I have a confession: I hate the term “herstory.” I can appreciate its significance, and its use by second-wave feminists to signal the essential shift toward more inclusive, more nuanced historical work. But I find its recent revival to be politically inane and etymologically false: it’s too simplistic, too White feminist, and too easily coopted into a binary view. With that vitriol aside, it makes perfect sense as the title for a Judy Chicago retrospective. Chicago is undeniably an icon of the feminist art canon, and so much of her work refers to the erasure of women from dominant museum narratives. Herstory at the New Museum follows the trajectory of Chicago’s career, from her early experiments in minimalism in the 1960s through to more recent work.
Chicago’s most famous work isn’t here. “The Dinner Party” (1974–79), which doesn’t travel, remains at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s not hard to make a day of it and see the installation there and Herstory, but its absence is felt here. The show begins on the second floor with three colorful geometric paintings on car hoods from the 1960s, and two pleasingly glossy sculptures, “Trinity” and “Rainbow Pickett” (both from 1965). Hints of the floral-vulvic shapes that Chicago is most known for appear in these works, and together with the late 1960s–early ’70s Fresno Fan and Pasadena Lifesavers series in the next room, they ground her among her contemporaries in minimalism. These works are clean and slick, but feel somewhat insubstantial, unremarkable below the surface. Chicago sought to capture the “dissolving sensation” of orgasm in the immaculate rings of Pasadena Lifesavers, but it doesn’t feel successful: apart from the very literal O, these feel too tidy, not sensual at all.
At times, Herstory struggles to decide if it is chronological or thematic — photographs and films from the Atmospheres performance series (begun 1968) are juxtaposed with four images from Garden Smoke, a project from 2020 using single-colored flares. It can be interesting to see an artist return to an earlier theme or technique, but these works, made around Chicago’s home during COVID-19 lockdowns, lack the beauty and dreaminess of the Atmospheres’ desert locations. The text around the images, reading “entrapped,” “constrained,” “cooped up,” and “shut down,” is clunkily literal, and makes Garden Smoke come across like a grouchy journaling exercise.
Chicago’s work from the 1980s on — post “The Dinner Party” — lacks teeth. Womanhouse, produced in collaboration with other artists from the CalArts Feminist Art Program in 1972, including Faith Wilding, Miriam Schapiro, and Mira Schor, still feels compelling, in part because of the ironic humor and camp in the face of misogyny that ran through the installation. There’s a sense of fun to the installations and performances, represented here through photographs, that is absent from the rest of the exhibition. Chicago’s humorlessness is most obvious on the third floor: the massive Powerplay paintings, with titles like “Pissing on Nature” and “In the Shadow of the Handgun,” are excruciatingly on the nose. With “Resolutions: A Stitch in Time” she attempted a “contemporary take” on aphorisms and proverbs (e.g., “we’re all in the same boat,” “home sweet home”), resulting in works that are more therapist’s waiting room than the intended “social activism.”
Herstory suffers from the classic curse of the retrospective in that it tends toward hagiography of its subject. Describing the Artforum advert Chicago took out to announce her name change from Gerowitz to Chicago in 1970, the gallery text refers to her “gender insubordination” and positions the images of her dressed as a boxer as radical and pioneering. The implication that Chicago somehow invented male drag is ridiculous, particularly when this performance was a one-off. This is a Judy Chicago show, I know, but when her most famous works claim to address the neglect of women artists, it’s frustrating and contradictory to continually credit her as a pioneer at the expense of women who came before her.
The City of Ladies, an installation of work by other artists forming a “personal museum” of Chicago’s influences, is a particularly messy example of this contradiction. It features stunning artwork by Frida Kahlo, Hilma af Klint, Georgia O’Keeffe, Dora Maar, Leonora Carrington, Käthe Kollwitz, Artemesia Gentileschi, and others. The context implies that these artists hold the prominence they do purely because of their importance to Chicago, that without her championing they would be obscure. In “The Dinner Party,” historical figures are framed through Chicago’s tributes to them; here, represented by their own works, it seems less like homage and more like possession. Though the wall text specifies that these are “women and genderqueer artists,” it’s insensitive and disrespectful to see Claude Cahun, Toyen, and Gluck — three artists who changed their names and gender presentations well before Chicago put on her boxing gloves — under the umbrella of “Ladies.” There’s also little that links the works in this space apart from the gendering of their makers: What does Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century Benedictine nun and composer, have to say to Zora Neale Hurston? Hanging over The City of Ladies is the Feminine Divine, a series of banners made by Chicago for a Dior catwalk show in 2020, asking “What if Women Ruled the World?” (Dior is also a sponsor of the show.) Beneath these hangings, embroidered with simplistic and cutesy hypotheticals like “Would Buildings Resemble Wombs?” the potential impact of seeing such remarkable works by so many incredible artists gathered together becomes a hacky, girl-power punchline.
I don’t want to judge the artist by her most famous work alone, and the goal of a retrospective of this scale is to round out a biography. But I came to this show hoping to see depth, guts, something with the ambition and potency of “The Dinner Party” — a work I still admire for what it achieved at the time — and instead found nothing but surface. Her early works, glossy and reflective, have a certain charm that is quickly replaced by an unsubtle didacticism that leaves no space for its audience to reflect. Chicago’s slide into corporate feminism mirrors the trajectory of the term “herstory”: I respect its origins, but after 50 years its edges are dulled.
Judy Chicago: Herstory continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 14, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director, Gary Carrion-Murayari, senior curator, Margot Norton, chief curator, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and Madeline Weisburg, assistant curator.