Becoming Judy Chicago by Gail Levin

becoming judy chicagoBecoming Judy Chicago by Gail Levin is a thorough look at the artist’s life and career to date. It begins like most comprehensive biographies with a chapter on her parents’ story and then continues, in detail, throughout Judy Chicago’s life. However, it is the in-depth coverage of Judy Chicago’s artistic process that most interested me.

Gail Levin has researched this book to the ends of the earth. I’ve seldom read a more thoroughly researched biography. Gail Levin has interviewed everyone involved in Judy Chicago’s life and work, whether they were ultimately for or against Chicago. She has also read all of the reviews, and I do mean all of them. Her bibliography is exhaustive.

All of this research has paid off handsomely. We are treated to an in-depth look at how Judy Chicago came up with her projects, predominately The Dinner Party, and at how Chicago’s ideas took shape through interaction with a large team of women and some men to produce one of the iconic artworks of the twentieth century.

CJ was fortunate enough to see The Dinner Party when it was shown at the SFMOMA and he remains impressed with it to this day. CJ usually cannot stand anything painted after Cezanne. I’m planning on taking it in at the Brooklyn Museum of Art next time we are in New York.

I was struck with how passionate the response was to The Dinner Party. According to Gail Levin, The Dinner Party made money for the exhibitors just about everywhere it was shown. CJ reports that he had to wait in line 90 minutes to see it. This was one of the shorter waits according to Levin. The people who saw it often reported it as a life-changing event. Many of the women who saw The Dinner Party went on to work with Judy Chicago on the Birth project and the Holocaust project.

The critics were just a passionate if not as appreciative. Gail Levin quotes many of them in Becoming Judy Chicago. Their reaction is so vitriolic that the reader can’t help but wonder why? Twenty years after its first viewing The Dinner Party can still provoke a strong reaction, but the critics Levin quotes react like Chicago was trying to bring about the downfall of mankind. I found this part of the book to be the most interesting. It very clearly illustrates the sexist bias in the art world that existed as late as the 1980’s and continues to largely influence the art market today.

I do not believe this book is for everyone. Gail Levin does keep the pace moving and Chicago’s life is interesting enough to make the reader want to know more. But the book is an exhaustive biography, nothing is left out. This usually makes for a bit of a long read in my experience. Be willing to skip some parts to get to the stuff you really enjoy is my advice. There is a great deal in Becoming Judy Chicago that the reader will find enlightening and rewarding.

This review looks very amateurish to me now, almost a little embarrassing.  It first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. which I’m migrating to this new site.  I plan on migrating post which I think are good (this one isn’t that good) and posts about books I think more people should read (more people should read Becoming Judy Chicago–it’s terrific.)

2 thoughts on “Becoming Judy Chicago by Gail Levin

  1. I clearly remember my mother pining to see The a Dinner Party. Surely it must’ve come to Chicago?! On the other hand, my mother would have been one to go anywhere for the chance to see Art.

    I was of the opinion then, a child or young adolescent, that Art was brushes and paint and canvases. Flat canvases. I’ll always attribute Judy Chicago for expanding my extremely narrow point of view.

    1. Reading the book expanded my view of what is art, too. I’ve seen very little of her work in person, but someday, I will go to Brooklyn and see The Dinner Party in person.

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