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WHOSE STORY? Talia Kwartler on Judy Chicago at the New Museum, New York

As emphasized in the title of her current retrospective, “Herstory,” the work of Judy Chicago has been central to the development of second-wave feminist art, as well as to its study and critique. At the same time, the show places Chicago’s work within a long tradition of female cultural production in an exhibition section called “City of Ladies,” referencing the 1405 book by the French philosopher Christine de Pisan. In its effort to present artists often overlooked in patriarchal historiography, this part of the show is also reminiscent of a central part of Chicago’s Feminist Art Program in 1970s California, in which her students gathered information about their female predecessors. Yet, as Talia Kwartler points out in her review, the creation of new narratives often comes at the expense of new exclusions.

“If you bring Judy Chicago into the museum,” the artist said in the catalogue of her exhibition at the New Museum, speaking of herself in the third person, “you bring women’s history into the museum.” [1] Organized by Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, Margot Norton, and Madeline Weisburg, “Judy Chicago: Herstory” lauds itself as the first comprehensive survey of Chicago’s work in New York, although it is one of several major shows dedicated to the artist in the past five years. [2] The exhibition certainly reflects aspects of “women’s history,” especially as it pertains to second-wave feminism in the United States. But its underlying conceit also creates problems for itself. If we accept Chicago’s gambit that the exhibition “bring[s] women’s history into the museum,” then we must acknowledge that it also reflects unsavory aspects of this history, which enact new forms of negation of women’s work. Of course, when visitors first arrive at “Judy Chicago: Herstory,” they do not see what has been left out.

Upon entering the exhibition, visitors seem to pass through a portal into a world where women are the key inhabitants. After exiting the elevators on the second floor, they are confronted with one of the most exhilarating galleries in the entire presentation; here, the sculptures Trinity (1965/2019) and Rainbow Pickett (1965/2021) frame the entrance with colored beams placed at a diagonal. Chicago’s vibrant Minimalist sculptures have not been discussed as often as some of her other bodies of work, and it was compelling to see them draw visitors into the exhibition. Beyond these sculptures are four works from the series Hoods (1964–65/2011), which glisten like the shiny car parts that give them their titles. Upon these slick surfaces, Chicago created abstract images that play with the visual language of scientific diagrams and traffic signs. Sometimes, vulvas and vaginas even emerge at the center of these tableaux. The cis-female body is felt right here at the beginning of – and throughout – the retrospective of this artist preoccupied with the idea of sexual difference.

Immediately to the left of the first central gallery are two spaces that highlight Chicago’s most famous projects: The Dinner Party (1974–79) and Womanhouse (1972). The Dinner Party is represented by a wall of Plate Line Drawings (1977–78) for the work. These are related to the ceramic plates that are the focal point of the table settings for the 39 notable women from history who comprise the allegorical party permanently on display at the Brooklyn Museum. Of course, it must be said that the majority of the women given place settings at The Dinner Party were white; Sacajawea was the only Native American woman represented, and Sojourner Truth was the only Black woman included. The absence of this work is palpable at the New Museum; the paintings from The Great Ladies Series (1971–73) and The Reincarnation Triptych (1973) installed alongside the drawings have to do a lot of work to account for what is quite obviously missing.

The small gallery dedicated to Womanhouse – an exhibition in which Chicago and her collaborator Miriam Schapiro, together with their art students transformed a tumbledown Hollywood mansion into an installation [3] – also feels lacking. Of course, this is due to the fact that the work and its related performances can only be represented by film footage, photographs, and archival documents. In a long red hallway beyond this gallery, a group of games that experiment with gendered forms are installed in a case opposite a series of works on paper, such as a series of Rejection Drawings (1974). The games interpret vulva as colorful and provocative elements, while the drawings allowed Chicago to address more directly her feelings about being a woman artist. This transitional gallery is somewhat removed from the rest of the exhibition, and visitors continue from here into a darkened gallery featuring Chicago’s performance series Atmospheres (1968–74), which provides a cinematic backdrop for the painted naked woman dancing against the desert landscape in the film.

If the central entrance out of the elevators on the second floor “births” the visitor into the exhibition, the gallery directly above it reiterates this idea by focusing on The Birth Project (1980–85). Here, cis female bodies abound in large-scale tapestries that Chicago made in collaboration with needleworkers from around the United States. While it is compelling to see The Birth Project given such monumental treatment, overall, the art on display in this suite of galleries on the third floor is very mixed in terms of both quality and artistic approach. These works were made over several decades and do not cohere within the presentation. From kitschy needlepoint samplers to large paintings of pissing men to meditations on the extinction of animal species, it was hard to follow the trajectory of Chicago’s work on this floor. Thrown into this mix is the Holocaust Project (1985–92); one work from this awkwardly juxtaposed painted figures with photographic imagery of emaciated prisoners of concentration camps. I imagine I was not the only visitor who wanted to leave at this point.

To dwell on what “Judy Chicago: Herstory” does, rather than on the themes of Chicago’s work itself, it is very clear that what makes the exhibition different from other surveys is the large presentation of female-identifying artists. Featuring works from almost 90 artists, the display on the fourth floor is entitled the “City of Ladies,” in reference to Christine de Pisan’s Le livre de la cité des dames (The Book of the City of Ladies, 1405). Aesthetically, the installation sings. This dramatic space registers as if it were a synagogue – with mustard yellow walls and floral magenta carpet. It is divided into a few distinctive zones that group the artists by subtle themes. Visitors move from spiritual and metaphysical explorations by artists such as Hilma af Klint and Agnes Pelton, to various forms of visual and verbal abstraction, including works by Suzanne Duchamp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, to more mythological and anthropomorphic depictions of women, as seen in works by Leonor Fini and Dorothea Tanning. Banners that Chicago originally made for Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Dior Spring/Summer 2020 fashion show ask expansive questions. We are invited to ponder: “What if women ruled the world?” Would that be a better world than the one we live in?

The accompanying pamphlet for the “City of Ladies” display explains that Chicago was “invited to create a personal museum, based on a model of historiography that is porous, hospitable, and reciprocal.” [4] However, the notion of an artist creating a “personal museum” within their exhibition is concerning because it suggests Chicago holds ownership over these artworks. There is nothing reciprocal about this gesture, and it puts the work of dead women artists at the service of Chicago’s artistic agenda. In this way, Chicago instrumentalizes other artists’ work to achieve her own aims. The exhibition catalogue refers to parallels between the “City of Ladies” and Chicago’s The Dinner Party. [5] As Chicago told the curator Carmen Hermo in 2018, The Dinner Party “is intended to take up the challenge of changing the culture … and changing the world in which we live so that everyone is acknowledged, everyone is respected, everyone’s contributions count.” [6] It might be a heartfelt intention, but the “City of Ladies” does not achieve that end; in fact, it does the opposite.

In the “City of Ladies” section, the distinctive approaches of a broad swath of artists are subsumed under Chicago’s banner. We might then change the question Chicago asks: “If women ruled the world,” would they use other women’s work in the service of their own name? At first glance, this presentation of artists seems to be an act of feminist solidarity. But they are not really addressed on their own terms. Both the pamphlet and exhibition catalogue would have especially benefited from a bibliography that directs interested visitors toward relevant scholarship on the artists Chicago brought into her exhibition. Indeed, “Judy Chicago: Herstory” has a commendable aim to “bring women’s history into the museum.” But it also introduced the erasure of women’s critical and creative contributions right into the museum with it.

“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” New Museum, New York, October 12, 2023–March 3, 2024.

Talia Kwartler is a curator and art historian based in Berlin.

For legal reasons, the images that accompanied this text at the time of publication can no longer be shown.


[1]Judy Chicago quoted in Madeline Weisburg, “The Artist’s Museum,” in Judy Chicago: Herstory, exh. cat., ed. Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, and Margot Norton, (New York: New Museum; London: Phaidon, 2023), 278.
[2]See Judy Chicago: In the Making, exh. cat. (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; New York: Thames & Hudson, 2021); Judy Chicago: New Views, exh. cat. (Washington, DC: National Museum of Women in the Arts; New York: Scala, 2019); and Judy Chicago: Roots of the Dinner Party; History in the Making, exh. cat. (New York: Brooklyn Museum and Salon 94, 2018).
[3]See Margot Norton, “Through Bounds of Gender, Pedagogy, Flesh, and Mortar: ‘Womanhouse’ as Catalyst,” in Gioni, Carrion-Murayari, and Norton, Judy Chicago: Herstory, 90–95.
[4]See “The City of Ladies” exhibition pamphlet published on the occasion of Judy Chicago: Herstory (New Museum, 2023), n.p.
[5]See Weisburg, “The Artist’s Museum,” 281–83.
[6]Judy Chicago quoted in Carmen Hermo, “Judy Chicago in Conversation,” in Judy Chicago: Roots of the Dinner Party, 25.