Judy Chicago at Kenmore

Art in America (July/August 1976).


judychicagoJudy Chicago at Kenmore

In this, her first solo show in the East, West-coast artist Judy Chicago displayed a consistent, masterful control of a variety of mediums. Using a sophisticated language of color-fades and rainbows and circular and square abstract shapes, she invites the view to share a somatic identification with the image and to take the context of the artist’s feminism as seriously as the work itself. Chicago will often use writing in conjunction with an image, not so much to explicate the visual form as to furnish a parallel track for its content. Most abstract artists offer the title as a handle or key to their personal vision; Chicago expands this idea with whole written texts which become visual components of the work itself, compelling us to spend time “reading” the image in several ways.

In a suite of seven lithographs called Through the Flower, she manipulates closed and open space, and by value variations and color-defined edges pulls us into and through the pulsing center of a petalled shape. The top borders of the central, scalloped openings push out where color intensities are strongest and pull inward near the lower areas of more neutralized hue. The grainy texture and delicate color lend the petals an aspect of things edible, like soft fruit slices. The primary allusion of the flower is, of course, to female sexuality, and the flower vagina analogy is one which Chicago consciously exploits. This subject area is enriched by a further reference to flower painting, a traditional sphere of feminine accomplishment.

Another result of Chicago’s desire to relate women’s history to her own present artistic concerns is a powerful set of six drawings called Compressed Women who Yearned to be Butterflies. The drawings were intended as a series of studies for lithographs, but the print project was arbitrarily terminated by her (male) printer during the proofing stage; references, in writing, to this debacle and her strong feelings about it appear here and there on the drawings. The central image, in all six drawings, is a large, incomplete circular form divided into rippling color segments by wavy or straight lines. The penciled texts are variously placed across the colored form. In No. 1, a smooth flowing script presents Margaret Fuller’s words, “I must die if I do not burst forth,” while a staccato passage, clearly written later, indicates that the print project was (like Fuller’s genius) never realized. One of the strongest, No. 4, is named after Lily Bart, a character in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. Here the impact of the very formal pictorial language is heightened by Wharton’s writing. Wharton’s paragraphs which cross the circle image in neat rows calmly describe Bart’s suicide; the additional word “DEAD” violates this space three times, serving both as a strike mark for the aborted project and as an emblem of Bart’s decision. The text reads “Perspective has disappeared,” and of the group this drawing has the least sense of layering of space. The coloring here resembles the iris of the eye; Wharton’s writing goes on to describe Bart trying “to shut out consciousness by pressing her hands against her eye.” Drawing No. 3 richly conveys the sense implied in the series’ title. It is dedicated to Mme. Deronda, a George Eliot character from Daniel Deronda, a lyric actress who was pressed to choose between motherhood and a career. The prose talks of the female bind, of being allowed to develop just so far and no further – like Chinese bound feet. The drawing plays with positive-negative areas, yielding a multi-significant impression of a flowery, compressed form, a female slit, and the white body and spreading antennae of an enclosed butterfly.

Judith Stein, “Judy Chicago at Kenmore” [Philadelphia], Art in America July/August 1976

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