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Judy Chicago – on teaching artists

— August 2011

Associated media

Judy Chicago, Grand Flaming Fist

Part 2 of Patricia Allmer’s interview with feminist artist Judy Chicago

Patricia asked Judy about her views on the way that art is taught nowadays.

PA: Pedagogy is a crucial part of the feminist project for you. In a conversation with Suzanne Lacy you referred to your pedagogy and your working method as ‘content based’: ‘find your content, then find your media which expresses that content, and if you need to, develop the skills to mistress that media’. What is the significance of progressing in this order?

JC: It’s completely contrary to university studio art education, which I’m very critical of and in fact I’ve slowly been working on a book about university studio curricula, because a key point is the fact that teaching no longer stresses skill. Students, as I understand it in America, have taken to organizing their own drawing classes because they don’t learn to draw any more in art school. In fact, I use a quote at the beginning of my book on the art curriculum from somebody who went through a very sophisticated art programme in southern California, and as he said he’s got an MFA in sculpture but he cannot weld, he cannot build, he cannot work in clay – he has no skills. He can talk about being an artist, he can talk about his ideas, he just can’t translate his ideas into physical form. That is the number one failing, the over-conceptualization that has taken over art training.

Art training is also inherently biased against women, because – I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of women, although this is a generalization – usually women are motivated by content, and since art school is focused on form, materials and concepts, it doesn’t address female students’ needs to learn how to translate their content into visual form. There are male art students, too, who have something to say that they get no help with.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have made visits to universities and done ‘crits’. For example, I went to Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, which is the only art school for women. The young women were just completely baffled by the fact that the first two years in their classes all they talked about was form and materials, and then when they got to be juniors they were suddenly supposed to have found their own voices, but they got no help in finding their voices.

There is this conceit among university professors that you can’t teach art, that you can’t teach somebody to be an artist. That may be true – maybe you can’t teach somebody to be an artist, but you can help people find their own voices, which is what I think art school ought to be focused on. It’s another reason a lot of kids get stranded when they get out of school, because they haven’t been helped to find their voice.

I think what is wrong with a lot of contemporary art is its lack of accessible content – there may be content there, but you can’t understand it. Because art school teaches you to talk in tongues, i.e. to make art that nobody can understand. I know what it’s like. I went through the same process, and I deliberately set out to decode my work, my imagery, so people can understand it. I wanted my art to communicate.

PA: Yes, your work is very clear on one level, and it’s extremely complex on another level...

JC: Right, the simplicity of the form belies the complexity of the meaning. And then there is the problem that critics don’t know how to read content in art. So, for example, when Roberta Smith from the New York Times said there is no such thing as feminist art, its because she doesn’t know how to read content. The only way she knows how to recognize a movement is stylistically and the feminist art movement is not one style. It is a multiplicity of styles, and feminist art can only be identified by its content.

PA: I can think of only a few artists who have worked so extensively across a whole range of media and techniques, including watercolour, embroidery, bronze, ceramics, china painting, pyrotechnics, spray paint, fireworks, dry ice, fibreglass, performance art, plastics, oils, tapestry, and glass – which you, in your current work, are staining, etching, fusing, casting and painting.

JC: I’m a content-driven artist. Different content is best expressed in different forms. I chose the different techniques for their expressive potentials, and I had a lot of different things to express. For me, art is a lot about discovery, so not only have I discovered the subjects that I’m interested in, I’ve discovered the techniques that seemed to be the most appropriate. For example, I’ve discovered china painting, and needlework.

There has been a lot of misunderstanding about my use of those techniques, as if I chose them only because of their association with women, which is actually not true. I understood that there was something sort of perfect about dealing with the subject of women’s history or the subject of birth through woman’s craft, but if those techniques did not have certain expressive potential, I would not have chosen them. Needlework was a complete discovery for me during The Dinner Party. It wasn’t just that I discovered the history of needlework and that there was this range of techniques, and I could also, in a way, deal with the history of women through the history of needlework, but I discovered that needlework provided an incredible visual language, and one with a lot of unexplored potential because it wasn’t taken seriously. It still isn’t taken seriously in high art.

I actually went back to china painting, working on porcelain in a number of my pieces. Now with glass I slowly started bringing back in techniques I’d used before, like bronze and porcelain. I’m also interested in painting on glass, too, which I discovered when I was working on The Dinner Party. A lot of the china painters were also painting on glass. That’s what art is for me – it’s discovery.

PA: I have always been fascinated by the surfaces of your works – ranging from the cool, smooth surfaces of the Acrylic Shapes (1967) to the tactile surfaces of textiles such as the embroidery on silk in the Birth Tear/Tear (1982). What is the significance of surface in your work, and how does it tie in with its politics?

JC: Dating back to when I was in college, I never liked oil painting, I never liked imposing paint on the surface, although I used oil paint in PowerPlay, my exploration of the construct of masculinity. But I always found myself drawn to techniques where there was a fusion of colour and surface, probably because of my discomfort with domination. Even the domination of the surface and the way ‘action painting’ [such as the work of Jackson Pollock], for example, was all about dominating the surface through the action of the male artist. I just never felt comfortable with that.  

I felt more comfortable with a gentler and more connected relationship to surface, and I think it was probably amplified by coming up through the Finish Fetish school in Los Angeles. I might often cite an essay by Laura Meyer in the Sexual Politics catalogue looking at The Dinner Party through the lens of Finish Fetish style because I think there was something really true about that [see our Background Info box]. I’m not sure it would have appealed to me so much except for the fact of spraying paint on the surface where the paint and the surface melt. There is no separation between the colour and the surface, like with glass where the colour again merges with the surface. So I think it has to do with the rejection of the politics of domination, and the embrace of the politics of connection.

PA: Colour is really important in your work and you’ve mentioned that one similarity between your and Kahlo’s work is the approach to colour.

JC: Until the book, I really thought we were miles apart, but think about Kahlo’s surfaces too. The paint is very thin on the surface – there isn’t a lot of build-up of paint on the surface. She painted with these tiny brushes and built up the colour. There is a relationship between her connection to surface and my own, although I never would have thought that there were so many connections between us before I did the book.

Her use of colour emotively is certainly another connection with my own. She attributed certain emotions to certain colours, so in one of her paintings she wanted an acid background colour so she used this really acid yellow. It gives you this bilious feeling, which must have been how she felt when she was painting it. It was about something that made her ill or uncomfortable. So yes, there is something to be said about our use of colour.

PA: Finally, what would you suggest a contemporary woman artist could learn from the work of Frida Kahlo?

JC: That there is no subject matter that is off bounds, and that unlike me, who thought that you had to work big to be powerful, Kahlo teaches us that even within a modest framework you can make startling and powerful images. I think this is an interesting lesson.

PAThank you for talking to Cassone


Patricia Allmer
Manchester Metropolitan University
Art historian

Media credit: Courtesy Judy Chicago

Background info

Laura Meyer’s essay, referred to by Judy Chicago in this interview, is ‘From Finish Fetish to Feminism: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in California Art History’. It is included in Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party in Feminist Art History, edited by Amelia Jones and published by the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Centre and University of California Press, 1996.
‘Finish Fetish’ was a term invented by critics on America’s west coast in the 1960s to refer to Minimalist works with very smooth – even polished – surfaces made from glass, plastic, resin or similar hyper-smooth surfaced material.

Editor's notes

The first part of this interview appears in our July issue. Click here!

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