A t one time I became interested in a certain sort of sentence that occurs very naturally in historical texts. Historians will say, for example, that the Thirty Years’ War began in 1618, or that Petrarch opened the Renaissance. I call these “narrative sentences,” since they serve to connect events into stories, and relate beginnings to endings. We use them all the time. A woman might say that she and her husband first met in 1980. What is interesting about these sentences is that nobody could have known they were true at the time to which they refer–nobody could have known in 1618 that the Thirty Years’ War had begun, since no one could have known that the war would last thirty years. No one could have known that Petrarch was opening the Renaissance, since most of the great writers and artists whose work defined that era were not even born yet. And who could really describe the man she just met as her husband–except as a romantic hope–since their marriage lay in the future? The future is something to which we are inherently blind. So although I can now say that Judy Chicago exhibited a piece in the famous “Primary Structures” exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966, I could not have known this then, since she was showing under her married name, Gerowitz, and was not to take the name “Chicago,” as a political act, for some years. Though art historians can say that one of the founders of the Feminist Art Movement was included in “Primary Structures,” that movement was not really to begin until after Gerowitz became Chicago.

One can see Chicago’s piece in one of the grainy black-and-white installation shots of “Primary Structures,” reproduced in an important book by James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties. The work consisted of six wooden planks in graduated lengths and graded colors–pastel green, pink, lemon and blue–leaning in an ordered sequence against the wall. It was called Rainbow Pickets, and it occupied the same gallery as a wall piece by Robert Smithson. Most of the advanced sculptors of the 1960s were in that show, including many who went on to achieve major reputations, like Donald Judd, Richard Artschwager, Anthony Caro, Carl Andre, Tony Smith, Dan Flavin, Ellsworth Kelly and Anne Truitt, as well as Judy Chicago herself. And of course several of the artists have been forgotten. Gerowitz, one might say, is forgotten–Chicago destroyed most of her Minimalist work. But no one who saw the show, myself included, would have been able to tell, in 1966, who would become what, and least of all that Judy Chicago would become the artist we know her as.

Chicago has written, “When I was a young artist in the burgeoning Los Angeles scene, I wanted, above all, to be taken seriously in an art world that had no conception of or room for feminine sensibility. In an effort to fit in, I accommodated my esthetic impulses to the prevailing modernist style.” Her inclusion in “Primary Structures” is evidence that she was taken seriously. One might have inferred a certain feminine sensibility from the colors of Rainbow Pickets, but at the time the use of such colors was attributed to the fact that she was a California artist. “The bright hues favored by the Los Angeles contingent,” Meyer writes, “were an antidote to the sober tones of New Yorkers.” But Richard Artschwager, a New Yorker, showed Pink Tablecloth–a geometrized effigy in pink Formica of a blocky table neatly covered with a piece of domestic linen–without anyone making an inference to femininity on his part, then or since.

Chicago remembers with some bitterness the difficulties she faced as a woman artist in California–how one of the leading male figures in the Los Angeles scene would not even look at Rainbow Pickets when he visited her studio, as if it were a cultural a priori that women were not capable of making serious art. Still, inclusion in “Primary Structures” could hardly have been a greater acknowledgment, whatever the gender of the artist. In an interview with Lucy Lippard, Chicago concedes that she did not appreciate what it meant to be in that show, which was just where the mainstream was at that moment of art history. “I should have gotten on the plane and gone to New York and gotten a gallery,” she remarks. One cannot but wonder what her career would have been had she done so. She might, like Truitt, have gone on to be part of the Minimalist movement, caught up in its controversies and triumphs. When I pointed out to her in a recent conversation that a lot of men have a hard time making it as artists, she admitted that she did have a tendency when younger to explain her difficulties through the fact that she was a woman. But she also wonders why it is that men or women should think themselves successful when they get a half-column review and maybe an illustration in some major art publication. When she was young she believed that art should change the world and that artists should not simply fit into the pre-existing structure of galleries, reviews, collections and the like.

This visionary, almost Ruskinian view, could hardly have been more out of phase with prevailing attitudes. Most theorists in the 1960s still framed their views in Marxist terms, and saw art as peripheral to the main causal energies of history, belonging to the “superstructure” rather than to the “base” of a society, fit only for the “arts and leisure” section of the newspaper rather than the front pages–unless it was creating scandals. Such is the irony of history that Chicago’s larger vision, together with her sense of having been discriminated against, explains the fact that instead of merely fitting in, she invented a whole new history, something entirely unexpected, in which she transformed resentments into a movement of art by, for and of women, and was carried into fame through historical urgencies themselves barely visible in the later 1960s.

Initially, this took the form of introducing a certain feminine content into her art. Perceiving a work under the perspective of gender is hardly as fraught with the kind of impediment that prevents us from seeing under future perspectives, but there are problems even so. We tend to look at things under prevailing aesthetic categories, whatever an artist’s intentions. A case in point is Chicago’s Pasadena Lifesavers-Red Series # 4 of 1969-70, which is an array of torus-like forms with octagonal outer and circular inner perimeters, each evenly divided into eight segments, painted in a spectrum of pastel tones. The circular openings were intended to be read as vaginal openings, but viewers might have been forgiven for seeing them instead in formalist terms, and simply as circles. For one thing, formalism was, and for a long time remained, the prescribed way of looking at art, especially art that, like Pasadena Lifesavers, seemed largely driven by abstractionist considerations. For another, viewers were unused to seeing sexual orifices represented in art, even when they were far less coded than mere circular openings. Hannah Wilke once exhibited foam-rubber sculptures that, hanging on gallery walls, could hardly have been mistaken for anything other than vaginal forms. Her dealer, Ronald Feldman, told me that the first person to purchase one of these works was Willem de Kooning, who felt that Wilke had succeeded in achieving Abstract Expressionism in a sculptural medium! And de Kooning certainly knew a thing or two about female anatomy.

Chicago was intent upon creating art from “the center of female experience,” which is her formulation of feminist art. But she explains that this did not necessarily mean “from the cunt.” After all, she was working out the elements of a feminist philosophy at the time. “I was never thinking about the cunt as only the vulva. I was thinking about the cunt in a metaphysical way…. Like what does it mean to be organized around a center core? How does that change your experience?… [Women are] used to the fact that their bodies are not a total boundary. That dramatically changes your relationship to the world, your relationship to other people…. Being female dramatically shapes and often limits their experience.” In any case, Chicago’s defining imperative has been to make feminine content central to her art. Feminist art is not a movement defined by a single style, as most movements have been, but by a philosophy of what it means to be in the world as a woman.

A handsomely installed survey of Judy Chicago’s work has just opened at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington (until January 5), and I was particularly eager to get a clearer sense of her achievement. Apart from The Dinner Party–which has just been acquired for the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum and is currently on view there–I had seen relatively little of her work other than through reproductions. The Dinner Party had considerable meaning for my overall conception of art when I first saw it in Brooklyn in 1980. For one thing, it meant a great deal to the feminists I knew at the time, for whom viewing it became a matter of pilgrimage. But I was also instructed by the rather fierce opposition the work generated in the critical establishment. It was a more commonplace response then than now to say of something that could not easily be thought of except as art, that it was not really art at all. I was working out my own philosophical views about art at the time, and it was clear to me that there were no criteria that could justifiably be appealed to for excluding as art something that embodied the kinds of meanings The Dinner Party carried. Needless to say, the interesting questions have less to do with its status as art than its standing in art, and it has become increasingly clear that it really is one of the major artistic monuments of the second half of the twentieth century. But my main interest in seeing the show in Washington was learning more about what led up to The Dinner Party, and what it led to in turn.

I was particularly interested in the pre-feminist phase of Chicago’s work, when she was struggling, as it were, to be one of the guys and at the same time to express herself as a woman, a conflict, if one wants to see it in those terms, embodied in Rainbow Pickets, in which the austerity of those wooden forms was tempered by the rainbow colors. My sense is that Minimalist criticism would have disdained decorativity as such, which Gerowitz, as she then was, took as a criticism of the fact that she was a woman. The conflict was only resolved when she broke through to her conception of feminist art, but it is interesting to experience the works where the two impulses exist side by side. At one point, Chicago decided to learn how to paint automobiles, by convention an entirely masculine skill–she was the only woman in a class of more than 200. There is a striking work of 1964 called Car Hood, which is exactly that–a symmetrical painting on a steel automobile hood, almost like a shield ornamented with symbols that evoke the Southwest–a band of ivory on either side, embellished with green undulating forms that resemble Brancusi’s Endless Column; and a brilliant red capelike shape, with what looks like an encircled Greek cross. The piece is vertically bisected by what can be read as a vaginal slit if one is so minded, but it may simply refer to the place where the two sides of the hood are hinged together.

Chicago’s mastery of the technique of lacquering, with its smooth gradations from light into dark tones, inflects all of her work. This essentially masculinist way of laying on pigment has entered her style, one might say, however distinctively feminist the iconography becomes. This is markedly the case in the stylized vaginalistic forms that culminate in Through the Flower of 1973. A circular opening in a square space is surrounded by a ring of delicate petal-like pink forms, each with white highlights that change smoothly into green shadows. The central core too is shaded to give the sense of a cool, sunlike disk with a scalloped rim. I suppose Through the Flower represents Everywoman, but pretty much the same impulse enters into the series of portraits of the “great ladies” who were to take their places at The Dinner Party: Queen Christina of Sweden consists of nested squares of yellow and blue, fibrillated with undulating rays from a central point; and Elizabeth, again a square space, in an intense, sunlike core, radiates outward through pinks to purples like an idealized sunrise. There is a very delicate piece called Butterfly Vagina Erotica of 1975, in which the petals of a vagina operate separately to grasp the head and trunk of a penis, like an animated flower. It is a quite beautiful image of sexual intimacy from an internal point of view.

I am somewhat less convinced by a later work, called The Powerplay Series, an effort to represent the male in the way Chicago would like men to be. For what it is worth, she had depicted women in terms of their genital identities, allegorically represented as flowers or sunbursts; this is true with the notorious plates in The Dinner Party, whereas men are shown more or less as whole humans, with faces and bodies, in no sense reduced to their sexual parts. They are shown as aggressive but also as vulnerable, chiefly through physiognomy. Physiognomy became a representational strategy in the seventeenth century, primarily as an aid to historical painting, regarded, in the hierarchies of the academy, as art’s most esteemed genre. It was important to show what the main players in historical events (mostly men) were feeling: triumph, anger, hatred, fear. The degree to which aggressiveness is somehow a male rather than a human attribute is open to question, but my concern is that aggression and vulnerability constitute too narrow a set of emotional modalities to capture the male psyche. And vulnerability is an insufficient adjunct to aggressivity to capture masculine identity, though it sometimes appears to be a genuine discovery on the part of women that men are open to as wide, if sometimes a different, range of feelings as they.

The same mode of using paint–thinly, in characteristic pastel tones, with smoothly rounded forms–is taken over in Chicago’s confrontation with the Holocaust, in a project that occupied her after The Dinner Party, from 1985-93. I have often been struck by the overall distance mainstream art, especially in America, put between itself and the historical reality of its time. Perhaps this distance was the only way art could deal with the main cultural product of the twentieth century, which was human suffering on the greatest scale in the whole of history–but if future historians had only our high artistic culture as evidence for the history humanity had lived through, it would be valid to infer that ours had been on the whole a golden age.

When Philip Guston gave up painting his beautiful abstractions at the time of the Vietnam War in favor of allegories of evil, there was a huge outcry against his work in the art world, even though it was largely allegorical and used the language of cartoons. The Holocaust Project was worked on too much later than the catastrophe it enshrines for anything like this to have happened to Chicago, and perhaps she would in any case have been perceived as too marginal to mainstream expression to have aroused much critical comment one way or another. There has been, to be sure, a certain diffidence in regard to addressing the Holocaust in art, apart from memorialization, unless the art was produced from within the experience by those who underwent it. There is in fact a whole body of literature addressed to the Holocaust and artistic representation, some of the best of it by the philosopher Berel Lang.

The Holocaust Project was a collaboration between Chicago and her husband, Donald Woodman, a photographer, and it uses images from the photographic record, together with the symbolistically painted representations, which have something of the quality of an Egyptian frieze. At the same time, there is the undeniable sight of naked figures being shoved into ovens or gas chambers, processed like animals through mechanized abattoirs. It is difficult not to avert one’s eyes–“Nobody knows what to do with content-based art,” as Chicago says. But “there’s no way to deal with art on the Holocaust without confronting the content.” There can be no ambiguity about the horror the images show, but the painting itself is schematized and cool. Ours remains an art world uneasy with content, and uncertain about how extreme content is to be addressed, in terms either of figuration or aesthetics. But there is no question that what Chicago and Woodman have attempted is continuous with the great project of much of Western art, which has taken on the responsibility of coming to terms with suffering and martyrdom. What they have achieved is decidedly uncomfortable, but it is true to that history of art and it is true to the history of humanity. The effort to bring these together is something that has to be saluted. Squeamishness is no basis for shunning the agony of inhumanity in one of its most flagrant modern exemplifications.