Judy Chicago isn’t a great one for false modesty – or modesty of any kind, come to that. When she talks about her work, words such as “monumental” and “major” fall quickly and easily from her lips. As a young woman, she says, she wanted not only to paint and draw, but to “set her sights on history” – her aim was to bag herself a place in the canon. As for her elaborate 1979 megasculpture The Dinner Party, a provocatively feminist work which celebrates the lives and work of 1,038 notable women, you can forget what the critics say (the late Robert Hughes called it: “Mainly cliché… with the colours of a Taiwanese souvenir factory”; Hilton Kramer of the New York Times called it: “Very bad art… failed art… art so mired in the pieties of a cause that it quite fails to capture any independent artistic life of its own”). They’re just plain wrong. “I’ve watched it change people’s lives,” says Chicago. “And the fact that the Elizabeth A Sackler Center [for Feminist Art, where The Dinner Party is permanently housed] accounts for a third of all the traffic to the Brooklyn Museum is testament to the importance of it.”
To be fair, this is what a life spent working with your back against the wall does for a girl: either you crumple and disappear, or you develop a Teflon exterior, a shiny veneer of undentable confidence. Chicago is 72. She began her career in the 60s, long before political correctness and women’s studies classes were invented, and her “dinosaur” professors at the University of California, Los Angeles, pretty much hated what she was doing right from the start.
Her early working life was lonely and she was mostly broke. “I didn’t make myself an outsider,” she says. “The art world made me an outsider. Of course, isolation is essential to the creative act. You have to be with yourself, with your ideas. Virginia Woolf talked about it as fishing: you sit on the shore, you drop your line, and you wait for the fish to jump. But I also had to protect myself from the craziness, all the antagonism, around me. It was difficult. I’m not going to say it was anything else. Not everybody could have managed it.”
What did she sacrifice along the way? “Children. There was no way on this earth I could have had children and the career I’ve had. But you know what? I don’t care how much I had to give up. This was what I wanted. You have to make choices. You can’t have everything in life.”
Chicago is speaking to me from her home in New Mexico – a historic railroad hotel that looks like it has come straight out of an old western – and the delay on the line is contriving to make our conversation sound even more earnest than it would be if she was sitting opposite me. A portentous pause precedes her answers; jokey comments (on my part) are out of the question, being more likely to misfire than cheap Catherine wheels.
We’re talking ahead of what you might call her British moment. Next month will see no fewer than three shows of her work in the UK. The biggest of these will be at the Ben Uri Gallery in north London – better known as the London Jewish Museum of Art – which will house the first British museum survey of her work, featuring pieces from Chicago’s personal archive as well as loans from public collections in the US. Meanwhile, there will be two smaller shows at Riflemaker in Soho (Deflowered, an exhibition of early work including Birth Hood, Flight Hood and Bigamy Hood – depictions of male and female genitalia sprayed in automotive lacquer on to a car hood) and The Black-E in Liverpool (Voices from the Song of Songs, a series of paired prints).
Is she thrilled by this interest? Yes, in her own somewhat cool way. “One of my goals since the permanent housing of The Dinner Party in 2007 has been to develop an awareness that it is only one piece in a really large body of work. In the UK there’s not a lot of understanding of my work, except for The Dinner Party.”
This is certainly true. But with Chicago, all roads lead inevitably to The Dinner Party, the monumental installation she created between 1974 and 1979, with the help of numerous volunteers and at a cost of about $250,000. This is what she will be remembered for, and she knows it. The piece consists of a triangular table, 48ft long at each side (the triangle is a symbol of equality). The table is laid with 39 place settings, each one designed to reflect the accomplishments of the woman whose name is embroidered on the runner beside it – among the women included are Hildegard of Bingen, Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf. Beneath the table is a “heritage floor”, the names of a further 999 women (Catherine of Aragon, Colette, Clytemnestra) inscribed on its tiles. It sounds uncontroversial, celebrating, as it does, the history of women through applied arts such as embroidery and china painting. But then you look at the plates. Each one is decorated with a symbol that resembles a vulva. Depending on your point of view, this is either reductive, vulgar and semi-pornographic, or it’s celebratory, taboo-breaking and bracingly political.
Is Chicago tired of talking about it? Not at all. Her abiding relationship with The Dinner Party is, for her, simply another aspect of its legacy. “It’s unusual for an artist to stay involved with a work after they’ve finished it for as long as I did. It took 26 years to find a permanent home for it, but unless that happened, it was in danger of repeating the story it recounted– by which I mean the repeated erasure of women from history. I was not released from the piece until it was housed.”
And since it went to Brooklyn, have attitudes to it softened? In 1979 some galleries refused to show it at all. “Well, it doesn’t have the charge it had for the dinosaur critics of my generation,” she says. “The Dinner Party marks the moment when history changed, and we reclaimed the right to deal with our own subject matter, in our own way – and young people take all that for granted.”
This doesn’t mean its work is done. “I read Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman,” says Chicago, her twangy voice rising indignantly. “There’s a chapter where she says: let’s admit it, girls, for the last 100,000 years women have basically done fuck all. I’m like: excuse me? She’s a smart girl and yet so ignorant. So, yes, there’s been change, and no, there hasn’t been change.”
Art-world statistics, in particular, still make for depressing reading. Work by women artists comprises just 3-5% of major permanent collections in the US and Europe. “It’s alarming. In our institutions, women are still an add-on to a male-centred curriculum,” she says.
Chicago was born Judith Cohen in – you guessed it – Chicago (she changed her name in the 60s by way of a feminist statement, though it was galling to discover that she required her husband’s signature for this to be legal). Her father, Arthur, worked nights at the post office; her mother, May, was a secretary. Arthur was active in the Communist party, and in the 50s found himself a victim of McCarthyism.
“Starting out, several things sustained me. One was my burning desire to make art. Another was when I realised what women before me had gone through in order for me to have the opportunities that I had. When I felt rejected, I thought about Elizabeth Blackwell [the first woman in the US to receive a medical degree]. At medical school, no one spoke to her for two years. Women used to spit on her in the street. I thought: if she can do it, I can. But the most important thing was the family. I had a wonderful father, with wonderful values. He believed it was possible to change the world. Yet at school, children’s newspapers portrayed people like him as evil. There was a contradiction between my experience and what the world was saying, and I had to learn to trust my experience.”
At three, she began to draw. At five, she started attending classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. She studied for her degree at UCLA, but it wasn’t until graduate school that the themes that have dominated her work since began to emerge. Her professors were dismayed-bordering-on-horrified by works such as Bigamy, in which an abstract penis was “stopped in flight” before it could unite with its vaginal equivalent (this work connected to the death of her first husband, who had died in a car crash).
Chicago, though, was not to be put off. She did exactly what she wanted to do. Her career is categorised not only by its content, but by the way she jumps from medium to medium (she went to car-body school to learn how to use an airbrush; more recently she has worked in glass). “I’m not like most artists,” she says. “I’m not career driven. Damien Hirst’s dots sold, so he made thousands of dots. I would, like, never do that! It wouldn’t even occur to me.” Nor would it occur to her to minimise the importance of those who help her in the studio. “The difference between me and other artists is that I acknowledge the people who work with me. Henry Moore had hundreds of ‘assistants’. But they were really collaborators. They brought their skills and knowledge, but when he was interviewed, he made them leave while he jumped in front of the best sculpture in the room. It’s a whole unexamined area of the art world, this hidden collaboration.”
Before we hang up, I must ask: has she read Vagina, Naomi Wolf’s new book? “Yeah, I’ve read it. The reviews were so vitriolic, I wondered: what in God’s name did she say that set off such a firestorm? It was exactly the same kind of vitriol that met The Dinner Party.”
And what did she think? “It could have been an important book. Some of the issues she raises about how women view their bodies are important, and some of the fury about that comes out of shame. But it’s not an important book because she completely avoided the subject of genital mutilation.”
Is she likely to return to the subject of the vagina herself? “Probably not. I say this all the time. When I was young in the 70s, we cast the dialogue entirely around gender. We assumed all women were our friends and all men were our enemies. That was a completely erroneous assumption. It has to do with values, not gender. Some of the best feminists are men. Gender is part of a larger structure of oppression and injustice.” A dry laugh. “I guess you could say that my eyes were lifted from my vagina.”
Judy Chicago is at the Ben Uri Gallery (benuri.org.uk) in London from 14 November 2012 to 10 March 2013; at the Riflemaker in Soho (riflemaker.org) from 13 November to 22 December; and at Liverpool’s The Black-E (theblack-e.co.uk) from 8-30 November
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