On October 17, 80-year-old artist Judy Chicago launched a research portal preserving her archive of feminist art at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. The portal will serve to bridge collections of Chicago’s work located at Penn State University, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. , and Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library.
Some background: In an early work, “The Dinner Party,” now based at the Brooklyn Museum, Chicago resurrected renowned women of the past and gave them a seat at the formerly men’s-only table. In the “Birth Project,” pieces of which now belong to several permanent museum, university and college collections, she treated the topic of birth from all angles, analyzing and commenting on the process. She dealt with the deaths of her first husband and father, in “Bigamy Hood,” part of her “Car Hood” series.
In her latest project, “The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction,” on view until January 20, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., she has accepted the inevitability of her own death, using a new and unique artistic process to show what the gradual experience toward death is for her.
The exhibition begins with Chicago’s paintings on porcelain that she said stem from Elisabeth Kübler- Ross’s work on the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Chicago leads us to see her ultimate acceptance of her death, using her own body as the model for the paintings. The beauty of the panels keeps us from being repelled by the images of her naked, aged female figure, leaving us feeling slightly voyeuristic as the 12 x 16 inch panels demand close inspection.
Face and body sags with wrinkles. The bald head is common to older people but also to those who have experienced chemotherapy. In the “Acceptance” panel , her upstretched arms are not praying, but accepting her ultimate fate. “Bargaining” is strangely humorous, as the pose — one hand on a knee, the other raised — indicates the request for a deal, but as Chicago is not religious, arms are not raised to propose that deal to any authority. Chicago is bold, not relying on religion or myth to soothe her passage. Yet, the depiction of the stages of mourning ends with “Mortality Relief,” a bronze death mask of the artist surrounded by lilies, arms folded mummy-like across her breasts, like an Egyptian ready for the passage across the Nile to ultimate death of the body.
In her long career, Chicago has never followed society’s dictates. She has controlled who deserves to be included in the canon of great women artists; how the process of birth should be treated; how The Holocaust should be depicted, and now, how her own impending death should be illustrated.
However, not knowing how that might occur, in the next room, she lays out the possibilities in images and text of kilnfired paint on black glass. Made of an age-old fragile material, demanding a laborious process, the panels clearly depict the artist, identified by her profile or full face and red curly hair. Her black glass reliefs are small, exhibited in dim light in small rooms. The colored drawings on black, but for the fleshiness of the figure, seem like x-rays, addressing medicalization and technology prolonging the march toward death.