Love it or hate it, Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” remains a great, enduringly provocative monument of feminist art. Permanently enshrined in a triangular room taking up most of the space allotted to the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, it consists of a three-sided banquet table with 39 elaborate place settings. Each is dedicated to a famous woman who is represented by the work’s most controversial feature: a fancifully stylized image of a vagina rendered in two or three dimensions on a large dinner plate.
“Chicago in L.A.: Judy Chicago’s Early Work 1963-1974” at the Brooklyn Museum tells the story of Ms. Chicago’s pre-“Dinner Party” career, a period during which she evolved from a talented and ambitious graduate student into a full-fledged feminist visionary. Organized by Catherine Morris, the Sackler’s curator, the exhibition of more than 55 objects functions as a kind of illustrated biographical timeline. As such, it offers an exceptionally interesting slice of American art history in a time of vast aesthetic, social and cultural change.
Born Judith Cohen in Chicago in 1939, Ms. Chicago went by Judy Gerowitz in the ’60s, using the surname of her first husband, who died in a car accident in 1963. She publicly announced she was changing her name to Chicago in an October 1970 Artforum magazine ad.
Within two years of earning her master’s degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1964, Ms. Chicago had made enough of a name for herself in the Los Angeles art scene to attract the attention of the curator Kynaston McShine, who included her in “Primary Structures,” the historic 1966 exhibition of minimalist art at the Jewish Museum. Her contribution was “Rainbow Pickett,” a row of six vividly colored, square-sectioned beams in graduated sizes leaning from floor to wall at 45 degrees. It appears at the Brooklyn Museum exhibit in the form of a 2004 re-creation of the 1964 original.
Despite Ms. Chicago’s early success, the ’60s were years of inner conflict. As a student, she produced brightly colored compositions of abstract, biomorphic and sexually suggestive forms evoking Tantric, American Indian and Art Deco styles. These works look excitingly fresh today, but her teachers a half-century ago were not pleased: “In graduate school,” notes one of the many wall labels, “Chicago encountered strong resistance from the painting faculty to any symbolic or formal evocation of sexuality or her experience as a woman.” In “Birth Hood,” a 2011 re-creation of the 1965 original, she satirized that academic prejudice by painting sexually symbolic imagery on the conventionally masculine signifier of a car hood.
Blessed with a ferociously competitive work ethic, Ms. Chicago was determined to beat the guys at their own game. As the wall label recounts, “Hanging around with male artists at the bar Barney’s Beanery and adopting their tough-guy attitudes, she repressed imagery that directly referenced her gender and built her reputation as an ambitious, serious artist by mastering power tools, auto-body-painting techniques and fiberglass casting.” She even apprenticed at a fireworks company to learn how to create flares for a series of happenings called “Atmospheres” that involved the release of colored smoke in different architectural and natural situations from 1969 to 1974. (Ms. Chicago will orchestrate a pyrotechnic performance called “A Butterfly for Brooklyn” in Prospect Park on April 26.)
From Minimalism, Ms. Chicago moved toward the West Coast style known as Finish Fetish, a Pop-industrial genre marked by the shiny surfaces favored by hot rod and surfing cultures. The most impressive results are three large, glossy spray paintings of luminously translucent doughnut shapes from a series called “Pasadena Lifesavers” (1969-79).
For Ms. Chicago, there was more to these and other paintings and drawings of circular forms (and in the small, iridescent, cast acrylic dome-shaped sculptures she was also making) than most viewers could see. She meant the circular — or as wall texts call them, “vulvar” — images as veiled representations of female genitalia, with pulsing colors suggesting erotic experience. Much to her frustration, few critics got the reference.
By the end of the ’60s, Ms. Chicago was deep into feminism. Teaching at Fresno State College in 1970, she created a course of study for women called the Feminist Art Program. The next year she and the painter Miriam Schapiro relocated the program to the California Institute of the Arts. There, they and their students created Womanhouse, an institution for collaborations, installations and performances in an abandoned house near the campus. A section of the Brooklyn Museum exhibition documents these developments through photographs and a 44-minute video. It recalls a kind of bluntly earnest feminism that was groundbreaking in its time and now seems primitive and even naïve by the standards of today’s highly theorized gender politics.
In her paintings and drawings of the early 1970s, meanwhile, Ms. Chicago began to make her metaphors of female sensibility increasingly explicit. A key work is “Through the Flower” (1973), in which curved, petal-like forms radiate from an optically scintillating circle. With its glowing center like a window to some transcendental other world, it foreshadows a big leap of faith she is getting ready to take.
In the exhibition’s last works, the organ previously evoked indirectly by circles, mandalas, flowers and butterflies is directly pictured, albeit in highly stylized forms. A 1974 set of drawings called “Rejection Quintet” includes colored pencil renderings of female genitalia captioned by long, handwritten texts recounting personal experiences of being rejected as a girl, a woman and an artist. It’s a kind of therapeutic exorcism, and it’s important because Ms. Chicago is about to embark on a grand project that will court rejection like nothing she’s done before. Here begins the five-year birthing of “The Dinner Party.”
“Chicago in L.A.: Judy Chicago’s Early Work 1963 — 74” runs through Sept. 28 at the Brooklyn Museum; 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, 718-638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org.