Judy Chicago figures prominently in 20th-century art history programs. your installations women’s shelter (1972) and The dinner party (1979) are essential considerations. On the other hand, her reception in the art world was less rosy. Despite Chicago’s prominence in art historical narratives, her first retrospective exhibition on her career was not held until 2021 (“Judy Chicago: A Retrospective” at the De Young Museum in San Francisco).
The exhibition “Judy Chicago, Turning Inward” at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education features a selection of Chicago’s works, entirely from the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation. Curated by Bruce Guenther, the exhibition offers an opportunity to view the work of this legendary artist as well as Schnitzer’s impressive earning capacity. At the June 1 media event, Jordan Schnitzer mentioned that he owns more than 440 of Chicago’s works, so this is a small sample of the larger holdings. According to Judy Chicago’s website, the foundation “has acquired my extensive print archive and is adding to it other important works with the goal of making the foundation a focal point for my work.”
The standout work of the show is Pasadena Lifesavers Red Series #3. This work, newly acquired by Schnitzer, is not the overtly feminist imagery Chicago is best known for, but rather sets Chicago up as an artist firmly working within the currents of the 20th century art world. One of fifteen paintings built around color systems, Chicago sought out unique combinations that deviated from traditional expectations of primary, secondary, or tertiary colors. Crafted from layered layers of plexiglass, automotive paint and acrylic glass, the work has an instantly appealing luminosity. No wonder Schnitzer, after seeing four of these Rescuer Paintings in De Young’s retrospective, had to have one for his collection. It’s unusual to see a collector’s acquisition so immediately in a public place.
The works in the entrance area of the museum – Pasadena Lifesaver; the sculpture Clear domes on a red base; a painting (Small early painting) from 1961; and a serigraph (flashback version 2) from 1965 – established Chicago’s career and equally established Schnitzer’s deep impulse to collect and his interest in Chicago’s oeuvre.
Born Chicago in 1939, she was only 22 when she painted the small painting; it was done before she got her MFA degree in 1964. This is nine years before she publicly renounced her married name, Judy Gerowitz, in the Art Forum announcing, “Judy Gerowitz hereby invests [sic] she has abandoned all names imposed on her by male social dominance and freely chooses her own name: Judy Chicago.” A copy of the magazine advert is in the display cases to the right of the paintings.
The imagery of both the painting and the serigraph hint at her exploration of “central cores” in her later feminist work. The light palette of Pasadena Lifesaver Repeats in the place settings of The dinner party. Guenther said Chicago didn’t recognize the three domes featured in it Clear domes on a red base as boobs and abs until Miriam Schapiro, co-founder of Chicago’s Feminist Art Project, pointed it out to her in the studio, but that imagery is clearly related to the feminist representation Chicago is most associated with.
Thus, even before her breakthrough as the “mother” of feminist art, Chicago’s work contained the basic ingredients: symbolic cores, luminous jewel tones, and a penchant for non-traditional studio materials.
However, spray paint, plexiglass and acrylic were the same materials with which the male “art brothers” of the time dabbled. Chicago’s breakthrough came a few years later when she instead turned to materials typically denigrated as “feminine”: embroidery and ceramics. Although these materials were part of the 1972 women’s shelter installation was it The dinner party that brought these materials to their full potential.
Now permanently installed at the Brooklyn Museum, the dinner party, is represented in the OJMCHE exhibition in several different works, including preparatory drawings, prints and banner designs. The usual explanation for the composition of the table, with thirteen place settings on each side of a triangle, is that it commemorates the Last Supper. Guenther suggested that the meal together was actually inspired by the Jewish Seder meal together that Chicago found at her aunt’s house. The hanging banners contain a reference to Eden.
The two works with the clearest links to Judaism are at the back of the exhibition: a set of six pairs of lithographs and woodcuts inspired by the Song of Solomon and the large stained glass work Logo #3 from Chicago Holocaust Project. That Prints are of particular technical interest because of their combination of the two rarely paired print media (lithography and woodcut). The stained glass Logo, cleverly installed on the stairway to OJMCHE’s Holocaust Educational Exhibits, contains colored references to all Holocaust target populations, as well as flames and barbed wire. A collaboration with her husband Donald Woodman, who Holocaust Project was reviled by the critics (although in fairness it was The dinner party), but is an appropriate shot here given the venue.
While the works in the exhibition range from Chicago’s earliest canvases to her late career appearances (On fire at 80), this is not a large-scale retrospective, but an intimate selection of works created over a long career. The early works in the entrance area are a highlight and, in connection with the showcase with sketchbooks, a rough chronology can be expected. But that’s not fully followed up in the rest of the show. Viewers with little background knowledge of Chicago’s oeuvre and projects may have trouble connecting the dots. In part, this appears to be due to the competing interests of presenting the highlights of Schnitzer’s collection on the one hand and emphasizing Chicago’s Jewish connections on the other.
With this in mind, viewers wishing to engage with examples of Chicago’s work will be well served by this exhibition. It is an ideal opportunity for the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation to uphold their commitment to sharing their collection rather than hiding it in storage. Though the foundation lends work to museums across the country — in 2023 many of the Chicago works will be featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York — the works have stayed in the local community this summer, and we can see that them at OJMCHE.
Turning Inward, Judy Chicago is on view June 2 through September 23 at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and is located at 724 NW Davis Street.