Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 22, 2008
Gail Levin Becoming Judy Chicago: A Biography of the Artist New York: Harmony Books, 2006. 496 pp.; 27 color ills.; 26 b/w ills. Cloth $29.95 (9781400054121 )
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This past summer I went to see, for the first time, Judy Chicago’s notorious The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum, its first permanent home since its creation in 1979. The work—which spurred heated controversy and a plethora of both hostile and heartfelt responses—represents a dinner party of thirty-nine accomplished but largely forgotten women from history; each attendee is symbolized by her own place setting, including a plate illustrating her genitals. Having studied feminist art for nearly a decade, I was looking forward to this moment—mainly for the chance to see the thing of myth, to put a face to a name, to see a relic with my own eyes. But, in retrospect, what I did not expect was to actually look at the work—to use my eyes. What surprised me about the art was the work itself. It was elegant, filled with lustrous surfaces and neat ceramics, along with painstakingly detailed, colorful, and vibrant needlework—a highlight is a stitched, three-dimensional graphic rendition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, both moving and light, appealing and horrific at the same time. It almost came as a surprise to me: The Dinner Party, so shrouded in narratives of feminist and internal conflict, is actually a piece of sculpture, a museum installation. As I walked around it, I noticed that my fellow viewers—though numerous—were contemplative (not heated-up, as the controversy narratives always suggest), focusing on the information provided. Parents were explaining to children who the women at the table were. I bent over to listen—I still do not know who many of them are. Among the tales of feminist controversy and the grand character of Chicago, what seemed to be lacking for me were details.

Gail Levin’s biography, on the other hand, certainly provides details. Published during what seems to be a renaissance of art-institution interest in Chicago and feminist art, Becoming Judy Chicago is a heavily researched and ambitious four hundred page tome about Chicago (born 1939), replete with the information of a life from before birth through to the near present. The book relays Chicago’s up-and-down journey to fame and to her work’s position in the Brooklyn Museum. It thoroughly documents the struggles she encountered as a woman and a feminist artist in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century—introducing craft to fine art; taking on feminist themes; imaging female genitalia, menstruation, domesticity, birth, and, later, scenes from the Holocaust; and writing several books of her own about her emotional and social struggles, her practice, and her feminist ideals, lectures, and educational programs. Levin’s tale takes readers from Chicago’s (originally Cohen) ancestors in the Jewish shtetls of Lithuania, through to a childhood with Communist parents in Chicago, art school in California, conflicts with New York dealers and artists (in particular Miriam Schapiro), and into later sexual relationships that have never before been made public. In the process, Levin presents a rounded life story, relaying a journey from men, away from men, and back, a journey from Jewish roots, to feminism, and back to Jewish roots. She depicts Chicago’s struggles with men, struggles with women (this is not a nostalgic polemic about feminism, but presents tensions about and between women and careerism), struggles in herself, and those with her family, portraying an ambitious, insightful, sensitive, and conflicted character, as well as the desires and fears of someone in the limelight (and sometimes the lime was sour).

Becoming Judy Chicago is a title that evokes Simone de Beauvoir’s famous remark that one is not born but becomes a woman, and as such, implies a narrative. The book, however, does not read as a suspenseful tale or an intensive psychological portrait; but neither does it read as a scholarly project—Levin does not forward explicit arguments. The prose exists somewhere between these realms, and largely comprises statements of fact about events, and, in particular, citations from Chicago and from those who knew her and/or her work, ranging from past lovers through to college peers, old roommates, reviewers, colleagues, and even Miriam Schapiro’s father (though notably, not Schapiro herself). Levin conducted interviews with 250 people, and the biography—with its endearing photographs of Chicago and excellent reproductions of her work—resembles an intimate scrapbook, creating a personal history that might reflect the feminist type of historiography of The Dinner Party itself, i.e., personal pastiche. Though at times clunky as a result of so much citation and footnoting and so many different voices (on top of the four hundred pages are eighty-five more of endnotes), the book is certainly extensively researched. Providing detailed accounts of Chicago’s projects and their U.S. art-world reception, the biography might be especially useful for scholars who want a clear-cut narration of chronology and art-world characters. (More than once, I found myself amused that a certain writer, artist, or academic had been working with Chicago—it’s a small world, and the social context is neatly articulated.)

Alongside the statements of Chicago’s friends and adversaries are the bulk of quotations—from Chicago herself. Chicago is a meticulous self-chronicler and a prolific writer who has published several autobiographical works, kept many personal diaries, and has a large archive at Radcliffe; her own prose boasts a straightforward tone. On the one hand, Levin had the advantage of Chicago’s consistent candor in order to make her own narrative meaty—she could draw directly on Chicago’s own directness. On the other hand, it was likely an enormous challenge to tackle a big personality, who is still living, and who has written a lot about herself. Levin extracts selectively from this raw and overwhelming source, and uses quotes to paint a picture of an artist who has a colorful, impassioned, and ambivalent inner life, who is constantly self-justifying and self-questioning, is hugely ambitious, and is often extremely insightful about relationships and creativity. Levin, however, generally sticks to the insights and stories Chicago tells in her published works (the main sources for several of Levin’s chapters). She does not radically re-read Chicago, but instead fills her out by adding more details and voices. Though she sometimes challenges Chicago’s statements (for instance, showing how an ex-lover interpreted a relationship differently), she rarely questions Chicago’s take and generally accepts her writing at face value, giving the book the feel of an authorized biography. At times, this partiality makes for an awkward narrative voice. Levin attempts a distanced neutrality in her narrative style that aims to objectively present citations and information; but every several pages, she brazenly jumps to Chicago’s defense, explaining away her bad reviews and her behavior, or denying claims that Chicago was a self-hating Jew. While these stances are understandable, the book would have read more smoothly had Levin announced her stand from the start. Even if she had taken strong positions on certain issues, a direct approach would have been more convincing—her indirectness about her own views makes them seem suspect. Only on page 382 does Levin include a paragraph outlining her perspective on Holocaust memorials—this writing stands out. There could have been more of these “author’s” paragraphs.

The best parts of the book, for a reader like me who is familiar with Chicago’s publications, are the parts where Levin goes beyond them and draws mainly upon Chicago’s diaries and external sources. Levin provides new and interesting stories about feminist activities at Fresno State where Chicago first introduced a groundbreaking course for women artists, and about early 1970s feminism across the United States and at Douglass College; she also offers a more in-depth look at Chicago’s relationship with her mother, the making of the Holocaust project, and, in particular, the reception of The Dinner Party. This last energized chapter is remarkable, and Levin’s style of quoting many sources works very well here. By presenting impassioned opinion after impassioned opinion (all of which differ markedly from each other), Levin magnifies the enterprise of reviewing and its highly subjective status (present reviewer is aware . . .). This reception chapter evocatively helps to relay the main narrative of struggle, as Levin presents accolades, pannings, and Chicago’s depression about them, and effectively illustrates Eddie Cantor’s line, “it took me 20 years to become an overnight success,” questioning the very meaning and making of “successful” art. By focusing on the response to Chicago, Levin poignantly highlights the struggle of the artist. Here, it is a struggle waged not by her own inner demons as a romantic conception of the (male) artist might go, but is a real, tangible struggle with the world.

Levin’s work also poses timely questions about self-branding and artist identity. The biography is about “becoming” Judy Chicago—the story of an artist who spent a career trying to live up to being the young image of herself as a boxer, which illustrates the hardback’s front cover. Without attempting psychological analysis, Levin does consider the psychic dilemmas of the desire for recognition, the hunger for fame, and the conflicts between introverted art-making and extroverted risk-taking. As mentioned earlier, Levin’s biography does not offer explicit arguments but instead makes suggestions. Alongside this probing at fame psychology, Levin offers some interesting historical precedents. For instance, emphasizing Chicago’s family’s Jewish roots in Eastern Europe, she proposes possible precursors to late twentieth-century feminist thought in the United States. Though she focuses on one character, she traces the politics of postmodern feminism back to U.S. anti-racism and back to the shtetl, offering insights into both Chicago and contemporary America.

Judith Batalion
Research Forum Post-Doctoral Fellow, Courtauld Institute of Art

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