Judy Chicago

Was ‘pop art’ a term used by yourself or colleagues or was there a different terminology that referred to a new figurative art movement in the 1960s and early 1970s?

I was living in Los Angeles and in graduate school at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] in the early 1960s. The figurative art movement that was dominant in LA at that time was certainly not pop. Rather, it was a tradition that emanated from the artist Rico Lebrun, and the colour palette favoured tended towards earth colours. My own colour sense leaned towards the pastel, which was completely unacceptable there, but, coincidentally, probably smacked of pop although it was not deliberate. By 1964, when I got out of school, I was completely preoccupied with my struggle to make a place for myself in the decidedly macho environment in southern California, which involved – among other things – trying to fuse my naturally biomorphic, female-centred imagery (which my male painting teachers despised) with the abstract art language that was dominant, as exemplified by Billy Al Bengston and the ‘Ferus Boys’. 

Did you ever consider yourself (now or in the past) a pop artist?

No.

Did your work engage with current events in the 1960s and early 1970s?

I am not sure if this question refers to current art events or political events. I was trying to be taken seriously in the LA art scene, which was the stated goal of many of the artists working then, at least those who were part of the contemporary art scene. But my gender was seen by the men as a major obstacle who often told me that I couldn’t be a woman and an artist too. At the same time, because it was easy to get by on little money, I was able to work sixty hours a week in my studio which didn’t leave much time for politics. Besides, I wasn’t interested – until the end of the 1960s when the women’s movement began and the early radical literature made its way to the West coast. By then, I had experienced innumerable obstacles as a woman artist and read that literature with a desperate hunger, finding – for the first time – reinforcement for my own frustrations. At that time, I decided to change directions as an artist. Up till then, in an effort to be accepted, I had tried to excise any hint of gender from my work, moving away from the imagery in such early work as the Car Hoods towards more neutral forms. By 1970, I had decided to try to figure out how to fuse the transformed art language that I had developed in my first decade of professional practice with my own subject matter as a woman in order to create a female-centred or feminist art (a term that didn’t exist then). I suppose one could say that my art became my politics in that I decided to create art that openly challenged the patriarchal paradigm that prevailed.

How did you choose the subject matter for your work included in The World Goes Pop?

My early work featured the type of imagery exemplified by my Car Hoods. My 1964 graduate show included a series of large acrylic paintings on masonite respectively titled Flight, Bigamy and Birth. The imagery grew out of my experiences at the time. Flight featured an early version of the butterfly form that would become an important part of my later imagery, particularly in The Dinner Party. By the time I created these works, my first husband had been killed in an automobile accident and I was suffused in grief. My studio became my refuge and in this painting, my spirit - as expressed in the butterfly form - was trying to fly out of the constraints of the surface. In fact, in the painting, the bottom half of the painting protruded from the picture plane. Bigamy was more explicit in that it referred to the double loss of my husband and my father, who died when I was thirteen, leaving me with a deep reservoir of unexpressed grief. Birth referred to my unresolved conflicts at the time about having children (which I ultimately decided not to do because it would have interfered with my career goals).

These paintings horrified my painting instructors: ‘wombs and breasts’ they exclaimed, as if those body part references were the manifestation of something hideous. As a result, I eventually destroyed them even though after graduate school – when I attended automobile body school to learn to spray paint – I had transferred the images to car hoods (or bonnets). Many years later, in preparation for the Getty Center initiative, Pacific Standard Time (2011) I looked through my early work and discovered three unfinished hoods – Flight Hood, Bigamy Hood, Birth Hood  – and decided to complete them. Fortunately, I had slides of the original paintings and did colour studies based on those. When they were completed, I realised that there was nothing wrong with my early imagery; in fact, the hoods prefigured a good deal of my later work. Moreover, I was glad I brought those images back; otherwise, they might have languished in my slide files forever as testaments to the power of the male-dominated art world to silence the female voice. 

Where did you get your imagery from (what, if any, sources did you use)? 

Please see above.

Were you aware of pop art in other parts of the world?

I only knew what little work was exhibited on the West coast in the 1960s and I don’t remember being interested in it.

Was commercial art an influence on your work or the way in which it was made?

Not in terms of the imagery but obviously, going to auto body school could be said to be as close to commercial art as I ever got. I was the only woman among 250 men all of whom were preparing to work in commercial painting jobs. It was my first exposure to the idea that art making involved making objects, which was not stressed at all in art school; at that time, it was all about personal expression. In addition to a respect for the craft of making art, I learned other lessons at auto body school, the most important, something that my painting teacher told me (he was a show car painter). He said: ‘Judy, there is no such thing as perfection. There is only the illusion of perfection,’ words that profoundly shaped my art practice in which the simplicity of my images belie the complexity of my process.

Was there a feeling at the time that you doing something important and new, making a change…?

In the early 1960s, I was focused on trying to get out of graduate school which was difficult because of the attitudes towards my early imagery and also, the decidedly negative view of my colour sense. Then, throughout most of that decade, I was attempting to make a place for myself in the LA art scene which was incredibly inhospitable to women; in fact, I was one of the few women who was taken seriously and then only marginally because of my gender. When, at the end of the 1960s, I began to think about changing direction, I knew that I was about to commit myself to making a radical change, not only in my own work but also, hopefully, in the art world. I set out to create a feminist art practice in part by establishing the first feminist art program in the hopes that – by helping young women become professional artists without having to move away from their experiences as women – I could find my way back to my own natural impulses, which, as I’ve explained, I had been forced to suppress. As I wrote in the first volume of the journal I’ve been keeping since 1971: ‘I am beginning this journal now, because the work with which I am involved has developed faster than I had ever imagined it would, and before the moment is gone and forgotten, I want to begin to establish regular contact with the growth of the first feminist art ever attempted.’

Was there an audience for the work at the time – and if so what was their reaction to it?

As I mentioned, there was only hostility at the time though the Car Hood that eventually went to the Moderna Museet was bought out of one of my early shows at Rolf Nelson Gallery and then, fifty years later, put up for auction by the original owner. But there was no writing about it and until it was purchased by the museum, very little notice of it though it was included in a few exhibitions over the years. When I finished the other three hoods, there was an incredibly positive response when they were exhibited, particularly this year in New York which was deeply gratifying given the history of that imagery.

Looking back at these works, what you do think about them now?

I’m very glad I decided to bring new life to that early work. It taught me that one should always trust one’s own impulses as an artist, even in the face of rejection, ridicule or silence.

September 2015