What does an art practice that contends with feminism look like? In what ways can such a practice foreclose a confrontation with the complexities of gender expression and sexuality? Or reinforce an essentialism? Can it resemble a room with CBD hemp plants sustained by grow lights? Or perhaps minimalist paintings and sculptures in a pastel color palette? At the New Museum are two concurrent exhibitions that plumb different aspects of past and present feminist ideology: Judy Chicago’s career survey, Herstory, and Puppies Puppies’s Nothing New.
One could argue that Chicago’s practice, which intervenes in purity culture with a vulval aesthetic and the self-described “macho arts” of autobody work and pyrotechnics, was subversive in the 1960s and ’70s, paving the way for artists like Puppies Puppies, who looks beyond bioessentialism and the gender binary. But Herstory, especially when viewed in tandem with Puppies Puppies (Jade Guanaro Kuriki-Olivo)’s compact yet ambitious exhibition, reveals the stagnancy of Chicago’s feminism and her failure to innovate beyond heavy-handed symbols used to represent race and gender. Although Nothing New occupies only a section of the museum’s ground floor, Puppies Puppies achieves in one gallery what Chicago cannot with four floors. But in the New Museum, it’s second-wave feminism for which we hold space.
Chicago is perhaps best known for The Dinner Party (1974–79). Though it remains housed in the Brooklyn Museum, the infamous installation is represented in Herstory via thirty-nine preparatory line drawings for what would become porcelain plates, each dedicated to a woman in history. Each plate presents a stylized vulva that corresponds to the respective woman’s life and legacy. For Georgia O’Keeffe, as an example, a purple-and-green sculpture of fleshy ridges sits atop a white dinner plate, evoking the modernist’s closely cropped paintings of flowers and their frequent comparisons to vulvae. Here, womanhood is reduced to biology. In the decades since The Dinner Party’s debut, it has become a celebrated icon of feminist art despite excluding and erasing trans people.
For those whose feminism is more intersectional, they will not find a curatorial intervention in Herstory that acknowledges Chicago’s conceptual shortcomings in wall texts or object labels. With the large number of curators credited, including Edlis Neeson Artistic Director Massimiliano Gioni and Kraus Family Senior Curator Gary Carrion-Murayari, it is difficult to imagine that they all simply overlooked the weaknesses in her approach instead of intentionally leaving them unaddressed.
Some prominent artists and writers have long expressed their reservations with Chicago’s practice. Alice Walker and Esther Allen both highlighted the weaknesses in The Dinner Party’s representation of women of color. Chicago’s drawing and subsequent plate for Sojourner Truth feature a nondescript African mask, while the one for Sacagawea is a geometric design perhaps meant to mimic a Shoshone beadwork pattern. Both stand in stark contrast to the organic, flowy forms used to represent the white women surrounding them. Chicago’s emphasis on denoting race through generalized symbols ultimately fetishizes and flattens identities into othering tropes.
Indeed, Chicago’s engagement with race within her work remains superficial. Consider the stained-glass triptych Rainbow Shabbat (1992), which was made in collaboration with her husband, the artist Donald Woodman. In the middle panel, people of all ages and from different ethnic and religious backgrounds gather at a dining table to celebrate the Jewish day of rest. The Star of David, illuminated in glowing rainbow stripes, repeats in the background and fills the left and right panels. Among the seated guests is an elderly Asian woman who wears a conical hat, commonly worn in rice paddies, indoors.
The rainbow in Rainbow Shabbat does not so much refer to gay pride, with which it has now become synonymous, but to racial solidarity as articulated by the Rainbow Coalition, founded by Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton. This is, however, a subtle allusion that might elude some viewers. Founded in 1969, the coalition united communities in Chicago across racial divides to consolidate class power and more effectively address issues such as police brutality and wealth disparity. However, an antiracist and anticapitalistic ethos like that of Hampton’s is practically nonexistent in Chicago’s oeuvre. Instead, appeals for tolerance take the place of calls for systemic change.
In the work Needlework Sampler (2000), text such as “TOLERANCE,” “HUMAN RIGHTS,” “HOPE,” and “CHANGE” are stitched one after the other in a rainbow gradient. The embroidery is exhibited in Herstory beside other textile-based pieces that similarly promote vague proverbs about equality. In We’re All in the Same Boat (2000), people of varying complexions work together to survive a sinking boat by patching the leak, bailing water out, and firing a distress flare. The figures appear flat and are rendered in simple forms and colors, not unlike the style of motivational posters one might find on the walls of a grade-school counselor’s office. The elementary nature of Chicago’s messages becomes clearer in Bury the Hatchet (2000), which depicts a man wearing a crucifix necklace, a woman with a Star of David pendant, and a bearded man wearing a turban (presumably meant to represent a Muslim man) burying a single hatchet. Only the ground, slit open in front of them and outlined in red, hints at the blood that has been spilled from empires and nations that weaponize religion to justify colonial and imperial violence. Chicago sidesteps the legacies of war and displacement in favor of the interpersonal. Rather than advocate for the solidarity and direct organizing taken up by the Rainbow Coalition, she pushes a passive framework of individual betterment that does not account for the totalizing force of centuries of oppression and the structures that perpetuate it.
More recent works are also bound by vague social-justice platitudes. On a monumental 17-feet-tall tapestry that hangs as a centerpiece of the fourth floor, Chicago asks, “What if women ruled the world?” Radiating out from the embroidery are ten smaller gold banners, approximately 10 feet tall, that feature supplementary prompts ranging from harmlessly silly—“Would Buildings Resemble Wombs?”—to irresponsibly absurd—“Would There Be Violence?” The textiles are part of the 2020 series The Female Divine, and their questions are predicated on the misguided belief that women are innately good and moral while men are to blame for the woes of today. With its uncritical embrace of gender binaries, the installation offers an overly simplistic, outdated argument. Visitors are invited to respond to these hypotheticals as part of an ongoing project that Chicago conceived with Nadya Tolokonnikova, a founding member of Pussy Riot. On the seventh floor of the museum, one wall is already covered with submissions collected since 2022 from around the world. One participant stated, “If women ruled the world there would be no wars.” Another claimed, “We would have the same rights … There would not be as much violence.” The reality is that women are not incorruptible. We are as equally capable as men of committing atrocities.
Instead of reckoning with this, Chicago perpetuates second-wave feminism’s rudimentary idea that integrating women into positions of power will naturally lead to a more just world. It’s a concept as ridiculous as the word that inspired the name of her survey, which is now more commonly used ironically rather than sincerely. As such, the six decades of Chicago’s career on view at the New Museum reveal a feminist framework frozen in time.
Puppies Puppies’s practice refuses the abstract stances found in Chicago’s. Offering much-needed respite, Nothing New grapples with surveillance and hypervisibility, especially with how they affect trans women of color and sex workers. The exhibition throws into high relief the limited vision of Chicago’s oeuvre. At the same time, within the institutional space of the New Museum, it feels as though Puppies Puppies is tasked with the burden of filling Chicago’s conceptual lapses.
Curated by Vivian Crockett with support from curatorial assistant Ian Wallace, Puppies Puppies’s exhibition divides the lobby gallery into three parts with shoji screens. The first section is a Zen garden inspired by the one at Ryōan-ji Temple in Kyoto and is a testament to the artist’s Japanese ancestry. Another features MRI scans and cannabis plants, tools that, respectively, documented the brain tumor the artist had removed in 2010 and aided in her recovery. The centerpiece of Nothing New is a recreation of Puppies Puppies’s green bedroom, complete with a full clothing rack and glowing paper lanterns. Together, the three vignettes offer an intimate and revealing look into the life of an artist who has previously hid behind proxies, costumes, and avatars in both performances and interviews alike.
Nearly five years ago, Puppies Puppies appeared in the flesh and completely nude during her solo performance Naked Self (Transitioning) (19 Months on Hormone Replacement Therapy) (2019) at Paris’s Galerie Balice Hertling. As visitors circled freely around her, she stood unmoving in the gallery space before painting the words “ANXIETY” and “DEPRESSION” on blank canvases hung on the walls. The only barrier between the artist and her spectators was artificial fog, an artwork itself, titled Brain Fog (Lexapro Withdrawal Side Effect) (2019). This was a new mode of presentation for Puppies Puppies, who later told the New York Times that she began to reevaluate her penchant toward anonymity while transitioning: “It meant something very different to hide as a trans woman,” she said, “because society forces us to hide.”
In Nothing New, Puppies Puppies can, at times, be found inhabiting the New Museum’s constructed bedroom, but she is always separated from us by the gallery’s glass wall. The presentation’s voyeuristic concept is reminiscent of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century world fairs that exhibited women of color from the Global South as racial spectacles for white audiences in Europe and the United States. Here, Puppies Puppies lays bare the ways that her presence is hyper-scrutinized in a surveillance state that is white supremacist, transphobic, and anti–sex work. The first time I visited Nothing New, the artist was present, and suddenly, without warning, the glass separating us turned opaque with a startling snap. I was left feeling like a Peeping Tom caught in the act. In denying the viewer’s gaze, one that has historically sensationalized and exoticized those whose appearances deviate from the cis, white paradigm, Puppies Puppies accesses an obfuscation that Afong Moy and Sara Baartman, for example, could not.
Just outside the gallery, a digital display shows live video feeds from two cameras inside the pseudo bedroom and one from her actual bedroom. Privacy is an illusion. Puppies Puppies elides her digital sex work of “camming” with her art practice, in which she similarly performs for a camera in her bedroom(s).
If privacy is out of reach and we are always surveilled, sometimes even by each other, what do we want our performances to convey? This notion of artists being monitored and financially compensated or rewarded for performing a certain way feels particularly relevant now. Many who have publicly voiced their support for Palestinian liberation in recent months have had their exhibitions canceled by galleries and museums. Others have been threatened with deaccession plans from collectors seeking to devalue their work. (It is perhaps telling of Chicago’s feminism that she has not, at the time of this article’s publishing, taken down or amended an Instagram post from October 16 in which she criticized those who “are blaming Israel/Jews for the response to Hamas’ fifty years of denying our right to exist,” though this claim is factually incorrect. As I write this, Israel continues to commit acts of genocide in Palestine: Al Jazeera reported that Israeli forces have killed more than twenty-four thousand Palestinians in Gaza since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, and more than half a million Palestinians in the region are facing catastrophic levels of hunger and starvation.)
When viewers juxtapose the two exhibitions, a final query emerges: with what feminist ideology do we want to align ourselves? For Puppies Puppies, who has used institutional art spaces to offer free HIV testing and shuttles to blood-donation centers, the prevailing ideology is one of community care and collective resistance. However, if Herstory represents the type of “feminist” future that the institutional art world and its financial structures are willing to envision and build, it is a vacuous one. Art and artists do not always inspire. Sometimes, they anchor us firmly in antiquated or even self-serving beliefs rather than propel us to imagine more radical futures.