After Dinner Party, Judy Chicago feasts on Judaism

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She is a woman of names. Born, Judy Cohen. Married, Judy Gerowitz. Self-designated, Judy Chicago.

But the name that fills her eyes with joy today is the one her grandmother called her — Yudit Sipke.

Twenty years ago, Chicago — controversial creator of the acclaimed feminist art installation “The Dinner Party” — wouldn’t have offered the public this particular morsel. Her first autobiography, released in 1975, detailed Chicago’s gender politics, not her religious heritage.

Judaism “wasn’t even a subject. I can’t believe I hadn’t thought about it,” Chicago reflected during a Bay Area visit last month that included an appearance at the Marin Jewish Community Center.

The recently released sequel, “Beyond the Flower: The Autobiography of a Feminist Artist,” includes sections about her Jewish upbringing, her return to the fold and her eight-year, multimedia project on the Holocaust.

Barefoot and curled up on a loveseat in her San Francisco hotel suite, the 56-year-old New Mexico resident is casually dressed in cream-colored leggings with butterflies and a black T-shirt with cats. Her face is framed by shoulder-length, bright-red curls and large glasses tinted a dark purple.

Chicago’s father was a Marxist and labor organizer who broke the chain of 23 successive generations of rabbis in the family. Her parents rejected religion and taught her nothing about Jewish history or culture during her childhood in the Windy City. Still, they always taught Chicago to take pride in her Jewish heritage, particularly the family’s long rabbinical history.

Even now, the artist can’t exactly explain why she underwent a religious transformation later in life. But she can describe how it happened.

In the mid-1980s, she met her future husband, Donald Woodman. Her two previous husbands also had been Jewish. But this time, something was different. The pair decided to have a Jewish wedding. When they began studying the traditions with Renewal-movement Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, they realized the depth of their hunger for Judaism.

Within Renewal, Chicago discovered a Judaism transformed by feminism, and found a way to embrace the tradition without giving up her egalitarian ideals.

At about the same time, the epic Holocaust documentary “Shoah” was released. Chicago and Woodman watched it together and were transfixed.

“This was the first time I felt bonded to another person, not by gender but by culture,” she wrote.

The couple began studying Jewish history, literature, theater and art. At first, she became “furious” with her parents for denying her heritage. But later she realized that this anger was a waste of her energy.

Chicago and Woodman, who is a photographer, slowly began to conceive of a massive artwork depicting the genocide. “Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light” consumed their energy from 1985 to 1993. The project’s 16 large-scale works, which combine painting, photography, tapestry and stained glass, are currently on display at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art.

The years of study changed Chicago’s awareness of other issues as well. At one time, she focused exclusively on the oppression of women.

“The Dinner Party,” which premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1979 and is still her best-known work, grew out her belief that women’s history has been ignored or obscured. The work names 1,038 historical women and features fanciful images of female genitalia incorporated into ceramic plates set around a triangular table.

The piece is currently the centerpiece of “Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist Art History,” an exhibition at the UCLA Armand Hammer Museum and Cultural Center that examines 30 years of women’s art. The “Holocaust Project,” by contrast, came out of a realization that until very recently, history “not only excluded the experiences of women, but those of most of the human race.” She compares her work on the “Holocaust Project” to the beginning of the women’s movement in the early 1970s, when she started teaching feminist art education at Fresno State University.

“I was like from Mars,” she recalled. And though the “Holocaust Project” was conceptualized two decades later, the mainstream art world, including Jewish artists, reacted with a sneer.

“People in the art community said to me, `The Holocaust? That’s a cliche.'”

But Chicago sees the Holocaust as the 20th century’s major philosophical dilemma, a subject that cannot be ignored by mainstream artists.

She describes her art as an attempt to transform the viewer’s consciousness. She now believes the genesis for such thinking came from the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or mending the world. This value contrasts sharply with those of the mainstream art world, which prizes irony and not sincerity, she said.

Yet with the “Holocaust Project,” Chicago also encountered suspicion from Jews who questioned her motives and feared she wanted to exploit the “unrepresentable.”

“It was a real uphill battle,” she said.

The book ends on a sad note, with Chicago wondering why a critic at the New York alternative weekly The Village Voice felt the need to viciously condemn the “Holocaust Project.”

“I don’t have any more fantasies that I’ll be understood,” she said.

Natalie Weinstein
Natalie Weinstein

Natalie Weinstein is J.'s senior editor. She previously worked as a senior editor at CNET News and, in the 1990s, as a reporter and editor at J., which was then called the Jewish Bulletin.