Judy Chicago, On Fire at 80, 2019, inkjet print on Hahnemuhle photo rag paper, 24 x 30 1/8 in. (61 x 76.5 cm) © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; Jessica Silverman, San Francisco; and Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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Judy Chicago, On Fire at 80, 2019 Archival Inkjet Print 24 x 30 1/8 in. (61 x 76.5 cm) © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; Jessica Silverman, San Francisco; and Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles. Image provided courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Judy Chicago’s Mixed (Smoke) Signals:

Forever de Young

by Tanya Augsburg

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Judy Chicago, Heaven is for White Men Only, 1973, Sprayed Acrylic on Canvas, Collection New Orleans Museum of Art, Gift of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York

Judy Chicago wants us to pay attention. She is more than willing to make provocative art to incite our ire. If viewers can channel their strong reactions to Chicago’s work into caring about the issues that she cares deeply about, such as the human atrocities, environmental crises, and species extinctions that are happening in real time, then the artist doesn’t mind harsh criticisms or even rejection. As Chicago says in recent interviews as well as the video introduction to her retrospective exhibition at de Young Museum in San Francisco (on view until January 9, 2022), she doesn’t care if she makes her audiences uncomfortable. She prefers to disrupt expectations
and presumptions, something that she has been doing consciously throughout her nearly 60-year artistic career.

Adroitly curated by FAMSF contemporary art curator Claudia Schmuckli, Judy Chicago: A Retrospective, confounds the conventional exhibition viewing experience by presenting Chicago’s work in reverse chronology. In so doing, the show foregrounds the inherent contradictions of putting on a show that accentuates the past while the artist continues to make significant work. After sidestepping Mortality Relief (2018), Chicago’s ironic death mask that riffs those of putative cismale artistic geniuses, visitors enter a darkened room to encounter The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (2015-2019), Chicago’s most recent project. The ambitious series consists
of two groups of intimate works in brightly colored ceramic paint on black glass. In the first group, Chicago hypothesizes multiple possible scenarios for her own demise. In the second, she spotlights threatened and endangered animal species and plants. In each piece, figurative images are accompanied by the artist’s own texts painted in her distinctive cursive script. The interplay between vibrant color and meaningful choices of mediums contrasts sharply with harrowing subject matter.

Chicago does not shy away from rendering harsh truths, whether they be animal cruelty or the imperfections of the aged cisfemale body. Chicago seems to position her nude self-portraits within the tradition of “great masters” such as Rembrandt and Andy Warhol, whose somber and reflective late self-portraits with dark backgrounds appear in retrospect to have portended their respective deaths. The qualitative difference between Chicago and her predecessors is that she not only contemplates her mortality, she also conjectures its actual process, thus making what is usually hidden or taboo visibly apparent. She thus demystifies death as she had birth in her Birth

Project (1980-1985), which is featured along with numerous works of embroidery and tapestry that also feature black backgrounds.

Judy Chicago, Birth Trinity: Needlepoint 1, 1983, Textile, Needlepoint by Susan Bloomenstein, Elizabeth Colten, Karen Fogel, Helene Hirmes, Bernice Levitt, Linda Rothenberg, and Miriam Vogelman. The Gusford Collection, Los Angeles. Collection The Gusford Collection © Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York

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Judy Chicago, Birth Trinity: Needlepoint 1, 1983 Needlepoint by Susan Bloomenstein, Elizabeth Colten, Karen Fogel, Helene Hirmes, Bernice Levitt, Linda Rothenberg, and Miriam Vogelman.

The Gusford Collection, Los Angeles. Collection The Gusford Collection © Judy Chicago / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York

Chicago’s fixations on death and permanent loss can be seen already in the work she did during the 1990s, namely the Holocaust Project (1985-1993), which is displayed after The End series. However, Chicago’s obsessions with death were already apparent in two vividly colored early pieces included in the retrospective, Bigamy Hood (1965-2011) and Birth Hood (1965-2011), which she had planned to complete while in graduate school after her first husband was killed in a car accident. In order to transform car hoods into wall-mounted sculptures, Chicago attended autobody school to learn how to paint cars. Because her professors objected to the biomorphic sexual imagery, she did not complete them until decades later. The early work confirms that, throughout her career, Chicago has worked through personal and social trauma by creating art.

 

I have emphasized the exhibition’s focus on death and destruction as major themes in Chicago’s oeuvre for two reasons: First, Chicago is not exclusively a feminist artist and feminist art educator, even as her contributions to both have been paramount. Representative early feminist works from the 1970s featuring Chicago’s distinctive central core imagery and work that she did while pioneering feminist art education take up one room in the exhibition. Another room is devoted to documentation of the Dinner Party (1974-1979), but without seeing the actual installation, which is permanently housed in the Brooklyn Museum, the homage to arguably the most widely known feminist art triumph seems only to scratch the surface.

Judy Chicago, Virginia Woolf Test Plate, 1975-1978 Collection Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of the Grinstein Family

© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York

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Judy Chicago, Virginia Woolf Test Plate, 1975-1978 Collection Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of the Grinstein Family

© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York

Second, as I already suggested, the curation of Judy Chicago: A Retrospective foregrounds these themes. After viewers leave the exhibition they walk through a hallway with its walls covered with photographic images of Chicago’s site-specific smoke performances. Originally viewed as an attempt to soften or “feminize” the environment and land art, Chicago’s Atmospheres or smoke performances have had a complicated history, evidently ahead of their time. Since her first smoke performance in 1965, Chicago has attempted to call  attention to the beauty of her surroundings with smoke and firecrackers, documenting the ephemeral quality of the performances in photographs, and more recently, video. Chicago quickly realized that smoke could be colored, and that variously hued smoke could mix in the air, thus creating painterly effects. Paradoxically, the atmospheric performances that were intended to call attention to the environment eventually raised serious environmental concerns about air quality and chemical toxicities. As recently as March 2021, an atmospheric performance planned for Desert X in Palm Springs was cancelled after a local arts writer raised environmental concerns to wildlife.

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Judy Chicago, Pink Atmosphere, Cal State Fullerton, Fullerton, CA, 1971–2018, Photographs, 30 x 40 inches © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS),New York

Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York

In contrast, there seems to have been a surprisingly little discussion of how Chicago and the de Young Museum finagled the City of San Francisco and the SF Fire Department to go ahead with Forever de Young, which took place on October 16, 2021 on a 27-foot-tall metal
pyramid that was quickly assembled in front of the museum café. Even before Chicago literally pulled the trigger at around 5:45 pm to begin the approximately 10-minute atmospheric performance of mixed color, smoke, firecrackers, and sound, Golden Gate Park’s ambiance turned carnivalesque with the influx of around 8,000 individuals who overcame any reservations about COVID to see the highly publicized event.

Forever de Young commenced with red sparklers outlining the edges of the pyramid and the release of puffs of greyish white smoke, which was quickly followed by spurts of florescent yellow, orange, murky green, and purple. The opaque smoke lurched low towards the ground before drifting northeast, even as the rainbow effect on the pyramid became apparent with blue and orange colors erupting into the air. Images from 9/11 flashed in my mind as I watched the dense smoke descend and smother everything and everyone in its wake. Swirls of blue, green, and purple mixed with orange and yellow were followed by increasingly dark hues before turning an ominous grey. The orange-yellow smoke was replaced by red, and with all the colors mixing, the smoke became increasing murky. Spurts of yellow lightened indigo blue to shades of aqua and turquoise, while spots of purple turned brown. The wind abruptly shifted and the smoke rose up rather than down, heading more directly north. Blue, purple, and green smoke quickly combined, turning charcoal grey and black. Smoke that ascended above the pyramid and museum was illuminated by the late afternoon sun. Firecracker flames and smoke propelled upwards in narrow colored stripes. A spectrum of colors was simultaneously released, followed by a palate cleanser of mini-white cloud puffs from the firecrackers.  The finale was thwarted by the wind: black and blue smoke descended to the ground, with orange smoke wafting above, followed by final fizzles of greyish white smoke.

 Forever de Young is a multicolored, open-air performance created by the artist Judy Chicago as part of her exhibition “Judy Chicago: A Retrospective”, was on view at the de Young Museum. It will took place on a 27-foot-high trapezoidal scaffold directly in front of the museum on Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. The performance employs non-toxic color pigments that mix with the wind and light to create spectral color effects. “Forever de Young” is sponsored by Jordan D. Schnitzer in memory of his late mother Arlene Schnitzer (1929-2020), Board of Trustees and Acquisitions Committee 2006-2015.

Ultimately, Forever de Young was a reperformance of Chicago’s earlier Atmospheres. It reminded me of 60s and 70s performance and body art that spotlighted transgression and risk, including the risk of offending the audience. These performances were created before contemporary ideas about medical informed consent and sexual consent were as developed and articulated as they are currently. Half a century later such performances seem dated and out of touch during an era of heightened risk and omnipresent danger. For many San Franciscans the day in the park was to be not only a celebration of the artist and her career – it was to be a joyful social gathering after a prolonged period of social isolation compounded by multiple suffocating, calamitous fire seasons. By nightfall it was anything but as the crowd quickly fled the park away from the lingering smoke. But then again, I think this was Chicago’s point: having one pure emotion nowadays is not possible. From my upwind vantage point Chicago’s performance staged the mixing of colors as analogous to the mixing of emotion. For those who were unwittingly inundated with smoke, the performance was reduced to a biohazard.

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Judy ChicagoGoddess with Flares; from Women and Smoke, 1972–2018, Photographs, Archival pigment print,  30 x 40 inches 

© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, New York

In retrospect, no one should have been surprised that spectators and community members would be justifiably outraged by the smoke and unknown risks of the color pigments – despite all the assurances from the museum and Chicago about their non-toxicities. With Forever de Young, Chicago attempted to raise our awareness and consciousness about what is happening to the environment. So did her critics by condemning the performance.

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Tanya Augsburg is a performance scholar, critic, and curator who can be occasionally persuaded to perform. She teaches at San Francisco State University, where she is currently Professor of Humanities and Liberal Studies.