Judy Chicago: A Retrospective

Judy Chicago, Immolation, from the series Women and Smoke, 1972; Through the Flower 2, 1973.

PLEASE NOTE: In light of global health concerns, the opening of Judy Chicago: A Retrospective has been postponed to a later date. We look forward to welcoming audiences in to see this exhibition soon.


"What kind of artist am I? I'm determined to follow my own vision. I'm willing to risk everything. I'm dedicated to making a contribution -- art historically, culturally, and socially." -- Judy Chicago

SAN FRANCISCO — The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco celebrate pioneering feminist artist Judy Chicago with the first retrospective of her work. Spanning from her early engagement with the Californian Light and Space Movement in the 1960s to her most current body of work—a searing investigation of mortality and environmental devastation—the exhibition will include about 150 paintings, drawings, ceramic sculptures, prints, and performance-based works that chart the boundary-pushing path of the artist. Judy Chicago: A Retrospective is presented in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote across the United States.

“Judy Chicago is an artist of exceptional foresight and consequence, who is long overdue for the deep look into her artistic output that this retrospective will provide,” states Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “I am proud to say that Judy Chicago: A Retrospective is one in a series of groundbreaking exhibitions at the de Young that pay homage to artists who have historically been undervalued based on their race or gender.”

One of the founding forces behind the 1970s feminist art movement, Chicago became widely known for The Dinner Party, a massive installation turning women’s traditional household-bound role on its head by setting a feast for 39 remarkable women—from Hildegarde of Bingen to Emily Dickinson—to shine a spotlight on women’s contributions to history. Under creation for more than five years, its realization relied on the contributions of dozens of volunteers. Concluded in 1979, it was presented in San Francisco to popular success and proceeded to be shown internationally to an audience of over one million viewers through an unprecedented grass roots effort. Art critics, however, responded differently, annihilating it for its celebration of vaginal imagery and embrace of “feminine” craft. For decades Chicago operated on the margins of the art world, her work shunned by most critics and institutions and her evolution as an artist eclipsed by the notoriety of The Dinner Party. Though that work has since received recognition as one of the iconic artworks of its time, Judy Chicago: A Retrospective is the first exhibition to offer a comprehensive overview of Chicago’s career. 

“I am thrilled that, forty years after the premiere of The Dinner Party in San Francisco, the de Young museum is hosting my first retrospective,” says Judy Chicago. “It will be a real homecoming, as it is in California that I launched my long career.”

Judy Chicago: A Retrospective will trace the artist’s practice back to its roots, revealing her unique working process – sometimes alone, other times collaborating with her husband, colleagues, or a wider circle of volunteers, and the origins of the formal and conceptual strategies she has applied throughout her oeuvre. Bringing together a representative selection drawn from every major series of her work, it will also feature sketchbooks, journals, and preparatory drawings that document her extensive process of research and development.

Judy Chicago: A Retrospective brings to the fore the continued radicality of Chicago’s practice, both in her choice of subject matter and embrace of media traditionally excluded from the art historical canon,” says Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “To this day, her art is activist in its foundations. It is driven by the need and desire for social justice and an insistence on aesthetic strategies that don’t require knowledge of art history or critical theory to be legible while being deeply inscribed in both.”

Judy Chicago: A Retrospective will be on view at the de Young museum in San Francisco. The exhibition is organized by Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

In Detail

Judy Chicago: A Retrospective will include a number of works that Chicago produced as a young artist in Los Angeles. Developed in response to the reigning minimalist aesthetic, painting series such as Pasadena Lifesavers and Fresno Fans, and sculptures such as Rainbow Pickett and Sunset Squares, demonstrate her early interest in what she has termed “fringe techniques and subjects.” Having enrolled in auto-body school to learn techniques that are not taught at art school, Chicago produced a number of spray-painted car hoods, hung on the wall like paintings. The series’ bold, female-centric imagery is represented in the exhibition by works, such as Birth Hood, and Bigamy Hood.

Pyrotechnic training led to her developing Atmospheres (1968–1974), a series of collaborative smoke and firework performances responding to the male-dominated, sculpture-centric Land Art movement, as well as reflecting on and contextualizing her own painting practice. With institutional support as a ladder, Chicago has recently revisited this series and will conceive of a performance in front of the de Young in conjunction with the exhibition.

After decades of trying to fit into the structure of a patriarchal society, Judy Chicago decided to change her name and history. In October 1970, she announced her chosen identity with a full-page ad in Artforum, divesting herself of “all names imposed upon her through male social dominance”. She proceeded to found the first feminist arts education program in the United States, and then co-found the Feminist Studio Workshop, and the Woman’s Building, celebrating and nourishing the creative growth and recognition of female artists from around the world. Judy Chicago: A Retrospective will include prints, films, and other archival materials celebrating Chicago’s pioneering educational role.

A section will be dedicated to Chicago’s first foray into “core-centric” imagery, which became central to the conception of The Dinner Party. Paintings from The Great Ladies series (1972–1973) will be presented along with Through the Flower (1973); Chicago’s first body of work to openly embrace female sexuality and desire after having received harsh criticism for her series of feminized car hoods.   

The Dinner Party (1974-1979), permanently housed in the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, will be represented by the complete set of drawings created for the plates and banners of the installation, as well as related archival materials.

The Birth Project (1980–1985), which grew directly out of her research for The Dinner Party, was Chicago’s direct response to the absence of imagery related to birthing as one of the most foundational female experiences. As with The Dinner Party, she relied on the help of collaborators; creating the 80+ works in this series with the help of female volunteers all over the United States, Canada, and New Zealand. Painted and needle-worked images, such as Earth Birth, and the more than 20 feet wide Birth Crochet, vividly illustrate creation and the process of giving birth through powerful female forms depicted as both divine and connected to the Earth.

The series PowerPlay (1982–1987) examines gender as a construct couched in ambiguity. Works such as Driving the World to Destruction and Crippled by the Need to Control/Blind Individuality portray exaggeratedly muscular male figures reminiscent of Renaissance-era nudes, grasping a steering wheel or physically handling females. Chicago inextricably links her protagonists’ performance of masculinity to a brutal struggle with their feminine inner selves, painting a searing portrait of patriarchy’s hunger for power and dominance.

The result of a charged eight-year investigation that began with her Jewish roots and heritage, but ultimately came to consider genocides around the world, the Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light (1985–1993) investigates the dynamics and manifestations of power beyond societal structures. Created by Chicago and her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, with the help of a group of artisans, the series is a haunting body of work that tackles our understanding of humanity. In the exhibition it is represented by The Fall, an 18-foot-wide Aubusson tapestry, and Rainbow Shabbat, a monumental stained-glass window installation.

Works from Chicago’s latest series The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2015–2019) will confront visitors with a meditation of mortality and the human impact on the natural environment. Executed in multi-fired paint on glass and bronze, works like How Will I Die? cast an unrelenting eye on the process of dying, while Vulnerable, Targeted, and Poached portray animals whose near-extinction is caused by human (in)action.

About Judy Chicago
Judy Chicago is an artist, author of 14 books, educator and humanist whose work and life are models for an enlarged definition of art, an expanded role for the artist and women’s rights to freedom of expression. Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1939, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of California, Los Angeles. Chicago is best known for her role in creating a feminist art and education program in California during the early 1970s, and for her monumental work The Dinner Party, executed between 1974 and 1979, now housed at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in the Brooklyn Museum. Over the subsequent decades, Chicago has approached a variety of subjects in a range of mediums, including the Birth Project; Power Play; the Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light; and Resolutions: A Stitch in Time. Chicago’s work has been exhibited widely in the United States and internationally, and her continued influence has, in recent years, been increasingly acknowledged. In October 2019, the online Judy Chicago Portal which bridges Chicago’s archives housed in three separate institutions Penn State University (art education), the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America (personal papers) and the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at NMWA (visual) was launched. 

Contemporary Art at the de Young
Overseen by Claudia Schmuckli, the Fine Arts Museums’ Contemporary Art Program launched in 2016 to present the work of living artists in dialogue with the unique buildings and encyclopedic collections at the de Young and Legion of Honor. In the program’s first three years, installations by Carsten Nicolai/ Alva Noto, Hilary Lloyd, Leonardo Drew, DIS, Ranu Mukherjee, and Matt Mullican transformed the de Young’s Wilsey Court. At the Legion of Honor, Urs Fischer, Sarah Lucas, Lynn Hershman Leeson, and Julian Schnabel each presented exhibitions in dialogue with the Beaux-Arts building and the permanent collection of works by Auguste Rodin.

Visiting the de Young
de Young museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco. Open Tuesdays–Sundays, 9:30 am–5:15 pm. Open select holidays; closed most Mondays.

Exhibition Organization
Judy Chicago: A Retrospective is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. 
Lead sponsor: San Francisco Auxiliary of the Fine Arts Museums. Major support: Carl and Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation. Generous Support: Jessica Silverman Gallery and Salon 94.

Media Sponsor: San Francisco Chronicle

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States. The de Young was established in 1895 and later renamed in honor of Michael H. de Young, who spearheaded its creation. The copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in 2005 with an observation level offering breathtaking 360-degree views of San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean. Reflecting a conversation among cultures, perspectives, and time periods, the collections at the de Young include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and modern and contemporary art.