. “This outpouring was why we went ahead.”
Finally, Chicago’s art train chugs east to Washington, D.C., where through January the National Museum of Women in the Arts is showing her latest work, the series The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction. With it, Chicago intends to break yet another Western taboo: open discussion of mortality. A series of black glass panels depict her own imagined death and very real wildlife extinctions, finely painted in white—an intensely challenging technique “commensurate with the subject matter,” she says, dryly.
After The End, there’s plenty more: a marble sculpture for an ocean ecology campaign by Project 0, a retrospective at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. “I know, it’s too much!” Chicago protests, with clear pleasure. “I’m glad I had so many uninterrupted years of artmaking. Now that the culture has ‘caught up,’ I’m really busy.”