In Becoming Judy Chicago, an unathorized biography of the outspoken, controversial feminist and artist, author Dr. Gail Levin provides an uncommonly intimate and deep understanding of this fearless woman most famous for her groundbreaking masterpiece, The Dinner Party.
This expansive work is an extra helping of feminist history that goes into fine detail of nearly every aspect of the artist's life and llife's work through hundreds of interviews with the many individuals who worked with and were touched by Chicago; as well as letters, diary entires and a multiplicity of other sources. Her attention to detail allows the reader to fully understand this extraordinary woman, feminist and artist beyond the controversy, with a refreshing dose of honesty and clarity.
Levin will make an appearance at Chicago's Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies on April 15, for a lecture entitled 'Judy Chicago's Journey to the Holocaust Project: Roots, Purpose, and Controversy.' Levin will speak about the artist's Holocaust Project, based on what she has learned through her work on the biography.
Windy City Times spoke with Levin about what it was like to write about a living legend, her initial reactions to The Dinner Party and Chicago's affairs with women.
Windy City Times: What was it like writing a biography on someone who is still very much alive, and very much a part of the art word?
Gail Levin: It was very different, in that sense, than writing about Edward Hopper, who was very dead and whom I never met. [ Laughs ] Although this is not an authorized biography, Judy decided to cooperate. She has a real appreciation and sophisticated understanding of biographies. ... She really devoured biographies of women, trying to find women's history when she was leading up to The Dinner Party—even before she knew what she was doing. That really helped, I think. ... People were really forthcoming when they realized she was not asking for any interference. She's a person who is amazingly relaxed about standards of privacy. She even let me read quite a number of her private journals.
WCT: I thought that was wonderful to have a peek into her mind as she's growing up and learning more about herself.
GL: Yes, that was very fortunate. I really attribute it to her appreciation of biography as a genre.
WCT: What initially drew you to Judy as a subject of a biography?
GL: I don't know if you've ever read my biography of Edward Hopper, but in it, I tried to re-inscribe his wife, who was an artist. They were in art school at the same time. She had literally been erased from history. ... Although the book received excellent press, I was also attacked in some corners for re-inscribing her role in history. She kept journals and was very angry about the situation of women artists, particularly in her own home, where her husband tried to stop her from being an artist. I was looking for a woman artist who was really strong and would never be a victim of male chauvinism as Mrs. Hopper was, and the male structure that dominates the art world. Eventually, that drew me to Judy Chicago, who is never a victim. She is very strong. No matter how many horrible attacks there have been on her, she manages to re-gather and keep on going. I admire that.
WCT: As an art scholar and curator, what was your initial reaction to The Dinner Party?
GL: To tell you the truth, I didn't accept it. Earlier, I had written an article called 'Learning to Appreciate Judy Chicago.' I attribute my initial shock and rejection of the Dinner Party to the fact that leading New York critics ... had praised my work on Hopper and my other work, and they were saying that The Dinner Party was not art. I thought, 'How could they be so right about me, and so wrong about her?' I sort of accepted that. Then, when I was looking for this artist, I read Judy's first autobiography or memoir, Through the Flower, and then I read other writings by her, and I was really impressed. Then I met her, and I was even more impressed. I realized she is so very intelligent and I had been wrong. I can admit when I'm wrong.
I've had to deal with a number of friends and colleagues who say, 'I don't like her work.' I have a big perspective on that, because when I first began to work on Hopper people said, 'How can you work on such a corny American artist? How boring.' And nobody thinks that anymore, so I have a long-term perspective.
WCT: It just shows how much society changes. What do you think would happen if something like The Dinner Party was unveiled for the first time today?
GL: I don't think there would be the same controversy, particularly over the sort of vagina metaphors on many of the plates, for example, because we've had Eve Ensler's play [ The Vagina Monologues ] , [ which has been ] very successful all over the country. I think that first came out in 1996.
There's been really a scene change in really the way we view women in this society. I'm not saying everything is perfect and equal, but there's been a lot of change, including in the art world. I also think it's a very poignant time for thinking about women's rights in a free democracy and Western culture, given what's going on in a lot of the world.
WCT: Judy has had an obvious impact on the feminist art movement. There's no doubt about that. But for maybe the teenage girl living today, who hasn't been exposed to Judy's work, and may not be until college, how has Judy Chicago impacted her?
GL: Well, you know, I teach freshman in the City University of New York..., a course called The Arts of New York, Back a few years ago, when the Dinner Party was first brought to the Brooklyn Museum, I took my students to go to the Dinner Party and write about it. They were just 17 years old, maybe 18 years old, so close to what you are talking about. These are often students who have never been to museums before, even though they might have grown up in New York City from immigrant backgrounds. And even the boys—some decided to take their mothers along. The women would say, 'I'm so inspired that women could do all of those things!' In Judy's generation, she could take a European intellectual history course, and ask a professor, 'Where are the women?' and he would say, 'There are no women.' It's very important for young girls to know there are women who matter in civilization and culture and do things of importance. There are high schools from New Zealand to America who make their own Dinner Parties with their own choices of women in history. ...In fact, there's one going on at my college now for Women's History Month. It's a wonderful teaching experience for girls to think about and to learn about women in history, and see which women they choose.
WCT: It's shocking to me—especially because I wasn't around when The Dinner Party first came out—that it sat in storage for so long. Today it's in such high demand, it's almost hard to fathom it sitting in storage, [ with ] cancelled tour dates and all this hubbub over it.
GL: There is still a divide today between areas of the art world and feminism. The one thing I've noticed is there are a lot more women journalists and writers, and women in positions of power ( like museum directors ) , than there used to be. And many are more enlightened, to be fair.
WCT: It's very also fitting that one if its final resting places will be the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
GL: That's really exciting. It's so important that such a place exists. I think it will give impetus to other women to be patrons.
WCT: We are an LGBT newspaper, so I thought it was really interesting how you talked about Judy's affairs with women throughout the years. I was talking to a young friend of mine, who said, 'I don't know why that would be talked about if she is straight.' I was taken aback by that remark.
GL: It's not in Judy's memoirs. Only one of the women ... would allow me to use her name. That's somebody who has a female partner today, is still very close to Judy Chicago and very supportive of Judy. They are close friends. She also got a lot of administrative experience working with Judy's art, like many women working with Judy, and it was a growth experience.
I wanted to make this a true book. I did many, many interviews, and many of the women asked me if I was going to include this. If I could get hard evidence, I was going to include it. Judy doesn't discriminate against gender or sexuality. She's a person with friends across any kind of spectrum—any race, any religion and gender—and I wanted the book to reflect reality. Also, it sounds like a cliche, but she had and has very close friendships with gay men and lesbian women, and they play a significant role in someone who's work and very life is about acceptance and tolerance. I wanted the book to reflect that.
WCT: I'm glad that was discussed because, first of all, she's always been so open about sex and sexuality, so it seemed very fitting for someone to actually address all that she's been through, and not just leave out certain parts.
GL: She is very relaxed about sexuality and all sexual issues. She's the last person to get uptight.
WCT: I also thought it was very interesting reading her letters and journals to find out why she did the art that she did. I think a lot of people, at first glance, think she had vaginal images just to be controversial. In fact, you found out it was much more than that, correct?
GL: I think it was about accepting her own sexuality, and women's sexuality, and realizing that it's not anything less respectful than male sexuality, which is everywhere and so pervasive in our culture. It's about equality, and she's very big on equality for everybody.
...The thing about Judy is she was very direct and open. ... At that time there was a lot of oppression, and when there is oppression, there is shame. In the early '70s, everything started to change.
WCT: And not everybody took a liking to Judy, but I think the overall theme was that, even if they had negative things to say about her, they also said, 'But I learned so much from her.'
GL: I found that fascinating. I just found everybody interesting. I'd get all these complaints, but then they would say, 'But I never would have gotten out of Fresno if it wasn't for her. She changed my life.'
WCT: Not only did she have a role in the art movement, but feminism in general. Basically anyone who interacted with her was changed.
GL: I don't think I ever met anyone more focused on her goal and devoted to her work. If you aren't willing to make the sacrifices for your career that Judy did, you might resent where she is going to. I've just never seen a person more goal directed.
WCT: Even as a child.
GL: Absolutely. I tried to understand what bore that. I'm not saying that everyone should live a life like Judy Chicago—it's been a life of sacrifice. I think people, like other artists, sometimes might be jealous, because they don't know what she gave up.
WCT: What will you be discussing at the Spertus Institute?
GL: I'm going to be discussing Judy's Holocaust Project, which is less well-known. I'm also going to talk about her background as a Jewish woman, and how that impacted her entire body of work. She's a very important teacher of feminist pedagogy—a new kind of teacher. I think that does come out of her family tradition—which is rabbinical, to teach. I've had to look at some of the controversies around the Holocaust Project, which she started in the mid-'80s and debut in the early '90s. It was as controversial as The Dinner Party. I think it's already beginning to win some acceptance.
Her work, which is not a memorial but a work that is meant to be didactic—to explain, reflect and teach what really happened—turned out to be really important to the world we are living in. It's also a very expansive view of the Holocaust. It doesn't just talk about what happened to the Jews, but talks about homosexual men, lesbians [ and ] gypsies, and it also looks at the morality of various issues.
WCT: Would you say she's one of the first to connect all of these issues?
GL: Yes, I would. And I think history is going to come down on her side—that she did something very important. The tide is starting to turn.
See Dr. Gail Levin at the Spertus Institute, 618 S. Michigan, on April 15 at 2 p.m. Reservations are recommended. Call 312-322-1743 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .