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60 years since the death of Frida Kahlo

— August 2014

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Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait, 1940. Oil on canvas

It is 60 years today since the death of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, one of the most important Latin American artists of the 20th century. In 2011 our contributor Patricia Allmer talked to US artist Judy Chicago about her book on Frida Kahlo. We republish that interview here.

Patricia began by asking Judy about her new book, co-written with art historian Frances Borzello, Frida Kahlo: Face to Face.

Patricia Allmer: How and why did the project Frida Kahlo: Face to Face start?

Judy Chicago: I didn’t initiate it and I probably never would have. I was invited to do the book by Christopher Lyon, who is the Head of the New York office of Prestel. Prestel wanted to do a Kahlo book and Chris had heard me speak in the early 1970s about my research on women artists, when I first discovered Kahlo – at a time when she wasn’t known at all except as Diego Rivera’s wife. Chris was a student in LA and happened to come to my talk – so it was quite serendipitous. He thought it would be interesting to have a different take on Kahlo. And I said when he contacted me that I would only do it if I could work with an art historian, specifically with Frances Borzello, because of her expertise in women’s self-portraiture and also her knowledge about women’s self- and still life painting, both areas that I wanted to look at in different ways in terms of Kahlo.

PA: One aspect of this different take is to distance yourself from Kahlo’s biography. You mention in the book that ‘there has been an unfortunate tendency by a number of art writers to strip women artists of their aesthetic agency’. Could you elaborate on this?

JC: There is a tendency to view women’s work in terms of their biography and particularly in relationship to either their male partners or male aesthetic history. Even though that may give some insights into their work it doesn’t treat them as autonomous creators, which is denying of their artistic agency.

PA: Yes, this is also often the case with women Surrealist artists.

JC: Right – what men do is important in the world while what women do is personal and thus not important.

PA: You and Frances Borzello emphasize the importance of assessing Kahlo’s complete body of work, something that, as you commented, rarely happens with women artists.

JC: I’m sensitive to that of course, because of my own experience and my knowledge of history – the example I always give is Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup – but you could use the same example with me. I have now almost five decades of production and yet people only look at my work in terms of The Dinner Party. Now I understand that that is not only an issue for women. There is a tendency in the art world in general to pigeon-hole artists through a small portion of their body of work, however it happens much more consistently to women. So there was a touring show that looked at the late work of Warhol, and of course we see endless shows about Picasso, and very consistently in contrast we see very small bodies of work by women artists.

PA: Another point you raise is that women artists are often viewed out of context, and not within a larger framework of women’s history.

JC: That’s based on the idea that there’s only one important history and that’s the history of art as male-centred art. And the thing that is frustrating about that is that actually The Dinner Party [the work that brought Chicago’s work to worldwide attention] established that what has been positive historically for men has not always been positive for women, hence for example the Renaissance when women, who had been educated in convents and monasteries, lost access to that education while men gained a broader education with the development of universities, which women were prohibited from. And of course only the upper classes had access to this kind of education. The Renaissance, which has always been represented as this incredible period of progress, was definitely progress for men, but stripped women of many opportunities for education. Likewise with the development of the guilds, there were only a few guilds that allowed women, and after a while they were not allowed at all. Not only The Dinner Party, but also historians who have been working on women’s history, have pretty well demonstrated that periods that had been good for men were not necessarily good for women, and so if you conflate history and you make all history the same for men and women, you actually obscure the situation and circumstances in which women had to function.

So, for example, take Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Well, imagine if a boy who was talented couldn’t get any art training, couldn’t get any commissions, couldn’t get any support, couldn’t get any patrons, and couldn’t get exhibited – how great was he going to be? The context of women’s history gives the answer to the question why there have been no great women artists, even though there were some women who were able to achieve in the face of all those restrictions.

By not allowing that history to come into the mainstream of our educational systems and art writing we make it impossible to view the achievements of women accurately. It’s frustrating; and it’s an institutional failure in the same way that it’s an institutional failure in the permanent collections of most major museums that there are only 3% to 5% women. That’s an institutional failure given how much work there is now by women that is of sufficient quality to be accepted into the institutions. And it’s an institutional failure of our universities not to have integrated that history into the mainstream of the curriculum and insisting instead that it be marginalised – in add-on courses, such as women and art, or women’s history, which are all treated as adjuncts to the ‘real’ history.

PA: In the book you have given some appalling contemporary statistics about women artists’ work represented in exhibitions, collections and publications – making it very clear that things have changed, but not that much.

JC: In the non-major institutions there has been more change – the statistics that I have been citing have to do with major museums; the MOMA, the National Gallery of Ottawa, the National Gallery in London, the great museums in Europe. The statistics there are dismal, and over four decades of feminism, almost nothing has changed. In permanent collections there’s only 3% to 5% women’s work. The other staggering figure has to do with publications on solo artists in art books – in the 1970s, 1.7% of art books were devoted to a single woman, and 40 years later, now, it’s 2.5%. Those are the ways, those are the avenues through which art history is controlled, not through the small community regional galleries, but through the major museums and major art publications. And it’s interesting – the Kahlo book has been completely ignored by the mainstream art press. There have been no reviews in the major art magazines. It’s a strategy for marginalising. So maybe at the same time, again, a lot of books can be sold, but unless there’s discourse it keeps the material and the ideas out of the mainstream.

PA: Where do you see parallels between Kahlo’s and your own work?

JC: When I started I didn’t see any. Her production is small, fewer than 200 paintings, and mine is prodigious. I, of course, wasn’t familiar with her full body of work when I started and so I also tended to think of her only in terms of self-portraiture and I sort of felt that it was somewhat narcissistic. It was only later when I got into understanding the breadth of her work and how many subjects she tackled, violence against women, birth, miscarriage, illness – subjects that had been outside the discourse. I think that is a parallel to my work in the sense that I also was attracted to subjects that were outside the discourse of art or marginalized, such as women’s history work, the holocaust, animals.

Also there’s the fact that Kahlo works in a non-art format, which is a retablo [a religious painting given to a church in thanks for divine favour]. Retablos are not considered mainstream art, unlike mural painting, which women were prohibited from in Mexico. Similarly, I worked with non-traditional materials like needlework, china painting, fireworks. In my first decade of art practice I worked with non-traditional materials but associated with male culture, fireworks, plastics, spray painting – nobody commented on that. It’s only when those were associated with women’s work and handiwork that everybody started commenting.

We were both influenced by our fathers, we had a similar interest in the emotive qualities of colour, we both lived with animals and were devoted to animals, and explored the relationship between human beings and animals in our works, so there ended up being more parallels than I had anticipated.

PA: The notion of skill is extremely important for you and in your work. This is also evident in Frida Kahlo: Face to Face where your observations often touch on Kahlo’s skills and training as an artist. Your collaborative projects such as The Dinner Party, the Holocaust Project, A Stitch in Time all emphasize the skills of your collaborators. At the same time, you visited auto-body workshops to learn the skill of spray painting, and you went into an apprenticeship with a maker of firework displays to learn how to orchestrate fireworks. What is the significance of skill for the woman artist?

JC:It’s very clear that the issue of skill has changed quite dramatically since I was young. When I saw Tracey Emin’s embroideries I was horrified by the lack of skill. However, I now understand that in a way that was part of the meaning of sloppiness – Tracey Emin as the original Slutwalker, sort of in your face, her lack of skill and lack of embarrassment, letting it all hang out right in your face.

I think it’s interesting to speculate what work is going to last in the long run – whether work that is not based on what we understand as traditional artists’ skills will in fact hold up.  It’s too soon to know that, but I think that certainly I was interested in tracing the development of Kahlo’s skills. As I say in the book, it is very unusual for an artist to achieve the level that Kahlo’s work has now been established, without art training, and without a comparable level of skill. Bruce Nauman once said to me, and he’s right, that when you’re young there’s a level of bravado in your work, you can get away with a lot, but as you get older and your ideas get more complex, without knowing how to draw and without skill it gets difficult to translate your ideas into visual form.

Donald [Woodman] and I went to see the van Eyck altarpiece in Belgium [the Ghent Altarpiece] and the level of skill was stunning – it was stunning to see an artist able to render accurately 126 different plants. Now I know that with the advent of technology and photography the whole issue around skills has come up for grabs. But for me, I came up in southern California where skill was a big issue. I was interested in car culture and of course in car culture skill is the making of the cars, the driving of the cars, the decorating of the cars – all require a high level of skill and I translated that into skill and into the craft in my own work. Also, I wanted the level of craft and the level of skill to be at the same level as the ideas, and so if the ideas were complex and important then I wanted this reflected in the physical objects.

Kahlo’s increasing skill to render her ideas and create symbols for her ideas is part of what we appreciate in her work; the tiny little brushstrokes, the careful creation of startling images is part of what conveys the notion that what she is painting is important because of the way she painted. Consider, for example, My Birth (1932) or the Two Fridas (1939) – would we appreciate those as much if they weren’t beautifully rendered? I doubt it actually. At the same time I understand that this is something that has changed with postmodernism. The whole attitude towards skill – the art world has changed – and whether that’s going to revert back after some period of time, I don’t know.

This interview first appeared in Cassone July 2011

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