In 1984, the artist Judy Chicago was at party where a poet read a piece about the Holocaust.
Though Chicago, by then the galvanic leader of the feminist art movement, openly identified as Jewish, it was not a conscious part of her art. But hearing that poem, she said recently from her home in New Mexico, made her stop. “All of a sudden, I said, ‘The Holocaust? I don’t know a damn thing about the Holocaust.’”
So began one of the most ambitious — and controversial — projects of Chicago’s career. She and her husband, the photographer Donald Woodman, spent eight years reading, traveling, listening and ultimately creating what is arguably the most extravagant art work about the Holocaust ever made. Then, in 1993, Chicago and Woodman premiered the finished work, titled “Holocaust Project: From Darkness to Light,” at the Spertus Museum in Chicago before showing it across the country for almost a decade.
The project, parts of which are included in three separate New York shows opening this fall, was an exhibit unto itself. Images of concentration camps taken by Woodman and painted over by Chicago, in pink, were meant to provoke. But other parts, like tapestries depicting Jewish women sewing yellow stars on coats, more delicately evinced Chicago’s feminist theme.
Some sections made analogies between the Holocaust and slavery, gas chambers and atomic bombs, Treblinka and animal rights. And the show ended with an enormous stained glass window with Asians, Muslims, Christians, Africans and Jews sharing a Sabbath meal, aptly titled “Rainbow Shabbat.”
“She’s really made a contribution in the way the topic is depicted,” said Jean Rosensaft, senior national director of public affairs at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The college’s museum will feature a piece from “Holocaust Project” in its upcoming exhibit, “A Stitch in Jewish Time: Provocative Textiles,” which opens Sept. 7. Gail Levin, an art historian and biographer of Chicago, made a similar point, adding that, “aside from the work’s artistic merit, the Holocaust Project broached a topic that had been all but ignored by artists before then.”
The slow embrace of “Holocaust Project” belies an uglier truth, however. While it was a popular success from its inception, drawing huge crowds wherever it went, the artistic establishment was far less enthused, sometimes even downright hostile. The Village Voice called it “a shockingly sentimental, badly executed spectacle.” The Boston Globe’s critic fumed that it was “repulsive,” “disgusting” and “not only a failure” but “superfluous.” Several Jewish museums, including Israel’s Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, reportedly refused to show it.
So what has happened since? For her part, Chicago, now 71, says that many of the taboos that the “Holocaust Project” appeared to break are now less fraught — or at least more commonly transgressed. It is no longer rare, for instance, to hear the Holocaust invoked in relation to other human tragedies or even animal rights.
Moral lessons, too, are part of many schools’ Holocaust curricula. Even the explicit stories of women seem to get told more often. “A lot of the questions we raised carefully have broken open,” Chicago said. “No matter how much Holocaust scholars try to get away from them, it’s happening.”
Of course time has also played its part. Chicago has emerged as a seminal figure in the history of contemporary art, with her groundbreaking work, “The Dinner Party” (1979), now a permanent anchor of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. New York art critics as well, once Chicago’s biggest foil, have also come around. Arthur Danto, writing in The Nation in 2002, admitted that after years of indifference to her work, much of Chicago’s work actually holds up quite well.
As for the “Holocaust Project” in particular, Danto argued that Chicago and Woodman should at least be given credit for earnestly grappling with a topic conspicuously absent from the modern art canon. “If future historians had only our high artistic culture as evidence for the history humanity had lived through” in the 20th century, he wrote, “it would be valid to infer that ours has been on the whole a golden age.”
Chicago says that the “Holocaust Project” was, for her, just the beginning of her own exploration of Jewish themes in her art. She has since made several explicitly Jewish works: a needlepoint-based painting called “Bury the Hatchet” (2000), featuring a Muslim, Jew and Christian literally throwing down an axe; a lithograph diptych with poetry from “Song of Songs,” made in 1999; and more recently, embroidered tallit bags, matzah covers and a commissioned seder plate she has yet to finish.
“I’m very excited about it,” Chicago says. “For me, Passover has tremendous meaning.” She interprets its message of “we were once slaves, and now we are free” to mean “Now we’re obliged to work for the freedom of others. That for me is the essence of Judaism.”
Chicago’s Jewish education did not exactly begin with the Holocaust. In fact, she was steeped in it since birth. Judith Sylvia Cohen — Chicago’s given name — was born to May Levinson and Arthur Cohen, both the children of Eastern European immigrants. Perhaps most significant, says Chicago, is her father’s rabbinic heritage: he came from a long line of rabbis descended from the 18th century Vilna Gaon, Lithuania’s once-revered chief rabbi.
But except for that fact, which Chicago says her father repeated frequently, his Jewish identity was far less secure than her own. “My father used to say Jewish food made him sick to his stomach.” She recounted a story her mother told her about how, when her mother first took her father to her parents’ home, Cohen barely hid his disgust with the traditional Jewish food they served.
Cohen, much like his contumacious daughter Judy, was the family rebel. He refused to go to yeshiva and instead “exchanged one orthodoxy for another — his father’s for Marxism,” writes Levin, a professor at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Levin’s 2007 book, “Becoming Judy Chicago: A Biography of the Artist” (Random House), was excerpted for a catalogue essay for a show on Chicago that year at the HUC Museum.
Cohen worked in the post office in the city of Chicago, but devoted most of his energy to worker’s rights and Communist Party activism during the 1930s. Chicago says now that despite his bitterness towards Judaism, the idea of tikkun olam suffused his life’s work. She remembers vividly, for instance, her father — who died when she was 13 — telling her that in the racially divided Chicago of her youth, “everybody looks the same with their pants down, sitting on a toilet.”
Still, it was her mother’s more anodyne affiliation to Judaism that cemented the artist’s own religious identity. After her father’s death, for instance, her mother often took her to the Jewish People’s Institute in Chicago, a secular Jewish community center where the young Judy Cohen first found her artistic voice.
But it was only decades later — after her early success in the Minimalist movement of the ‘60s, then her pioneering work as a feminist in the ‘70s and ’80s — that she understood the role her Jewish upbringing played in her art. “I saw retrospectively that how being raised with Jewish values influenced all my work,” she says now.
The retrospective appreciation, before her “Holocaust Project,” was not made explicit until very recently, though. In fact, it was not until the 2007 HUC Museum show “Judy Chicago: Jewish Identity,” co-curated by Laura Kruger and Gail Levin, that Chicago was forced to consider the ways in which Jewish ideas subconsciously suffused her entire oeuvre.
“Jewishness is part of her being,” said Kruger. “She’s not turning on a switch: now I’m making Jewish art, now I’m not.”
This sort of re-evaluation helps explain the two upcoming exhibits that will highlight pre-“Holocaust Project” works. The Jewish Museum’s group exhibit “Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism,” opening Sept. 12, includes an abstract Chicago painting from 1971, titled “Sky Flesh,” that has no explicit Jewish content. (The third New York City show, “Surveying Judy Chicago: 1970-2010,” opens at the ACA Galleries in Chelsea on Oct. 14.)
And one of the two Chicago works included in the HUC Museum’s “A Stitch In Jewish Time” show is only nominally about Judaism. Taken from her 1985 “Birth Project” series, the tapestry on view is inspired by the Genesis story of creation. But it is part of a larger project meant to place birth into a grand artistic work. “I’m showing it because it deals with a universal subject,” said Kruger, who is the curator of the exhibit. “But I think it is very Jewishly felt.”
Still, there is no getting around the “Holocaust Project.” And the HUC exhibit will also feature a tapestry from it. Though Chicago said passions have probably cooled since the project had its debut almost two decades ago, she believes too many artists are still unwilling to take on the issue.
But it is not a matter of artistic diffidence alone, she said, adding that the art critics have added little to the discourse too.
“There’s been an absence of standards for how to evaluate Holocaust art,” she says.
For the time being, she is willing to fill that gap. As she said: “Why should we think the Holocaust is unique? Look how much genocide still goes on. If there’s no lesson to take from the Holocaust, then why study it?”
Judy Chicago will be featured in the following two group exhibitions: “A Stitch in Jewish Time: Provocative Textiles,” opening on Sept. 7 at the Hebrew Union College Museum, One West Fourth St. (212) 828-2293; “Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism,” opening on Sept. 12 at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. (212) 423-3200. The third Chicago exhibit, “Surveying Judy Chicago: 1970-2010” opens on Oct. 14 and is a solo show at the ACA Galleries, 529 W. 20th St. (212) 206-8080.