The Orgasmic Capacity of Color: Judy Chicago’s Los Angeles

Judy Chicago, "Women with Orange Flares," 1972.

Throughout this period I was also discovering that I was multi-orgasmic … I was developing color systems which made forms turn, dissolve, open, close, vibrate, gesture, wiggle; all those sensations were emotional and body sensations translated into form and color.

  • Judy Chicago to Lucy Lippard, Artforum, September 1974

    Sour strawberry, orange sherbet, and mango lassi hued angles stand in a trio of sharp splits, ascending in a stepped-back formation. Ice-creamy and angular, more dayglo geometry than corporeal, in Trinity (1965/2019), these sly allusions still surely find a body. Just a shimmy away leaning against the wall with a certain audacious poise, the six chunky stripes of pastel in Rainbow Pickett (1965/2004) run a soft spectrum from orange peel through dusty lavender to seafoam green. In Judy Chicago: Los Angeles on view at Deitch Projects, color finds a form, and later breaks it.

    Color evolves throughout the work of Chicago’s time in Los Angeles, with the exhibition on view here spanning the formative years of 1965-72. Beginning in hard stripes and gleaming surfaces, color turns subtly into optical game boards and sprays bigamous patterns across car hoods; it ombrés in sacred geometries and smokes plush hues over unscarred landscapes. Her colors “turn, dissolve, open, close, vibrate, gesture, wiggle.” Here emerges an artist making serious work from the start, but more than that, you see containers – like Minimalism, like patriarchy – fall away. And in a puff of smoke, a flash of fireworks, and a dinner party set only for women, Judy Chicago shattered hard edges into unruly bodies of ecstatic color, or, as she put in a recent interview, “the orgasmic capacity of color.”

    Judy Chicago, “Flesh Fan,” 1971. Courtesy of Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles. Photo by Elon Schoenholz.

    When Chicago first emerged in the early ‘60s, Minimalist sculptors from coast to coast stacked bricks, boxed plywood, and bent metal shapes to break abstraction into the third dimension. In California, the local branch of this reductive movement sunburst with slick energy and shiny chromatics. The boys of the LA gang, like Billy Al Bengston and Larry Bell, talked about hot-rods and surfboards and the special sheen of light, that clear bruised honey of sunset Los Angeles. Among the spare few women in that crew was Chicago. The chromatic geometries of Rainbow Pickett beamed its rainbow in the landmark exhibition that launched Minimalism into the world: Primary Structures at The Jewish Museum in 1966. Amongst its 43 artists were Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Sol Lewitt, Robert Smithson, Anthony Caro, Elsworth Kelly, and only three women, including our artist, known at the time as Judy Cohen Gerowitz.

    Widowed by a car crash at the age of 23, Chicago graduated with an MFA from UCLA the following year, in 1964. She then extended her education to a school for autobody painting (the only woman in a class of 250), later figuring out how to mold fiberglass and spark pyrotechnics. “Throughout this period I was also discovering that I was multiorgasmic,” she told Lucy Lippard in Artforum. And by 1970, she didn’t want the freight of being Judy Cohen Gerowitz any longer. Judy Chicago was born.

    In 1971 Chicago began the first feminist program at Fresno State. A year later she returned to Southern California, bringing the Feminist Art Program to CalArts, then opening Womanhouse and the Feminist Studio Workshop and the Women’s Building with a growing wave of collaborators. In her Santa Monica studio in 1974 she started to work on what became one of the most iconic pieces of the 20th century: The Dinner Party, which debuted at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1979. With Chicago leading the charge, feminists blew a giant hole in the patriarchy and art would never be the same.

    Back in the early ‘60s, the derision of her instructors shamed Chicago into putting her colors away, pushing the bright hues and feminine imagery underground. In her Hoods series on view, here – Bigamy, Flight, and Birth – the candy gloss and spray lacquer of macho hot-rod culture paints the muscle car metal with an interrupted penis, a splayed butterfly, and bouquets of vaginas in full bloom. Though they were first conceived in 1965, Chicago destroyed them at the time out of embarrassment and they were not realized again until 2011. While refining her voice amidst a cacophony of men, for a few years Chicago lost her color. The clear acrylic gameboard on mirror with a white frame of 3.5.5 Acrylic Shapes (1967) looks pointedly sapped of the vivacious chroma the artist painted on the destroyed Hoods. And in the subsequent similar pieces of tabletop sculptures in her Dome series, color only whispers beneath the trio of hard hemispheres within each piece in the series (six on view here from 1968). A slant shadow, a rising sun: Chicago’s color grew stronger and bolder. It began with a leak, and followed with a flood as Judy found her new name, rediscovered her body, and reasserted the spectral intensity of female pleasure.

    Judy Chicago, “Birth Hood,” 1965/2011. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York.

    The forceful erotic potential of the series Pasadena Lifesavers (1969-70), each with its quartet of segmented polychrome rings, hangs not far from the loose prismatic geometry of her Fans (here in prisma-color studies and sprayed lacquer on acrylic from 1970-71), which reveal an opening up, a release like a supple wrist slowly opening its hand. Both have ombré in their chromatic fades, as does the back wall of the gallery, where deep vivid blue fades into rich red and sunbright yellow, in scenographic splendor. And once released, the orgasmic force of Chicago’s colors couldn’t be contained in just sculptures and paintings.

    Whilst many of the men in Land Art were gutting and carving the earth for aesthetic purposes, Chicago wanted to feminize the landscape. And through Atmospheres (the six on view here date from 1969-72), she fogs the wide-open space of the American West with wraiths of colored smoke. Over concrete, through scrubby hills, in scattered plumes across dry desert, color billowed from Chicago as never before. Unlike the permanent monuments crafted by, say, Michael Heizer, Chicago’s marks the landscape only temporarily. Impermanent, soft, and dissipating: a dance with the landscape rather than a tombstone parked on the earth. Her rich, thick chromatic clouds powerfully contrast against the soft greens, earthy browns, and cement grays they erupt over. One wonders if Bruce Nauman knew of Chicago’s Atmospheres when he infamously proposed skywriting above a Land Art exhibition in 1969 that would read simply: “Leave the Land Alone.”

    As an extension of her Atmospheres, the most intense and inspiring piece in Chicago’s exhibition at Deitch plays on a small monitor in the corner along with a selection of stills: Women and Smoke closes the timeline of the exhibition in 1972. Wearing nothing but color, dancing amidst fire and smoke, the eponymous women possess an electric joy. With turquoise skin, one bathes in rich orange smoke. Another painted in the most scarlet of reds stands with her legs apart, arms stretched wide, in her hands flares hiss with hot red smoke. A trio of women painted green, purple, and red move through a half-dozen smokey columns of velvety green, red, purple, and pink plumes in the dry hard earth around them. You feel their fierce vitality, and how Chicago and her collaborators embrace the euphorics of color in all its billowing force. Though they move with ritual deliberation (one still is named Goddess with Flares), their dances and actions feel animated with unfettered delight and a kind of wondrous freedom rarely witnessed.

    This period in Chicago’s work has been showcased in various places before (including a survey of her time in LA at the Brooklyn Museum, in 2014), but it was truly worth seeing it here and now, back where it was first made. Perhaps I dearly needed a dose of assertive vulnerability, of pleasure as a tool to fight tyranny, of color as a political force. I need to see this, the unfolding of Judy Chicago as she set both herself and us free with the orgasmic capacity of color.

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