Sunday, May 6, 2007
by Robert Woltman
“Becoming Judy Chicago: A Biography of the Artist” by Gail Levin. Harmony Books. $29.95, 485 pp.
“Becoming Judy Chicago,” Gail Levin’s new biography of the feminist artist, opens with an iconic 1970 event the then-25-year-old painter (born Judy Cohen, then Judy Gerowitz by marriage) unveiling a visualization of her new persona for an upcoming show.
In a gritty L.A. gym, Judy is posing for a publicity shot as a defiant prizefighter waiting for the bell. Head cocked, she glares down at the camera from the corner of the ring, her outstretched arms slung over the ropes. Her dark hair is cropped; she wears satin shorts, boxing gloves and a sweatshirt emblazoned with her new identity. Later, at the entrance to the exhibit, she would post a placard to dispel any doubts as to why she was doing this: “Judy Gerowitz hereby divests herself of all names imposed on her through male dominance and freely chooses her own name, Judy Chicago.”
Inspired by her brash, tough hometown, and the hard, clipped phonetics of its name and her accent, the change was an apt choice; even her best friends and closest colleagues invariably describe her as outspoken, confrontational, willful and difficult.
Ever since she created the revolutionary Feminist Art Program at Fresno State College in 1970-71, Chicago, who lives in Belen, has fought for what she considers the rightful place of women in the often male-dominated world of contemporary art. Best known for her monumental 1979 installation piece, “The Dinner Party,” a 39-place setting ceramic and textile commemoration of Western civilization’s important women, she has continued to create large-scale works exploring radical politics, the avant-garde and the Women’s Movement, typically enlisting dozens of devoted artisans in the fabrication of her elaborate pieces.
Levin, a curator and art historian, wrote Chicago’s story partly in reaction to anti-feminist attacks on her otherwise-acclaimed 1998 biography of American realist painter Edward Hopper, in which she portrayed Hopper’s wife, an artist in her own right, as languishing in the shadow of her domineering husband.
The subject of her next biography, Levin vowed, would be a feminist. Levin’s ongoing study of women’s art and activism that afforded her an eyewitness perspective to the furor around “The Dinner Party,” largely due to its frankly suggestive portrayals of female genitalia, made Judy Chicago a logical choice.
“Becoming Judy Chicago” is a sympathetic but even-handed portrait. The result is a meticulously researched, extensively footnoted work that, with the inclusion of dozens of photographs and an extensive bibliography, is a fascinating and useful document and a probing examination of the evolution of an ambitious, creative personality in tumultuous times.
Robert Woltman is an Albuquerque writer.