Chicago keynotes Jewish Women’s Conference


Judy Chicago, the internationally acclaimed feminist Jewish artist shared her journey which led her to embrace her Jewishness along with her feminism and to express both in her work, in her keynote address to the Kol Nashim/All Women Jewish Celebration of the Arts and Learning Shabbaton, sponsored by Nishmah and the Jewish Community Center, which was attended by over 250 participants last weekend at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Clayton.

“Artist, Woman, Jew” was the title of Chicago’s keynote address, in which she traced, in words and pictures, her journey from her birth as Judith Sylvia Cohen in July 1939, her early interest in art and literature which was encouraged by her parents, Arthur and May Levinson Cohen, and her early struggles to express herself as a woman in her art projects. While Chicago established her international reputation for her “signature piece,” called “The Dinner Party,” which depicts famous women in history, the Bible and literature, she later came to both embrace and express her Jewishness in her work, especially “The Holocaust Project,” on which she collaborated after eight years of preparation and work, with her husband, photographer Donald Wildman.

Chicago pointed out that her father, the late Arthur Cohen, a labor organizer, had been descended from 23 generations of rabbis, including the famous Vilna Gaon, regarded as one of the most brilliant Bible scholars of all time, said to have memorized the entire Hebrew Bible “forwards and backwards.” Chicago said, “My father broke with that long rabbinic tradition by refusing to go to religious school as a child. However, I believe his choice to become a labor organizer is consistent with his Jewish values, since a rabbi told me that Moses himself was perhaps the first labor organizer among the Israelites.”

The artist, who took on the name of her native city as her professional name, started her presentation with slides of two of her early works dealing with her Jewishness. The first was titled, “Thinking about being Jewish, oy vay,” showing a woman’s face looking distressed, and to its right was a drawing called “Everyone Was Going to Know Who She Really Was,” which is a self-portrait drawing, showing one of her limbs labeled “woman” and another labeled “Jew.” The latter drawing was done just before her “Holocaust Project” had its first display at the Spertus Museum in her native Chicago. Chicago’s artistically expressed anxiety was eased after the exhibit was well-received.

While the eight years she and her husband, photographer Donald Wildman spent on “The Holocaust Project” deepened Chicago’s roots, she believes “I was also dealing with my Jewishness in such works as ‘The Dinner Party,’ on which I worked from 1974-1979. This large multi-media presentation had as its goal to deal with the erasure of women from not only the artistic world, but also from much of history. The large triangular table is 48 feet on a side, and has been described as the Last Supper from the point of view of those who cooked the food.”

Chicago pointed out that there were a number of Jewish figures depicted among the 39 women on the place settings on the table, including Miriam and Judith, and among the 999 names of women on the floor of the installation are famous Jewish women.

During the eight years Chicago and Wildman spent preparing for “The Holocaust Project,” Chicago said she discovered parallels between the “erasure” of women from much of the art world and general history, and the “erasure” of much of the women’s Holocaust experiences from most of the Holocaust museum depictions of the Holocaust. In one of her slides, Chicago is shown among gravestones from the Treblinka concentration camp. “Most of the names were no longer visible on the stones,” Chicago said. “So Donald took a photograph of the graveyard, and I put the names on the stones to reverse the erasure.”

Chicago pointed out that in H.W. and Anthony Janson’s book, History of Art, “The Dinner Party” is described as perhaps the first post-modernist installation.

“In the modernist era, artistic works were almost always strictly limited to art for art’s sake, as opposed to art that makes a statement leading to change or transformation” Chicago said. “Works like ‘The Dinner Party’ seek to inspire change in people and society at large, so that’s what makes this work post-modern.”

“The Dinner Party” is now housed permanently in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, thanks to a generous gift by an admirer of Chicago’s work.

The Kol Nashim/All Women Jewish Celebration of the Arts featured workshops, discussion groups and study sessions on a wide range of topics, including literature, the arts and philanthropy. Among the speakers was Marge Piercy, the acclaimed poet and novelist who first gained recognition as primarily a feminist writer, but who later embraced her Jewishness in her work. Ronit Sherwin of Nishmah and Sara Winkelman of the JCC staffed and coordinated the weekend.

Published March 12, 2008