OTI Online
Summer 1994

Judy Chicago:
The Artist Critics Love to Hate
by Arlene Raven


I admit it. I was there. I attended the premier ofjudy Chicago's "The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light," at the Spertus Museum of Judaica, Chicago, in October, 1993. Fact is, I have witnessed just about every celebration of Chicago's work since 1972. Because we are longtime friends and colleagues, I approach the Holocaust Project as an art critic, but with an open heart. Already I am on slippery ground.

Judy ChicagoShould I scamper for "critical distance?" Or is the obligatory removal of the traditional modern critic from the modernist artist the source of the often sour critical footnotes to major shows? Art critics must, of course, be critical. But Judy Chicago seems to draw out an especially poisonous analytical bile from writers' pens.

Sometimes bile without analysis, or without perception at all, as Michael Nutkiewicz (then Director of the Museum of the Holocaust in Los Angeles), reveals. Nutkiewicz evaluated the project before it actually existed. Sight unseen, he first pronounced Chicago's plan a complete bust, "After our first meeting I thought: Judy Chicago may be a famous artist, but she is the wrong person to attempt a monumental work on the Holocaust. Trivialization, sensationalism, or simply mediocrity would be the result."

Chicago's critical catastrophes started early as "female troubles." In her 1975 autobiography, Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist, she recalls that as a graduate student she received a critical "message" from her male teachers because "I was putting something into my work that wasen't supposed to be there." What could the offending ingredient be? Vagina? Sometimes referred to as "cunts on plates," "The Dinner Party" of 1979, a feminist reinterpretation of The Last Supper, remains a scandal to this day in some quarters (including the chambers of the U.S. Congress, where it was denounced as obscene).

The Holocaust Project is no less feminist in its perspective. The eight-year collaboration between artist Judy Chicago and photographer Donald Woodman consists of sixteen separate multi-paneled works. The exhibit includes a largescale tapestry, two stained-glass designs, tableaux combining painting and photography, and an audio tour of the work. There is also a room of wall texts and images that describe the making of the work, a documentary videotape of the process, a book with an essay, and journals by Chicago on the project's creation. The project is introduced by a pictorial weaving in the grand medieval traditions of the Unicorn and Cluny cycles that tells of the extended historical context of the Holocaust and makes iconographic, linguistic, and temporal connections between anti-Semitism and antifeminism. One would think that the creative expression of a feminine eye - and every other imaginable "offense" - has already been committed, forgiven, and assimilated at this point in 20th-century art. Some of Chicago's contemporaries include racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs in their work, without comment. Others use feces, blood, and vomit as their medium, without reason. Still others carelessly fling myopic and obscure contents embodied in ill-considered forms into our collective societal face. However flawed, these artworks, in the public realm of galleries and museums, are still being given serious critical consideration. Although Chicago has received extensive print coverage for her large scale projects of the past 15 years, critics have dismissed her over and over as an altogether "bad" artist. "Failure" is the harsh word used to describe the process of producing "bad" results. "Failure" is used repeatedly by writers to character ize Chicago's monumental collaborations. During World War II, SS officers and citizens of Struthof, France, sit in a cafe together three kilometers from the concentration camp Natzweiler where naked victims are herded into a bathhouse used as a gas chamber. Surely this scene represents a "fail ure" of consciousness in Struthof of the 1940's. In "Banality of Evil" Struthof, Chicago and Woodman combine a site photo with painted forms and figures to emphasize the his torical reality and emotional horror of this evil - carried on in the face of indifference.

But in "The Banality of Badness" (titled for parody) in The Chicago Reader, Fred Camper fired off "failure" three times in his pan of the Holocaust Project. Despite the extensive process of thought and preparation for each image config ured, Camper assumes that Chicago and Woodman are "...bad artists [who] go on...creating literal images that merely illustrate whatever ideas the artist[s have] latched onto at the moment." In the service of this view, Chicago's most enthusiastic audiences are routinely discredited. Elizabeth Hess, my colleague at the Village Voice and a longtime cham pion of feminist and socially engaged art, attended a pre Holocaust-opening dinner, where she observed that "a fan club has followed the artist from project to project since the opening of'The Dinner Party' in 1979."

More than thirty guests, like Loretta Barrett (the artist's former editor at Doubleday and currently her literary agent), took exception to this description in letters to the Voice, "...supporters of Ms. Chicago... included museum direc tors, art collectors, editors, writers, and authors.. .To describe us as fans is... insulting."

When Chicago responded to the same critique, she acknowl edged that pans in art world print were the norm for her work, "The Voice could have saved itself a considerable amount of expense money and a significant amount of col umn inches if you had been more succinct in your repeti tion of the decade-old New York dogma regarding my work: i.e., Judy Chicago is a bad artist and the hundreds of peo ple who have worked with her; the thousands of people who have supported her; the hundreds of thousands of peo ple around the world who have seen and been moved by her work; along with the people who are now appreciating the Holocaust Project, as well as the people who respond ed deeply at the opening weekend, are either merely mem bers of a fan club or just plain wrong!"

Critics are, if nothing else, professionals "entitled" to their opinions. But criticism, like the visual art it addresses, is not only a matter of opinion. In my view, it is a kind of analyt ical creative writing that confronts the truth inherent in a work of art, the struggle between empathy and antipathy.

Feminist criticism, moreover, must ultimately have a part nership relationship of at least "good faith" with the art of feminists - even when highly critical. In defense of the "goodness" of ethical values and social concerns expressed in feminist and multi-cultural art, senior critic Lucy Lippard wrote that "An art that believes, an art that bears witness, an art that brings people together, an art that envisions a better world should be able to take its place alongside of (or merge with) other kinds of art that are also formally, intellectually, psychically, or psychologically provocative."

The Holocaust Project is indeed provocative. Some of its rub, though, seems to be in its didactic intent. About the audio tour, Hess wonders "Are we in school? As soon as Woodman and Chicago are out of sight, I rip off the headset."

I, on the other hand, am relieved to submit; read every word of the introductory panels and look hard at each photograph documenting the process of the project. I see the videotape from beginning to end. And I move through the show guided by the audio-tour tape. In all, I spend three hours.

Chicago and Woodman sought to understand the far-reaching ramifications of the deliberate destruction of European Jewry. After traveling to New York to see Claude Lanzman's epic documentary film, Shoah, in 1985, they studied with Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb in Albuquerque, New Mexico and were guided in their inquiry into Jewish history by Holocaust educator Isiah Kuperstein. I am deeply grateful to Woodman and Chicago for the eight years they gave me in these three hours. "Bones of Treblinka," one of the first images I see, is an exact representation of my own experience in Germany almost thirty years ago. I crossed the border on a train. On German soil for the first time, I felt bones under the earth from the moving car. My ancestors. Then I could see them, just as Chicago depicted.

Treblinka in eastern Poland is a death site turned into a memorial. The blank stones commemorating the Holocaust dead have been inscribed in "Bones of Treblinka" with names. Under the earth, people crowd together among the bones of their contemporaries and claw upwards toward the horizon.

In my family, children were warned not to look at the number of tattoos on the arms of older relatives, and silence on the subject of the Holocaust was strictly enforced. There is actually no such thing as "critical distance" if you have lived more than a minute. Three decades ago, my panic forced me to leave Germany in less than 24 hours. Nine years ago, I sat in the lobby of a New York theater during most of Shoah. But now, for the first time, I - a Jew with a Holocaust family history - am no longer too terrorized to look. I trust Judy Chicago and Donald Woodman to carry me through to the light. A progression of colored triangles in the stained glass logo that introduces the show is surrounded by barbed wire and flames. The center is yellow, after badges Jews were forced to wear as concentration camp inmates; but inverted, point up, to ultimately "turn around" the horror with awareness and hope. Chicago has been called down, most of all, for formal failings: for the literalness.. .and the lack ofliteralness (!)...of her figuration; for the naturalism or schematics of her rendering of the bones, musculature, features, and contours of her representations. The realistic photographs, films, and written accounts of survivors and victims that attempt to be entirely and only "factual" can prevent approaching the Holocaust and informing oneself of its terrible details. Abstract art about this piece of horrific history can remain so vague that the historical specificity of the generating events is lost. The nonnaturalistic nature, and light, clear colors of some of Chicago's figures and images when combined with stark historical photographs and contemporary photographs by Woodman are, in my opinion, simply, thoughtfully appropriate to their subject. The "formal analyses" that always add up to Chicago's inadequacy seem to stand in some way as a cover for an emotional attack of unstated content and intensity. When she demonstrates that the architects of the Third Reich were almost all men, she is said to be caught in a Venus "victim trap." When she identifies the oppressed as not only Jews but homosexuals, lesbians, and women, she is accused of straying from her subject. When she insists that Nazi murder began with Jews but did not end with them, and that ramifications of the philosophy and politics of the Holocaust are ever with us, she is labeled "selfinvolved" and "self-serving." Because this artist has a solid history of in-your-face presentations on issues of power and victimization, she finds herself a target once again, but for new reasons. Naomi Wolf, in her Fire with Fire, defines "victim feminism" as women seeking power "through an identity of powerlessness." Two features of "victim feminism" according to Wolf are: identifying with powerlessness even at the expense of taking responsibility for the power women do possess; and putting community first, hence being hostile toward individual achievement. Although such definitions have virtually no application to Chicago, neo-feminist news-speak positions her as a pathological victimologist.

In the final analysis, it is, curiously, Chicago's claim to achievement that provokes most. Undercover and at dead center of the negative criticism of her work, burns a kind of outrage. This artist dares to claim value for herself and her work, value that is reserved for Renaissance men like Leonardo and Michaelangelo.

Chicago's unusual sense of female self, encouraged in her family, was later undermined by "learning" repeatedly in schools that women had not achieved "greatness." "The Dinner Party" therefore honored great women who con tributed to our cultural history but instead of being cher ished by their cultures, were ignored, maligned, or obscured. Chicago's art stands against history repeating itself. Like other artists, she wants her work to find a place in New York's Museum of Modern Art. Unlike many, she has the temer ity to believe she should be there.*


Art historian Arlene Raven, Ph.D., has published six books on contemporary art. She writes criticism for the Village Voice and a variety of art magazines and academic journals. Raven was a founder ofthe Los Angeles Woman's Building, the Feminist Studio Workshop and Chrysalis magazine. She wishes to acknowledge Evelyn Anderson for her help during the writing of this essay


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