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.