5 Fast Facts: Judy Chicago

A portrait of Judy Chicago in 2019; the artist is wearing a blue sequined shirt and jeans, purple short hair, and has her hands on her hips, the background is a tree.

Judy Chicago in 2019; Photo by Donald Woodman

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Judy Chicago (b. 1939), who will celebrate her 80th birthday on July 20. Chicago’s newest body of work, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, will debut at NMWA on September 19 and run through January 20, 2020.

 What’s in a Name?

In 1970, Chicago changed her last name to identify herself as an independent woman, rather than one defined by her father (she was born Judy Cohen) or husband (she took the name Gerowitz on marriage, then was widowed at a young age). Her new moniker was originally a nickname she earned for her strong accent.

Ladies First

Chicago developed the Feminist Art Program at California State University at Fresno in 1970—it was the first program of its kind in the United States. After she and Miriam Schapiro (1923–2015) moved the program to the California Institute of the Arts, they led 21 students in developing Womanhouse (1971).

Her Story

Under Chicago’s direction, more than 400 people contributed to The Dinner Party (1974–9). The final installation features a triangular dining table, 39 place settings representing extraordinary historical women, and an additional 999 named on the Heritage Floor.

In this black and white photo, Judy Chicago addresses a gathering of volunteers in the Dinner Party studio, ca. 1978.

Judy Chicago addresses a gathering of volunteers in The Dinner Party studio, ca. 1978; Photograph by Amy Meadow; Judy Chicago Visual Archive, Betty Boyd Dettre Library & Research Center, National Museum of Women in the Arts

Cat Lady

For four and a half years, Chicago researched the history, physiology, and psychology of cats while rendering her own family of felines in watercolor. In Kitty City: A Feline Book of Hours, Chicago’s illustrations portray each hour of a day and are interspersed with “Feline Facts.”

In Her Own Words

Interested in more than five facts? Chicago is also the author of several books, including two autobiographies: Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist and Beyond the Flower: The Autobiography of a Feminist Artist.

—Ashley Harris is the associate educator 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


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.