judy chicago living smoke

Smoke Signal

Through a feminist lens, artist Judy Chicago colors the landscape so that we might take care of it.

Steven Biller Arts & Entertainment, Current PSL

judy chicago living smoke

Smoke test for Living Smoke: A Tribute to The Living Desert, 2020
© JUDY CHICAGO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK; PHOTO © DONALD WOODMAN/ARS, NY

As the sun begins to set on the Santa Rosa Mountains on April 9, thick plumes of colorful smoke will come rushing through the foothills along the southeastern perimeter of The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens. They’ll form clouds that draw your attention to the environment — and hold it there, not only until the otherworldly vapors clear, but long after.

With Living Smoke: A Tribute to The Living Desert, one of 13 site-specific artworks in the Desert X exhibition continuing through May 16, artist Judy Chicago intends to honor both the zoo’s 50th anniversary and the desert’s natural wonders.

“I want to increase the awe of the environment,” says the octogenarian with purple hair and lipstick, “help people see the beauty of the natural environment — so they will care for it. The land teems with life, all kinds of living things and creatures.”

If sending smoke into the canyon seems antithetical to her message, Chicago points out that it’s a nontoxic product that she’ll launch far from where the animals roam.

The dramatic event marks the artist’s return to Palm Desert. In 1969, when Chicago was known as Judy Gerowitz and lived in Pasadena, she came to the desert to create one of her earliest smoke works, which joined fireworks and dry ice installations in her Atmospheres series. With these ethereal works, she sought to “feminize” the landscape at a time when men dominated land art with earth-moving muscle. Michael Heizer, for example, famously displaced 240,000 tons of rock in the Nevada desert, cutting trenches 50 feet deep and 30 feet wide, to create the 1,500-foot-long Double Negative.

judychicagoart

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY DESERT X
Pioneering feminist artist Judy Chicago, who created a smoke installation in Palm Desert in 1969, returns to the Coachella Valley in April for Desert X.

“I didn’t deliberately set out to challenge the land artists,” Chicago says. “I was just pursuing my own vision. Until Philipp Kaiser’s show [Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2012], nobody put my smoke pieces into the context of land art. Nobody understood what I was doing. Then, of course, there began to be discourse about my different approach.”

Likewise, Chicago never set out to challenge minimalism, light and space, finish fetish, or performance art. But she did. And while her diverse practice stretches into several genres, she is, first and foremost, a pioneer of feminist art — a sensibility that colors everything she creates.

judychicagograndflamingfist

Grand Flaming Fist, 2007
© JUDY CHICAGO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK; PHOTO © DONALD WOODMAN/ARS, NY

judychicagocarhood

Car Hood, 1964
© JUDY CHICAGO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK; PHOTO © DONALD WOODMAN/ARS, NY

JUDY CHICAGO WAS born Judith Sylvia Cohen in 1939 in Chicago to a labor organizer and Marxist father and medical secretary mother. She took to art as a young child and earned her master of fine arts degree from University of California, Los Angeles, in 1964, a year after her first husband, Jerry Gerowitz, died in a car accident. Devastated, the young artist persevered in her UCLA graduate program, creating Bigamy, a series of abstract works loosely depicting sexual organs, which she exhibited in 1965 at L.A.’s Rolf Nelson Gallery.

She began creating the Atmospheres works when she was living on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, where Rose Bowl festivities filled the streets with revelers on New Year’s Day. “Hundreds of people,” she recalls. “They brought TVs and little cookers, and basically camped out with their families on the night before the parade. One year, I think it was 1969, there were a lot of artists living in Pasadena, and we had a party. They all did performances and showed films on big screens, and I decided to fog the street.” Then, as darkness fell, she projected colors onto the fog and had an epiphany: She would work with colored smoke. “That related to my decision two years later to make a radical change [to my last name]. I was not going to try and be a guy. I was going to figure out how to be myself in my art.”

There was little to figure out. She was already making feminist art, even if unintentionally at first. In 1964, Chicago enrolled in an auto-body school to learn how to spray paint on metal. She applied the skill to colorfully lacquered paintings on car hoods that have a loose graphic kinship with her teacher Billy Al Bengston’s emblematic designs, but unapologetically feminist. In her 1975 book Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist, she describes Car Hood: “The vaginal form, penetrated by a phallic arrow, was mounted on a ‘masculine’ hood of a car.”

JudyChicagoRainbowPickett

Rainbow Pickett, 1965 (re-created 2004)
COLLECTION OF WALDMAN FAMILY CHARITABLE TRUST, MOUNTAIN CENTER, CA; © JUDY CHICAGO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK; PHOTO © DONALD WOODMAN/ARS, NY

Within a couple of years, she began introducing a “feminine” palette to minimalism with installations such as the 1965 Sunset Squares (four large-scale frame structures in pale greens and pinks), as well as the pastel-hued Rainbow Pickett, which was included in the seminal exhibition Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculpture at the Jewish Museum in New York and will appear in Judy Chicago: A Retrospective at the de Young Museum in San Francisco from Aug. 28 to January 9, 2022.

“I used to refer to Rainbow Pickett as ‘the piece that broke my heart,’” Chicago says. “In a way, what happened with Rainbow Pickett set the stage for my entire career, because when I did it, I was living in Pasadena, [and] the most important curator in Southern California was Walter Hopps [the late Ferus Gallery founder and director of the Pasadena Art Museum]. He used to go around to all the artists’ studios every month. Of course, I was the only woman artist in that group. When I finished Rainbow Pickett, Walter happened to come to the studio, and he literally refused to look at it. He walked over to a piece that he had seen 10 times by one of the male artists who I shared the studio with.

“Years later, I saw Walter in Washington, D.C. By then, I had published my first book, Through the Flower, where I tell the story, but I don’t name him. He had read it.” She remembers Hopps saying, “I know you hated me, Judy. But I was faced with a real dilemma around your work: What was I to make of the fact that you were making work that was stronger than the men’s?”

Indeed, critics were slow to warm to Chicago. Peter Plagens notably panned her “fruity” color choices for Rainbow Pickett as a distraction, for example. Unfazed, she continued to produce massive, glossy acrylic paintings such as Big Blue Pink in 1971.

She also expanded her Atmospheres series. In 1970, a few months after her solo exhibition closed at the Pasadena Art Museum, Chicago organized a pyrotechnic event there, lighting flares along the perimeter of the reflecting pool at the entrance. Around this time, fellow artists Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg were also organizing “happenings” to draw attention to particular places in Southern California. In Chicago’s case, Multi-Colored Atmosphere animated the new cultural institution, now the Norton Simon Museum.

JudyChicagoSunsetSquares

Sunset Squares, 1965 (re-created 2018)
© JUDY CHICAGO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK; PHOTO © DONALD WOODMAN/ARS, NY; COURTESY OF THE ARTIST; SALON 94, NEW YORK; AND JESSICA SILVERMAN GALLERY, SAN FRANCISCO

The same year, she took out an ad in Artforum announcing “Chicago” as her new identity and launched the country’s first feminist art program at Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresno). She and Miriam Shapiro started another program a year later at California Institute of the Arts, aka CalArts, in Valencia, and also organized feminist-themed installations and performances at the Womanhouse collaborative in Los Angeles.

She began including figures into her smoke works, such as the women in her Women and Smoke works from 1972. “I was doing research on women’s history and discovered that all early societies worshiped a female deity,” she says, “and so I was starting to do goddess imagery and empowerment imagery.”

Having found her voice, it wasn’t long before she pursued what would become her masterwork, The Dinner Party, an audacious monument to women’s history. Five years in the making (1974–’79), the installation consists of a 48-by-48-by-48-foot triangular table with 39 place settings. “They’re abstract portraits of women presented as table settings,” she explains, “to point out the way in which women’s achievements are ‘consumed.’” It took hundreds of volunteers to complete the sculptural objects, table runner needlework, and other facets of the project. The Dinner Party toured 16 cities and now resides in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

For the next decade, Chicago focused on three bodies of work. The Birth Project, which celebrates motherhood, was another five-year pursuit requiring about 150 volunteers to quilt, embroider, and macramé more than 80 panels. For PowerPlay, she created drawings, paintings, and sculpture skewering patriarchal hegemony.

JudyChicagoTheDinnerParty

The Dinner Party, 1974-1979
BROOKLYN MUSEUM, GIFT OF THE ELIZABETH A. SACKLER FOUNDATION, 2002.10; © JUDY CHICAGO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK; PHOTO © DONALD WOODMAN/ARS, NY

And she collaborated with her third husband, Donald Woodman, on The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light, an eight-year multimedia interrogation of power and genocide around the world. She followed the series with Resolutions: A Stitch in Time, a more prescriptive series of paintings and needlework encouraging inclusion. She titled her most current body of work The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction.

CHICAGO’S PARTICIPATION in Desert X traces to a collector’s purchase of the artist’s print archive spanning more than 50 years. Jordan D. Schnitzer, a part-time Indian Wells resident with namesake museums at the University of Oregon, Portland State University, and Washington State University, has amassed a collection of more than 19,000 prints and multiples by top contemporary artists that he loans for exhibition to museums throughout the United States.

“The bulk of my collection,” he says, “is a teaching collection that serves the public.”

Schnitzer’s first encounter with Chicago’s work was in 1979, when he saw the debut exhibition of The Dinner Party at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “It was a time of massive change,” he recalls. “Women were rising up. I tell people they need to go back in time and put in context what was going on, how different society was then, and the attitudes toward women. Judy Chicago’s work was revolutionary.

judychicagoartwork

Big Blue Pink, 1971
COLLECTION OF ART BRIDGES: CRYSTAL BRIDGES MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART; © JUDY CHICAGO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK; PHOTO © DONALD WOODMAN/ARS, NY

judychicagofeministart

What if Women Ruled the World? Banner, 2020

COLLECTION OF THE JORDAN SCHNITZER FAMILY FOUNDATION; © JUDY CHICAGO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK; PHOTO © DONALD WOODMAN/ARS, NY

JudyChicagoRainbowShabbatcenterpanel

Rainbow Shabbat, center panel, from the Holocaust Project, 1992
Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation; © JUDY CHICAGO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK; PHOTO © DONALD WOODMAN/ARS, NY

He purchased his first works by the artist a few years ago at the Art Palm Springs fair, but he “didn’t give them another thought,” he says, until art dealer Tonya Turner Carroll, who sold him the Chicago pieces, called him last July to gauge his interest in becoming the repository of the artist’s 120 prints, 10 of which he already owned. After seeing all the images, Schnitzer says, “I was blown away at how interesting, how technically complex, and how lovely they are.”

That month, Schnitzer attended Chicago’s 81st birthday party at her home and studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“I see this bigger-than-life person with a swath of white hair, and the rest is all purple,” he recalls, “She had sparkling eyes and was full of energy. We hit it off immediately.”

In addition to Chicago’s prints and multiples, Schnitzer acquired several original works, including early sculpture and 10 banners she created last year for her Dior collaboration called The Female Devine.

“I love Judy’s work,” Schnitzer says. “It grabs you, shakes you up, and forces you to think. She’s clever how she seduces you with these beautiful shapes and forms, and yet they’re very poignant, very strong, very themed, and very graphic.”

Schnitzer was unaware of Chicago’s smoke sculptures until he saw images of them among the prints. Although she stopped creating Atmospheres in 1974, her 2012 fireworks installation as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time exhibitions and performances, returned her to the landscape with an evolved sensitivity to the environment.

“I asked Judy if she was familiar with Desert X,” Schnitzer says, adding that she was interested in participating. “That’s when I called [Desert X founder] Susan Davis and started to put the pieces in place. And then we got others involved.”

Indeed, Chicago’s studio, Desert X, Nevada Museum of Art, and the nonprofit educational organization Think Together are partnering to livestream Living Smoke and develop an educational curriculum and activity book relating to the work. Schnitzer’s family foundation is underwriting the project in memory of his mother, Arlene, who was a gallerist, collector, and patron.

“Our goal, through live-stream documentation and social media,” Chicago says, “is to reach thousands of people — way more than can actually be on site.”

The Nevada museum’s Center for Art + Environment, which was, incidentally, founded in 2009 with a gift of materials on Michael Heizer’s land art projects, sold an Andy Warhol painting of the New York dealer Sidney Janis to raise the money to purchase Chicago’s Atmospheres archive. The bounty includes photographs, videos, maps, and other ephemera related to the artist’s smoke, fireworks, and dry ice works from late 1960s to today.



Download the App

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Judy Chicago introduced a mobile app that allows users to experience her smoke sculptures and activate and beautify their own surroundings in augmented reality.

In creating Judy Chicago Rainbow AR, the developers, Berlin-based Light Art Space foundation and design firm International Magic, asked the artist, “Is there something that can’t be experienced in real life that might be experienced in augmented reality?”

“I thought about it,” Chicago recalls, “and I said that being in the smoke is not available anymore as an experience. So, that became their goal: to create and app that would give you the sensation of actually being in the smoke. It was an amazing experience, giving them the pieces from which they made the app.”


“We realized this is a direct response to the tradition of land art dominated by white males,” says JoAnne Northrup, the museum’s chief curator. “She was doing these pieces at the same time the first-generation land artists were working, and her work had been completely overlooked.”

The museum debuts the collection with the exhibition Judy Chicago: Dry Ice, Smoke, and Fireworks Archive, Aug. 28–March 27, 2022. Meanwhile, Living Smoke, one of Chicago’s ever-larger installations, amplifies Chicago’s return and call to the landscape.

“I don’t think art alone can change the world,” she says. “I do think art can educate, inspire, and empower people to act.”

Watch the live stream of Living Smoke: A Tribute to The Living Desert on April 9 at desertx.org and chicagolivingart.org.

• READ NEXT: Meet the Artists of Desert X 2021.