Judy Chicago

b. 1939

"Transformation Painting," 1973

Sprayed acrylic and felt-tip pen on unprimed canvas
Signed lower left: Judy Chicago; dated lower right: 1973
40" H x 40" W

  • Exhibited: Los Angeles, The Woman's Building, 1973

    San Francisco, Museum of Modern Art, "Painting and Sculpture in California: The Modern Era," September 3 - November 21, 1976, no. 244
    Washington, National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, "Painting and Sculpture in California: The Modern Era," May 20 - September 11, 1977, no. 244
  • Literature: Henry T. Hopkins et al., "Painting and Sculpture in California: The Modern Era" (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1977), p.165, fig. 244.
  • Notes: Pioneering feminist artist Judy Chicago's Transformation Painting (1973) is a part of feminist history and history at large: the work was exhibited at the landmark 1973 exhibition "Womanhouse" in Los Angeles, the first-ever feminist exhibition to gain national attention, with a review in TIME magazine among other widely distributed publications, and the building in which the exhibition took place is now a historic-cultural monument.
    Chicago emerged on the Los Angeles art scene after her completion of UCLA's MFA program in the late 1950s, with strong work that adhered to the au courant, namely the New York Minimalists and the California Light and Space movement. Cowed by the "boys club" mentality of the art world at the time (her encounters with the Ferus Gallery "Cool School" frequently ended in tears) she initially adhered to the "if you can't beat them, join them" adage, attempting to appear more macho by cutting her hair short, wearing boots and smoking cigars. Her work of this period—flashy, spray-painted car hoods using techniques learned at an auto-body school—bolstered this masculine guise. At the same time, the imagery was undeniably feminine, with bold, abstract shapes that could be interpreted as butterflies, vulvas, and other parts of a biological woman's anatomy.
    Finally disillusioned by the art world's patriarchy, as evidenced by her male colleagues' ascendence to success while her career remained stagnant, Chicago's mind-frame changed to something more like "if you can't beat them, abandon them." Her "Lifesavers" series of this period embrace womanhood, with round shapes made up of various lines, alternately quivering and vibrating. In what Chicago and other feminist artist would later term "central-core" imagery, works like these presented a woman's sexuality as positive and powerful. Playing with perception, light and color, the series was connected to the Light and Space movement dominated by men such as James Turrell, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell and others, but Chicago's shapes and shades went beyond simply the exploration of visual perception to also represent a visualization of sexual pleasure, the female body and its energy. Chicago revealed to the influential art critic and curator Lucy Lippard in an September 1974 Artforum interview: "I called them lifesavers because in a way they did save my life by confronting head-on that issue of what it was to be a woman."
    Evolving from the imagery first employed in her "Lifesavers" series, Transformation Painting comes at a juncture of fervent feminist and self-actualizing activity in Chicago's life. Like the car hood paintings and the "Lifesavers," the abstract imagery of Transformation Painting allude to the feminine: butterflies, waves of female energy, flora appearing like female sexual organs a la Georgia O'Keeffe. Chicago herself undergone a transformation in the several years prior. In October of 1970, Chicago took out a full page ad in Artforum, renaming herself Judy Chicago—née Gerowitz by marriage; née Cohen by birth—denouncing and divesting from the patriarchy. In that same year, she, along with several other artists, had established the first ever Feminist Art Program, first at California State University and then at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) the year after. Further institutionalizing support and long-term development of feminist activity for posterity was the founding of the Feminist Studio Workshop as part of the Women's Building in 1973, an experimental space where female artists could explore feminist theory and exhibit work.
    Furthermore, Transformation Painting was created just one year before embarking on her most ambitious and well-known project, The Dinner Party (1974-79). The landmark, multi-media, full room installation, permanently housed and displayed at the Brooklyn Museum since 2007, honors women from mythology and history in the form of a massive, triangular shaped table, elaborately set with hand-embroidered table runners, handmade ceramics and other accessories created by Chicago and hundreds of female workers and volunteers. While The Dinner Party is public facing and collaborative—a visible show of female strength and power not only in its content but in its making—Transformation Painting gives insight into the artist's interiority and frame of mind during this time, her innermost thoughts and vulnerabilities. This excerpt of text that Chicago transcribed in pencil between the rows of imagery is diaristic and revealing:
    It has taken me almost eleven months to make thirteen paintings. Now, the series is completed and, like always, it's a little like dying. I feel empty and tired yet elated. I also feel bad today because two of my closest friends had a dinner party with a number of women from the female art community, and they didn't invite me. It made me feel hurt and rejected and as if they didn't care about me. Now, I want life to stop for a while so that I can rest and stop struggling. But it won't, and I guess I'll hang in there.
    Like The Dinner Party, Transformation Painting demonstrates strength as well, albeit in its honesty and vulnerability.
    It is not unheard of for artist to be unappreciated during their time. The Dinner Party, for example, was derided at the time of its debut by critics as being reductionist and overly didactic, even kitschy or simply bad art. Now, Judy Chicago and The Dinner Party are de rigueur material in art history courses, entering Janson's History of Art in 2006, a tome of required reading. Chicago's first ever museum retrospective was mounted just last year at the DeYoung Museum of San Francisco. Judy Chicago has entered the historical canon and artworks like Transformation Painting show Judy Chicago to not only be on the right side of history, but to have forged the path.
    Jennifer S. Li
  • Condition: Condition report available upon request.

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