News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Judy Chicago Reflects On Prolific Artistic Career In New Memoir


Judy Chicago, there's one of your early paintings in the first pages of your book, from 1948. I guess you were about 9. It's called "Bittersweet Street." What's in that painting?

JUDY CHICAGO: That's a picture of the apartment building I grew up in on Bittersweet in Chicago, which ran one block.

SIMON: Do you remember the address?

CHICAGO: Seven fifty-seven.

SIMON: I lived at 750.

CHICAGO: You're kidding.

SIMON: No - about 30 years later, but I lived at 750, right across the street.

CHICAGO: I mean, how - what kind of coincidence is that? Bittersweet only runs one street long.

SIMON: I know. I was flabbergasted to open it up and to see that. Oh, my word. Goodness gracious.

This, of course, is Judy Chicago, one of the most famous artists in the world - the "Birth Project," "International Honor Quilt," the "Holocaust Project," "Smoke Sculpture" and, of course, "The Dinner Party," her multimedia table laid for 39 women from history with its famous anatomical references. We'll talk about that in a minute. Judy Chicago has opened trails in art and feminism, in oil, stained glass, porcelain and now an app. Her works are housed around the world and never stop provoking reaction, reflection and often awe. She's now written "The Flowering: The Autobiography Of Judy Chicago."

You say in one of the earliest pages of your book, my artistic life felt more real to me than any other aspect of my existence. How so?

CHICAGO: You know, when I was young, particularly during the years when my father was getting sick and starting his decline, and then after he died, I would go to the Chicago Art Institute on Saturdays. So as my life got confusing, I found myself more deeply immersing myself in the life that opened up to me as soon as I walked up those stairs between the lions at this Chicago Art Institute. And that sort of continued for the rest of my life.

SIMON: I've got to ask you about "The Dinner Party."

CHICAGO: Aw (laughter). I mean, finally - you know, I used to say, I wonder if I'll live long enough to see the body of my work come out from the shadow of "The Dinner Party," because as grateful as I was for all the attention it brought me, for a very long time it just obscured the rest of my work.

SIMON: But, I mean, that's a little bit, you know, like Shakespeare saying, gosh, I wish people would know that I didn't just write "Macbeth."

CHICAGO: (Laughter) I'll take that (laughter).

SIMON: So to remind people - 39 women commemorated from history - Ishtar, St. Bridget (ph), Eleanor of Aquitaine, Sojourner Truth, Virginia Woolf, Georgia O'Keeffe, hundreds more when you include the floor. These are China painted porcelain plates with kind of raised central motifs that are the forms of vulva butterflies. Is it fair to say you brought the vulva into fine art?

CHICAGO: Well, I mean, that's funny because, as you know, having read the book and if you followed my career...

SIMON: Yeah.

CHICAGO: And particularly, I'm sure you saw the chapter "Controversy? What Controversy?" Right?

SIMON: Yes, of course I did. I know.

CHICAGO: You know, the imagery in "The Dinner Party," I guess for a lot of people, and not only men, was very shocking. But, of course, that reflects a still existent double standard so that nobody would walk down Fifth Avenue in New York and go, oh, that's a penis, and that's a penis, and that's a penis - all those thrusting skyscrapers - because male-centered imagery, which is often construed to be universal, has so shaped our consciousness that you could say that "The Dinner Party" was an intervention into that. And it was, I guess, deeply shocking.

But now, I mean, you know, I'm on Instagram and stuff like that. So I peruse social media now and then. And the amount of vaginal and vulval imagery - I mean, it makes my imagery very tame, right? I mean, at least, you know, mine is transformed. But I watched a video...

SIMON: Yeah.

CHICAGO: I forget her name - Janelle.

SIMON: Janelle Monae.

CHICAGO: Yes, thank you. With these incredible pink pants - she and her group were all wearing these pink pants with labial folds, and they were moving there. I mean, it's like, really? So I'm glad we have come to a stage where people aren't so shocked by the idea that there's an alternative imagery and that women are claiming agency, which is really what "The Dinner Party" imagery is about - is female agency.

SIMON: Yeah. I want to get you to talk about tikkun olam, if I could.

CHICAGO: I did a lot of study around the question, what does it mean to me to be a Jew? We were once Jews - slaves in Egypt, and we became free, which leaves us with the mandate to work for everyone's freedom. And side by side with that is the concept of tikkun olam - to heal or repair this deeply imperfect world.

SIMON: How can art do that? What can art mean in people's lives? And I'm only asking you, Judy Chicago, because there are a lot of people that say your art has made that kind of difference in their life. And what do you say when people come up to you and say, I'm an artist because of you?

CHICAGO: You know, Anais Nin, the diarist - I mean, I know you read about this - was my mentor when I was young.

SIMON: Yeah.

CHICAGO: And she was an incredibly gracious person. I was always kind of, like, too direct, you know, and in your face. So, I mean, I really learned a lot from Anais because she was at a point where her work was finally being recognized, and I watched her respond to every person who came up to her with a combination of grace, sensitivity and compassion. And I've tried to bring those same things to my interactions, not always with success.

SIMON: (Laughter).

CHICAGO: Sometimes I'm like, no, I don't want you to hug me; you're a perfect stranger.


SIMON: "The Flowering" is the autobiography of Judy Chicago. Thank you so much for being with us.

CHICAGO: Thank you. And I still can't believe we both grew up on Bittersweet.

SIMON: I can't either.

CHICAGO: (Laughter) Bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.