“Judy Chicago: A Reckoning,” a major survey of the artist’s work at The Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, closes on April 21. What follows is an interview expanded from our back-page feature, Object Lessons, in the March/April issue.
Sculpture magazine: During art school in L.A. you also attended autobody school, at the suggestion of John Chamberlain.
Judy Chicago: Yes. I didn’t know anything about car culture, although we all used to go watch Billy Al [Bengston] race motorcycles. However, I learned more at autobody school that summer than I had learned in graduate school about craft and about the importance of craft. We must have spent weeks learning how to tape, to be able to make edges like that. My teacher was a show-car painter named Percy Jeffries; he drove a candy-apple lavender convertible, and he did striping, which is very thin painting.
At the school, they made me wear this long white shop coat, unlike everyone else in the class. The only reason I could think of for that was they were afraid, since there were 250 men in the class, that if I bent over when I was spray-painting a car hood, one of them might see something they never saw before—and have a heart attack or something.
For my graduation from autobody school, I did a car hood. But I was getting so much shit from the L.A. art scene for my imagery: “Eew, yuck, boobs!” They actually said that.
Sculpture: So, where did the other car hoods in this show come from?
JC: What happened was during graduate school I laid out three more car hoods and never finished them, until Pacific Standard Time. My husband, Donald, and I had moved into our place in New Mexico, and we brought all my work that had been in storage since the ’60s and ’70s, and we went through it all, and we found these three car hoods that I had laid out and not finished. When I finished them I thought, There was nothing wrong with my imagery or my color, which UCLA hated. But then one of the curators of Pacific Standard Time told me that one of my colleagues—he wouldn’t say who—objected to my inclusion in what he called “their show.” Why? Because my color was too emotive and too sensual to fit in. For a long time I tried to fit in and then I realized, fuck it, I don’t fit in. I’m not a white guy, I’m not going to fit in.
Sculpture: You did the car hoods before doing the minimal sculptures, is that right?
JC: Yes. That was the tail end of the biomorphic work I was doing in graduate school, which got me into so much trouble. I had laid out these car hoods, but I didn’t finish them, and then I started doing Minimal work.
Sculpture: How did you go from the car hoods into more traditional, minimal forms, and then back to these very non-traditional media, like thread paintings?
JC: I was always interested in fringe techniques. I did formed domes, I did big fiberglass sculptures, I went to autobody school—new form allows for new content. But nobody paid attention to my interest in fringe techniques as long as they were masculine. It was only when I crossed the gender gap into what was forgotten that it became notable. But I just don’t think like that, I just don’t think, I can’t do monumental sculpture because it’s masculine, I can’t do china painting because it’s feminine. I don’t think like that because of my father, thank god—it’s not how I was raised.
Sculpture: Can you tell us about the minimal sculptures, like Trinity (1965)?
JC: My biographer told me this piece was originally called Lilith. But it was in storage for many years, and when I found it, the piece was in three parts. So, I said, “Oh, Trinity.” I was making a lot of big, minimal sculpture in the ’60s. And there were a number of pieces that I did on thin plywood with canvas covering and then painted. To be taken seriously in the L.A. art scene at the time, I had to erase any hint of gender in my work, for example by eliminating or minimizing color. I was unsuccessful.
However, color is one of my strong suits, and by trying to get rid of it during that period, even though I did it for all the wrong reasons, I actually learned a huge amount because I had to focus on formal issues and formal elements. And by doing that I actually built the building blocks of my career. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, when I started doing the color studies, I got interested in looking at color in quite a different way from Albers. I remember he had been asked, Why do you always use the square? And he said, Well, you have to put color on something. I was doing these color studies where I would lay out the colors in a circle or a spectrum, and then I’d do another drawing where I’d just move one element—to see if, say I go from warm to cool, how the color will shift. I was teaching myself a color vocabulary, and you can see it in Through the Flower or Let It All Hang Out (both 1973).
Sculpture: It is fascinating that you describe your failure, as you put it, to do masculine work caused you to move into explicitly feminist art.
JC: Well, there was no feminist work. I set out to create explicitly feminist work when I moved to Fresno. And feminist art education—it didn’t exist. It’s like when young women say to me, How do you feel about being a feminist artist? As if that were a category that I could choose when I was, like, 25. No, I could choose to either hide my gender or not hide my gender and not be taken seriously—those were the choices. When I made that choice, I wanted to be myself. I was trying to fit into a canon that didn’t allow me to be my full self, and I realized that is not a healthy way for an artist to operate. You have to be able to bring your full self. As Lucy Lippard said, famously, many years ago: art may have no gender but artists do.
Sculpture: When you look back on that work from the ’60s, does it seem like it’s not fully yourself?
JC: I’m really glad we’re bringing that work back, because I got nowhere with it. I couldn’t afford to store it all. And now people are discovering it, and really liking it, and it’s wonderful for me. Maybe I wasn’t able to be my full self, but I was still bringing a formal element, the color that wasn’t supposed to be there. I came to consciousness in my studio because I had to struggle in the ’60s with my femininity—what we used to call the female role—in order to do what I wanted to do. And one of the things that was getting in the way was that I was brought up to rearrange my life to suit my male partner, and that was reflected in rearrangeable sculpture—so I stopped doing them. I was like, You know what? I’m not going to do that anymore, not in art, not in life.