Progression of Art
Composed of three dome-like forms and using transparent material with spray-on plastic, this piece is rendered in the Minimalist style of Chicago's early work. Its use of repeated shapes and glossy, "industrial" media suggest the work of artists such as Donald Judd, though there is significant contrast to the hard, geometric forms of Judd and his contemporaries in the deployment of softer, rounded forms that suggest a kind of ambiguous femininity. Critic Susan Jenkins suggests that the work prefigures the "purely feminist idiom" that was to come: the three domes make up what came to be Chicago's signature stylistic motif, the triangle, closely associated with vaginal imagery in Chicago's oeuvre.
Sprayed acrylic lacquer inside clear acrylic - EDG, Exhibits Development Group
Through the Flower
Created by the artist after Chicago's decade-long "struggl[e]... in a male-dominated art community," Through the Flower marks the artist's newfound embrace of less abstract and more accessible imagery: the female sexual organ, depicted here as a round element or opening. The painting's "trippy" opticality relates at least in part to the artist's experience with mood-altering drugs. The subject matter is radical: genitals were always demurely concealed or merely suggested in the tradition of the female nude, yet here the vaginal opening constitutes the focus of the work. Through the Flower is one of the landmark pieces of Chicago's early feminist phase. It serves as the title and cover of the artist's 1975 autobiography as well as the name of the non-profit feminist art organization she founded in 1978.
Sprayed acrylic on canvas
The Dinner Party
The Dinner Party is a monumental installation celebrating forgotten achievements in female history. Chicago described it as, "as a reinterpretation of The Last Supper from the point of view of women, who, throughout history, have prepared the meals and set the table." The central form is a forty-eight-foot triangular table with symbolic places set for thirty-nine "guests of honor"—remarkable women from different stages in Western civilization. Each guest has her own runner, embroidered on one side with her name and on the other with imagery illustrating her achievement. Each place setting includes a glass plate, decorated with a butterfly or floral motif symbolizing the vulva. By incorporating elements of a contemporary social event with the status and appearance of a banquet, Chicago elevates her guests to the role of heroes, a traditionally male epithet. In essence, Chicago states, the work "takes us on a tour of Western civilization, a tour that bypasses what we have been taught to think of as the main road." The floor is inscribed with the names of 999 additional women worthy of recognition, while acknowledgment panels on the walls honor the 129 collaborators who worked with Chicago on the piece.
Regarded as an icon of 20th-century art, The Dinner Party is arguably the most significant and recognized piece of feminist art ever made, notable in its incorporation of collaborative working process, political symbolism, the sheer scale of the media response, and the unprecedented worldwide grassroots movement it prompted in reaction to the work's condemnation. The piece's lasting importance lies in its defiance of fine-art tradition by representing a feminine history suppressed by patriarchal society, as well as its celebration of the traditional "feminine" crafts: textile arts (weaving, embroidery, and sewing) and ceramic decoration. Featured in sixteen exhibitions in six different countries, The Dinner Party has been seen by millions of viewers.
Response to the work has been mixed. Many have praised the work, including art historian Susan Caldwell, who wrote that "it produces the sort of chill that comes only from beautiful works of strong conviction and conception." American curator and art critic Lucy Lippard said of the work, "My own initial experience was strongly emotional... The longer I spent with the piece, the more I became addicted to its intricate detail and hidden meanings". Some critics, however, hold negative opinions of the work, with American art critic Hilton Kramer calling the work "vulgar" and "crass", and artist Cornelia Parker stating "we're all reduced to vaginas, which is a bit depressing. It's almost like the biggest piece of victim art you've ever seen. And it takes up so much space! I quite like the idea of trying to fit it in some tiny bin – not a very feminist gesture but I don't think the piece is either." The work has also been criticized for having a racial bias. Writer Esther Allen notes that the work excludes Latin American women like Frida Kahlo, and author Alice Walker notes that Sojourner Truth's plate is the only one that has three faces instead of a vagina, possibly, she proposes, because "white women feminists, no less than white women generally, cannot imagine that black women have vaginas".
Ceramic, porcelain, textile, glass - Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum
Hatching the Universal Egg
After The Dinner Party, Chicago continued to address the underrepresentation of female experience, this time related to the lack of imagery in Western culture portraying the moment of birth. One of the images from Chicago's Birth Project, created between 1980 and 1985, Hatching the Universal Egg depicts a squatting woman giving birth to the egg of life, depicted in rich tones and a warm and translucent light flowing from her womb. The series was a major international collaboration, which involved working with 150 needleworkers to create a series of painted and embroidered images of birth, ranging from the humorous to the mythical. The Birth Project was another significant achievement by Chicago both in her campaign for the representation of womanhood and in the championing of a medium all but dismissed by the world of high art.
Embroidery on silk
Driving the World to Destruction
Part of Chicago's Powerplay, a five-year-long project that occupied the artist from 1982 to 1987, Driving the World to Destruction portrays an exaggeratedly muscular male figure grasping a steering wheel—here a symbol of uncontrolled patriarchal power. In this series of drawings, paintings, cast paper reliefs, and bronze works inspired by the artist's 1982 trip to Rome, Chicago upends the tradition of the heroic nude. Rather than glorifying her subjects, depicted with the heightened musculature of Renaissance-era nudes, she critiques them, portraying them as almost cartoonish in their quest for domination. Seemingly stripped of skin, the figures are also curiously vulnerable. As with this piece here, the work's titles often include wordplay; another image is titled Power Headache. Powerplay overlapped with The Birth Project, though it marks a shift in subject matter as Chicago moved away from the female body as the sole repository of emotion.
Acrylic and oil on Belgian linen - ACA Galleries est 1932
Imbalance of Power
Representing the "terrible imbalance of priorities in the world's treatment of children," Imbalance of Power includes a series of horrifying images, among them a Nazi soldier who appears to be pointing his gun at a Warsaw boy, depictions of starving children, and the famous photograph of a Vietnamese girl being burned by napalm. The work comes from The Holocaust Project: From Darkness to Light (1985–93), a multimedia installation composed of a tapestry, two stained-glass windows, and thirteen tableaux (including the work depicted here), incorporating elements of painting and photography in an innovative way. While exploring the manifestations of power in Powerplay, Chicago directly encountered issues surrounding the Holocaust, which highlighted her ignorance of her own Jewish heritage. As a result, Chicago, in collaboration with her husband, the photographer Donald Woodman, embarked on a major visual and intellectual research project into the history of the Holocaust. As in this piece, the project as a whole situates the Holocaust in the context of other historical catastrophes, such as the Native American genocide and the Vietnam War. The comparative approach to the subject—which some saw as diminishing the uniquely horrific nature of the Holocaust—made the work highly controversial in the Jewish community.
Sprayed acrylic, oil and photography on photolinen