Need To Know
Local Color: Judy Chicago in New Mexico 1984–2014
New Mexico Museum of Art. June 6–Oct. 12. Admission: $6 for residents; $9 for nonresidents. 107 W. Palace Ave., Santa Fe; (505) 476-5072;

A V-SHAPED TABLE SET for a celebratory feast, The Dinner Party, with its 39 porcelain plates, depicts florid, undulating butterfly and vulva symbols. Its lavish linens come with equally elaborate embroidery that stitched a total of 1,038 women’s names into art history. If The Dinner Party’s morning-glory colors and petticoat-wavy styling raise a metaphoric toast, it’s with a glass that has been emphatically lifted by tens of millions of people ever since the work’s debut in 1979. Since 2002, the piece has lived at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, where it accounts for a third of the museum’s traffic.

The artist who masterminded it, Judy Chicago, became a celebrity in one fell swoop. But the level of revilement from prominent critics came as a bit of a shock. “Mainly cliché…with the colors of a Taiwanese souvenir factory,” wrote Robert Hughes. Hilton Kramer called The Dinner Party “failed art…so mired in the pieties of a cause that it quite fails to capture any independent artistic life of its own.” As critics slammed its methods—handicrafts such as needlework and ceramics—their rage seemed equally directed toward its inherent politics.

It wasn’t the first time Chicago had stepped into the ring. She advanced the notion of her own toughness in a photograph promoting her exhibit at Cal State Fullerton. It shows her leaning against the ropes of a boxing ring, wearing satin shorts, boxing gloves, and a sweatshirt with her name emblazoned across her chest. In the history of Judy Chicago as icon, this portrait lives alongside another one that finds her perched at the edge of The Dinner Party table, dolled up in burgundy lipstick and sequined eyeglasses. Regard the two together and you’ll find that the images indeed speak: Not only has Judy Chicago fought her way out of corners and sailed her trimaran of a table over the high-art threshold, she also demanded the art world admit women.

Now 75, Chicago is still a fast-talking, fast-moving target. As always, she prefers high-tops to high heels, and revels in the fact that re-imagining history really can change it.

With the June 6 opening of Local Color: Judy Chicago in New Mexico 1984–2014, the New Mexico Museum of Art (NMMA) spotlights both the large and small creations that have marked Chicago’s 30 years of living and working in New Mexico. The Brooklyn Museum, in the exhibition Chicago in L.A., revisits her earlier, emergent years, which she spent in California doing things like setting off Roman candles and fireworks in public parks to experiment with “mixing colors” in the air.

These exhibits come on the heels of multiple London shows last year, and, between 2011and 2012, at least nine appearances of her work in the immense, multi-location Southern California art retrospective, Pacific Standard Time. “Pacific Standard Time blasted a hole in the notion that Judy Chicago is only about The Dinner Party,” Chicago said recently by phone. “Since then, there has been increasing interest in my work across my career. That’s been great.”

It’s also opened up an opportunity to focus on what she’s done here.

“Judy’s years in New Mexico give us some bookends to start looking at work that people probably haven’t seen,” says New Mexico Museum of Art curator Merry Scully.

Scully says her curatorial focus for Local Color was to show Chicago’s rangy use of media, from tapestry to glass to painting, as well as to include more personal objects such as watercolors of the Los Lunas hills, or glass seder plates that Chicago made when she was beginning to reclaim her Jewish faith.

“We not only wanted to bring peoples’ impressions of Judy up-to-date, we wanted to add things that wouldn’t necessarily be associated with her, to show a more personal side of the artist,” Scully says.

After she moved to New Mexico in the 1980s, Chicago turned toward deconstructions of masculinity. In 1982, she took a trip to Rome and saw in person the masterworks that she’d seen in art history books. “The Renaissance ushered in not only modern society, but also our concept of the heroic,” Chicago says.

Then she holed up in a friend’s Canyon Road studio, purposely isolating herself to make paintings that scared her. She grappled explicitly with everything those heroic-male poses really conveyed. The resulting body of work is called Powerplay, and selections from it will constitute the 1984 “bookend” of the NMMA show.

As fate would have it, not long after creating Powerplay, Chicago met and fell in love with photographer Donald Woodman, an original metrosexual who sported a manicure and pastel-colored eyeglass frames. They married in 1985 on New Year’s Eve. Since 1996, their home and work studios have been in the historic Belen Hotel, which they own. As they renovated the hotel, traveling between Albuquerque and Belén, Chicago captured the Los Lunas hills. To refine her technique, she enrolled anonymously in a community college class. They share the hotel with half a dozen cats. Over the years, Chicago has cast likenesses of these pets into colorful ceramics that will watch over the NMMA show like household deities.

Wherever light goes, heavy is sure to follow. This is true, says Scully, specifically in large-scale works such as the painting-photo combinations from The Holocaust Project and Nuclear Wasted that Chicago completed in collaboration with Woodman. Scully explains how important works such as Four Questions use a kind of accordion-like screen to juxtapose and examine pieces of international and New Mexico history.

Approached from one side, an image appears to be a documentary photograph of a World War II German soldier, or from the other side, a seemingly benign suburban fifties house. A picture of a man in a chef’s hat grilling outdoors shifts into a nuclear arsenal secreted in a mountainside. When the image is approached dead-on, it dissolves into visual nonsense. “Images blur and questions appear as metaphor for how blurry the answers are,” Chicago says.

More easily definable, embroidery and weaving selections from Resolutions: A Stitch in Time share evidence of how Chicago’s Belén studio became a place to gather large groups of needle-working women, such as the peers with whom she created The Dinner Party. They met in Belén to stitch work that combined traditional proverbs with multicultural imagery.

Uniting Judy Chicago’s exuberant oeuvre—“small-c” catholic in media and “big-A” activist in message—has “a humanist quality,” says Scully.

“It’s the opposite of a legacy show. It’s a ‘she’s alive’ show.” ✜