Judy Chicago

The Dinner Party, The Birth Project, and Holocaust Project

Judy Chicago at 'A Butterfly For Brooklyn' Fireworks Show
Judy Chicago at 'A Butterfly For Brooklyn' Fireworks Show, 2014. Al Pereira/WireImage/Getty Images

 Judy Chicago is known for her feminist art installations, including The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage, The Birth Project, and Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light. Also known for feminist art critique and education. She was born on July 20, 1939. 

Early Years

Born Judy Sylvia Cohen in the city of Chicago, her father was a union organizer and her mother a medical secretary.  She earned her B.A. in 1962 and M.A. in 1964 at the University of California. Her first marriage in 1961 was to Jerry Gerowitz, who died in 1965. 

Art Career

She was part of a modernist and minimalist trend in the art movement.  She began to be more political and especially feminist in her work. In 1969, she began an art class for women at Fresno State. That same year, she formally changed her name to Chicago, leaving behind her birth name and her first married name.In 1970, she married Lloyd Hamrol.

She moved over the next year to the California Institute of Arts where she worked to begin a Feminist Art Program.  This project was the source of Womanhouse, an art installation that transformed a fixer-upper house into a feminist message. She worked with Miriam Schapiro on this project. Womanhouse combined the efforts of female artists learning traditionally male skills to renovate the house, and then using traditionally female skills in the art and participating in feminist consciousness-raising.

The Dinner Party

Remembering the words of a history professor at UCLA that women were not influences in European intellectual history, she began working on a major art project to remember women’s achievements. The Dinner Party, which took from 1974 to 1979 to complete, honored hundreds of women through history.

The main part of the project was a triangular dinner table with 39 place settings each representing a female figure from history. Another 999 women have their names written on the floor of the installation on porcelain tiles. Using ceramics, embroidery, quilting, and weaving, she deliberately chose media often identified with women and treated as less than art.  She used many artists to actualize the work.

The Dinner Party was exhibited in 1979, then toured and was seen by 15 million. The work challenged many who saw it to continue to learn about the unfamiliar names they encountered in the art work.

While working on the installation, she published her autobiography in 1975.  She divorced in 1979.

The Birth Project

Judy Chicago’s next major project centered around images of women giving birth, honoring pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering.  She engaged 150 women artists creating panels for the installation, again using traditional women’s crafting, especially embroidery, with weaving, crochet, needlepoint, and other methods.  By picking both a woman-centered topic, and women’s traditional crafts, and using a cooperative model for creating the work, she embodied feminism in the project.

The Holocaust Project

Again working in a democratic manner, organizing and overseeing the work but decentralizing the tasks, she began work in 1984 on another installation, this one to focus on the experience of the Jewish Holocaust from the perspective of her experience as a woman and Jew. She traveled extensively in the Middle East and Europe to research for the work and to record her personal reactions to what she found.  The “incredibly dark” project took her eight years.

She married photographer Donald Woodman in 1985. She published Beyond the Flower, a second part to her own life story.

Later Work

In 1994, she began another decentralized project. Resolutions for the Millennium joined oil painting and needlework.  The work celebrated seven values: Family, Responsibility, Conservation, Tolerance, Human Rights, Hope, and Change.

In 1999, she began teaching again, moving each semester to a new setting. She wrote another book, this with Lucie-Smith, on the images of women in art.

The Dinner Party was in storage from the early 1980s, except for one display in 1996.  In 1990, the University of the District of Columbia developed plans to install the work there, and Judy Chicago donated the work to the university. But newspaper articles about the sexual explicitness of the art led the trustees to cancel the installation.

In 2007 The Dinner Party was permanently installed at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

Books by Judy Chicago

  • Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist, (autobiography), introduction by Anais Nin, 1975, 1982, 1993.
  •  The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage,  1979, The Dinner Party: Restoring Women to History, 2014.
  • Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework, 1980.
  • The Complete Dinner Party: The Dinner Party and Embroidering Our Heritage,1981.
  • The Birth Project, 1985.
  • Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light, 1993.
  • Beyond the Flower: The Autobiography of a Feminist Artist, 1996.
  • (With Edward Lucie-Smith) Women and Art: Contested Territory,  1999.
  • Fragments from the Delta of Venus, 2004.
  • Kitty City: A Feline Book of Hours,  2005.
  • (With Frances Borzello) Frida Kahlo: Face to Face,  2010.
  • Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education,  2014.

Selected Judy Chicago Quotations

• Because we are denied knowledge of our history, we are deprived of standing upon each others shoulders and building upon each others hard earned accomplishments. Instead we are condemned to repeat what others have done before us and thus we continually reinvent the wheel. The goal of The Dinner Party is to break this cycle.

• I believe in art that is connected to real human feeling, that extends itself beyond the limits of the art world to embrace all people who are striving for alternatives in an increasingly dehumanized world. I am trying to make art that relates to the deepest and most mythic concerns of human kind and I believe that, at this moment of history, feminism is humanism.

• About The Birth Project: These values were oppositional in that they challenged many prevailing ideas as to what art was to be about (female rather than male experience), how it was to be made (in an empowering, co-operative method rather than a competitive, individualistic mode) and what materials were to be employed in creating it (any that seemed appropriate, irrespective of what socially constructed gender associations a particular media might be perceived to have).

• About The Holocaust Project: A lot of survivors committed suicide. Then you must make a choice--are you going to succumb to the darkness or choose life?

Its a Jewish mandate to choose life.

• You shouldnt have to justify your work.

• I began to wonder about the ethical distinction between processing pigs and doing the same thing to people defined as pigs. Many would argue that moral considerations do not have to be extended to animals, but this is just what the Nazis said about the Jews.

• Andrea Neal, editorial writer (October 14, 1999): Judy Chicago is obviously more exhibitionist than artist.

And that raises a question: is this what a great public university should support?

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Judy Chicago." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/judy-chicago-4126314. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Judy Chicago. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/judy-chicago-4126314 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Judy Chicago." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/judy-chicago-4126314 (accessed June 1, 2023).