Women House: Beginnings

Questions about a woman’s “place” resonate in our culture, and conventional ideas about the house as a feminine space persist. Global artists in Women House recast conventional ideas about the home through provocative photographs, videos, sculptures, and room-like installations.

Judy Chicago, Butterfly, test plates, 1973–74

One of the leaders of the 1970s feminist art movement, Judy Chicago (b. 1939, Chicago, Illinois) is considered one of the most innovative and influential artists of the period. Like many other feminist artists, Chicago was interested in raising craft, or “women’s work,” to the status of fine art. In the early 1970s she began studying china painting. Her Butterfly test plates feature a synthesis of vulvar and butterfly imagery, celebrating the female form from a woman’s perspective rather than through the male gaze.

Chicago_Butterfly Test Plate #1

Judy Chicago, Butterfly, test plates, 1973–74; China paint on porcelain; Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

Chicago_Butterfly Test Plate #2

Judy Chicago, Butterfly, test plates, 1973–74; China paint on porcelain; Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

Chicago_Butterfly Test Plate #3

Judy Chicago, Butterfly, test plates, 1973–74; China paint on porcelain; Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

Chicago_Butterfly Test Plate #4

Judy Chicago, Butterfly, test plates, 1973–74; China paint on porcelain; Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

Chicago_Butterfly Test Plate #5

Judy Chicago, Butterfly, test plates, 1973–74; China paint on porcelain; Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

Chicago’s plates were a precursor to The Dinner Party (1974–79), permanently housed at the Brooklyn Museum. The installation consists of 39 ornate place settings, each dedicated to a significant historical or mythological woman, including Sacajawea, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Virginia Woolf. The place settings exhibit a variety of craft techniques, including needlework and china painting. Women celebrated in the installation. Over the course of nearly five years, and with the help of hundreds of volunteers, Chicago executed one of the most iconic artworks of the 20th century.

Johanna Demetrakas, Womanhouse, 1972

In 1971, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro established a feminist art program at California State University, Fresno. For their project Womanhouse, which inspired NMWA’s Women House, Chicago and Schapiro rented a dilapidated mansion in Los Angeles. Along with 23 of their students, they transformed it into a unique exhibition space “suitable to the dreams and fantasies they envisioned for what would be an exclusively female environment.” Womanhouse consisted of workshops, performances, and installations that critiqued gender roles and explored the relationship between women and domesticity. Believing that “society fails women by not demanding excellence from them,” Schapiro and Chicago encouraged their students to push themselves beyond their boundaries.

Award-winning filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas (b. 1937) chronicled Womanhouse in a documentary of the same name. She filmed various workshops, performances, and audience reactions to the installations. The documentary has been screened at NMWA as well as the Whitney Museum, the Venice Biennale, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. To learn more about the inspiration behind NMWA’s current exhibition, watch an online preview of the Womanhouse film and visit the official Womanhouse website to learn more.

Visit the museum and explore Women House, on view through May 28, 2018.

—Kali Steinberg is the 2018 spring publications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Perpetual Pathmakers

Dynamic women designers and artists from the mid-20th century and today create innovative designs, maintain craft traditions, and incorporate new aesthetics into fine art in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Each week, compare and draw parallels between works on view in Pathmakers and NMWA collection favorites.

On view in Pathmakers

Eva Zeisel (manufactured by Manifattura Mancioli), Belly Button Room Divider Prototype, 1957

Eva Zeisel (manufactured by Manifattura Mancioli), Belly Button Room Divider Prototype, 1957; Ceramic with metal rods, 60 x 36 in.; Photo by Brent Brolin; Courtesy of Eva Zeisel Archive

Eva Zeisel (manufactured by Manifattura Mancioli), Belly Button Room Divider Prototype, 1957; Ceramic with metal rods, 60 x 36 in.; Photo by Brent Brolin; Courtesy of Eva Zeisel Archive

Eva Zeisel is one of the best-known designers of the post–World War II era. Imbuing industrial products with a sensual and organic appearance, Zeisel won wide acclaim for her abstracted ceramic designs. Few people knew that Zeisel had been falsely accused of conspiring to assassinate Stalin, was imprisoned in Moscow in 1936, and later fled Nazi-occupied Austria. After her imprisonment—most of which she spent in solitary confinement—Zeisel said, “I hadn’t seen any colors in over a year and a half.” Her works after this period, including her work in Pathmakers, are often characterized by graceful, vibrantly colored designs with a sense of humor.

Who made it?

Hungarian-born designer Eva Zeisel (1906–2011) is the only woman whose works appear in both the midcentury and contemporary sections of Pathmakers. With an unprecedented 87-year-long career, Zeisel designed ceramics in Hungary, Germany, and the Soviet Union before moving to the U.S. in 1938. She was the first artist to have a one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946. She worked well past the age of 100.

How was it made?

Zeisel became known for her furniture, rugs, tiles, and ornamental objects but revealed “ceramics is my favorite, because I can feel it with my hands.” Designed for Manifattura Mancioli in 1958, Belly Button Room Divider consists of double-ended porcelain vessels with slight “belly button” depressions. Rebelling against the straight-line aesthetic of Modernism, Zeisel threaded her ceramic forms into long rows, creating sensual S-curves. Zeisel explained, “the inspiration for my work has been the human body—belly buttons, which I used quite often—nature, and the Hungarian folk art of my youth.” With candy-colored glazes and a sense of playfulness, her work in Pathmakers exemplifies Zeisel’s design goal “to be very friendly.”

Collection connection

2007

Judy Chicago, Test Plate for Virginia Woolf from The Dinner Party, 1978; Glazed porcelain, 14 in. diameter; Gift of Elizabeth A. Sackler in honor of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and the 20th anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

In NMWA’s collection, Judy Chicago’s Test Plate for Virginia Woolf (1978) is also a glazed, porcelain prototype. Chicago created the test plate in preparation for her large installation The Dinner Party. On view in a permanent installation at the Brooklyn Museum, The Dinner Party is one of the best-known works of the 1970s feminist movement, comprising three tables with place settings for 39 prominent women in history.

The test plate has the same dimensions as the final place setting. Each plate is unique to the woman it represents, but they share similar butterfly and vulvar forms. The floral imagery of Woolf’s plate—particularly its seed-like core and petals—may represent the fruitfulness of Woolf’s writing career. The curled petals also evoke an open book’s pages.

Visit the museum and explore Pathmakers, on view through February 28, 2016.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Miriam Schapiro: Feminist and “Femmagist”

While the weather outside is cooling down, take a look at an artist born in November whose work is known for bright colors, exuberant patterns, and play on texture and form.

Miriam Schapiro has dedicated her life and career to bringing women artists to prominence in art and academia. Miriam Schapiro, born November 15, 1923, is a painter, sculptor, teacher, writer, and self-defined “femmagist.” She is often cited alongside Judy Chicago as a founder of the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts. In 1972 the two artists co-created Womanhouse with twenty-one art students—this landmark collaborative art project explored feminist concerns about women’s place in the professional and art worlds. The transformation of a Hollywood house, previously scheduled to be demolished, allowed the artists to make traditionally female spaces, such as kitchens, into feminist works of art.

Miriam Schapiro, Mechano/Flower Fan, 1979; Gift of MaryRoss Taylor in honor of her mother, Betty S. Abbott

Miriam Schapiro, Mechano/Flower Fan, 1979; Gift of MaryRoss Taylor in honor of her mother, Betty S. Abbott

As her career progressed, Schapiro became interested in art and techniques that had been considered “female” or women’s work. These techniques included quilting and embroidery, and have often been ignored in canonical “high” art. Schapiro invented the term “femmage” to explain her process for creating art, in which she began to combine painting, textiles, and paper into collages. She transformed the collage, first brought into the realm of canonical art by male heavyweights Picasso and Braque, into a feminine exploration of pattern and texture, coupled with traditional artisanal elements such as lace, fabric, and needlework. Through this work, she calls for techniques once deemed mere “craft” to be brought into the realm of fine art. Her brightly colorful and busy compositions ushered in a new art form at a time when the art world and market was focused on Minimalist and Conceptual art.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts owns one such work, created in 1979. Mechano/Flower Fan draws upon the fan as an item traditionally created by, and used by, women. Schapiro’s bright colors and geometric planes, created from fields of paint and collaged fabric, refer to artists such as Picasso, who used the collage to explore symbols and the creation of signs in culture. With this history in mind, Schapiro argues against the fan as a traditional symbol of shy, demure women.

Schapiro’s legacy and artworks continue to inspire other artists. Her groundbreaking inclusion of items such as textiles in painted works advanced the realm of “craft” to a new, true art form.

—Caitlin Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Judy Chicago: Boldly Going Where No Woman Has Gone Before

Judy Chicago (née Judy Cohen) was born on July 20, 1939, in Chicago, Illinois, into a household that supported her creative and intellectual interests. In her autobiography, Through the Flower, Chicago describes her mother as a woman of culture who worked and entertained friends with intellectual conversation. Because of her mother’s influence, Chicago has said that she grew up with the mindset that she could do whatever she wanted, yet this proved to be quite challenging as she began to realize the unequal dynamics of the artistic culture of the time. During her years as an undergraduate and graduate student in the University of California, Los Angeles, Chicago attempted to assimilate into the artistic clique and sought the approval of her male peers.

Judy Chicago, Virginia Woolf (preparatory drawing for The Dinner Party), 1976; Mixed media on paper, 24 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of MaryRoss Taylor in honor of Elizabeth A. Sackler

Judy Chicago, Virginia Woolf (preparatory drawing for The Dinner Party), 1976; Mixed media on paper, 24 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of MaryRoss Taylor in honor of Elizabeth A. Sackler

After graduating, she attended auto-body school, in keeping with the trend for many aspiring male artists of the day. She has described this voyage as going into the “male world” where she thought the “real” art was. Due to her male teachers’ critiques and her male peers’ skepticism about her as an artist, Chicago found herself conflicted between her feminine sensibility and her inhibitions about projecting that feeling in her art. Though she used techniques popularized by predominantly male participants of the Los Angeles-based Look movement, she aimed to produce art that depicted her experiences as a woman. Of course, this did not come without struggle, yet upon returning back to painting, she developed “central core” imagery, which iconographically expressed what it meant to be a woman. She was also able to incorporate and appropriate some of the stereotypically “male” techniques she had learned, such as auto-body painting. Soon, feminist themes in her artworks would solidify to become the doctrines of her personal and artistic philosophy.

Pasadena Lifesavers Red #5, 1970; Sprayed acrylic laquer on acrylic, 60 x 60 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Elyse and Stanley Grinstein

Pasadena Lifesavers Red #5, 1970; Sprayed acrylic laquer on acrylic, 60 x 60 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Elyse and Stanley Grinstein

While the ’60s were a time of both internal and external struggle for Chicago, the decade catalyzed her artistic development in the ’70s. In 1972, Chicago, along with her California Institute of the Arts colleague Miriam Schapiro, worked with a group of female students to create the site-specific installation Womanhouse. This collaborative project probed the roles of women and the limitations society placed on them, attracting nationwide attention. In 1974, Chicago began work on her best-known piece, The Dinner Party, a symbolic history of the great women of Western civilization, in which she prepared a triangular dining table with a unique table setting for each of her 39 women subjects. Since then, she has continued as a pioneer of feminist art and has helped further the progress of women artists.

In honor of Chicago’s 75th birthday, Judy Chicago: Circa ’75 will feature 13 artworks that are characteristic of her work from this period, spurring and responding to the second-wave feminist movement. The exhibition, including preparatory drawings and test plates that the artist made for The Dinner Party, will be on view at NMWA through April 13.

—Kyla Crisostomo is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Happy Birthday, Judy Chicago!

Her vision is to “move beyond the construct of femininity into the un-gendered and free space that should be available for every human being”; her means of achieving it is art. The first to describe feminist art as its own genre, Judy Chicago’s work relied on what she termed “male drag” in her youth—painting only “macho” themes—to the exploration of the strength of her femininity. She has since created a large body of work that fuses the constructions of masculine and feminine thought, allowing her to transcend the boundaries of both.

Pasadena Lifesavers Red #5, 1970; Sprayed acrylic laquer on acrylic, 60 x 60 in.; NMWA, Gift of Elyse and Stanley Grinstein

Pasadena Lifesavers Red #5, 1970; Sprayed acrylic laquer on acrylic, 60 x 60 in.; NMWA, Gift of Elyse and Stanley Grinstein

Growing up in LA in the 1960s, Chicago found the art world dominated by men. To create her artwork, she attended auto-body school, studied pyrotechnics and built minimalist pieces with materials like fiberglass and resin. She also contributed to the “Los Angeles Look” genre, whose style was based on the popular practice of spray-painting cars and surfboards. By the 1970s, Chicago was embracing her gender, encouraged by the feminist movement. She began by changing her birth surname, Cohen, to a chosen name, Chicago, as a means of disconnecting herself from patriarchal conventions, like naming. Additionally, she began to make feminist art.

Pasadena Lifesavers, a series crafted in the early ’70s, expresses Chicago’s break with the masculinized notion of power. Chicago’s mission in both Pasadena Lifesaver Red #4 and Pasadena Lifesaver Red #5, on display in NMWA, was to show that the female body is “multi-orgasmic” and not confined to one gender stereotype. Each abstract painting includes four “lifesavers,” whose geometry and airbrushed medium invoke masculinity, while the symbolism incorporated is feminine. For example, the “masculinized” hard edges of the equilateral triangles actually join together to form a patchwork quilt of colors, linking them to the traditionally female occupation of needlework.

Pasadena Lifesavers Red  #4, 1969–70; Sprayed acrylic lacquer on acrylic, 60 x 60 in.; NMWA, Gift of MaryRoss Taylor in memory of Carlota M. Smith

Pasadena Lifesavers Red #4, 1969–70; Sprayed acrylic lacquer on acrylic, 60 x 60 in.; NMWA, Gift of MaryRoss Taylor in memory of Carlota S. Smith

Chicago further explores this juxtaposition by incorporating the theme of transition. In Red #5, the colors are so light that they appear like gloss on a candy, representing sensuality as a taste that is constantly evolving. The way the colors fade into each other adds movement, as does the imagery of the forms as spinning wheels. Additionally, she highlights contrasts. Red #5 pins stability against entrancement—the forms are at once closed and dangerous, a recipe that lures the eye as would a poisonous flower. The opposite phenomenon occurs in Red #4, whose forms are bright in color, yet fragile in the nature of their frames. Most remarkably, Red #4’s defined sections of color trick the eye into seeing a white square in the center of the canvas. Chicago’s multi-layered forms raise questions related to viewers’ power over their optical illusions.

—Kristie Landing is the publications and marketing/communications intern at NMWA.