Judy Chicago’s Latest Reckoning

Judy Chicago, known for her monumental work in feminist art, approaches the theme of mortality in her exhibition The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, now opened at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. As Chicago celebrates her 80th birthday, and almost 50 years since she unveiled her iconic The Dinner Party, her personal contemplative reflections merge into compassionate pleas for what is larger than ourselves, the world of endangered animals and ecosystems which we all share.

Judy Chicago, Title Panel: The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, 2015; China paint, pen work, and luster on porcelain, 12 x 16 in.; Courtesy of the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Photo © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Inspired in part by Jacob Lawrence’s famed Migration Series, Chicago has created a series of 12” x 16” panels in glass and porcelain, which have traditionally been her materials. (Since these are often categorized as mediums for women’s crafts, Chicago has used them from the beginning of her career to challenge the gendered binary of fine art versus decorative art.) These, along with two large-scale bronze reliefs, unfold an artist’s confrontation with the difficult subjects of aging and death. 

The first part of the series, “Stages of Dying,” are panels on china paint on white porcelain which depict a nude woman in the five stages of grief defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. The figure of a wrinkled bald androgynous “everywoman” is a sharp contrast to the  idealized youthful female nude presented in traditional art history by male artists.

“Mortality” begins with a bronze relief, the self-portrait which Chicago created in traditions as old as medieval funerary effigies. In a series of kiln-fired glass paint on black glass works titled How Will I Die?, she explores the grim possibilities of the end of life which range from being hooked to machines in a hospital to screaming in anguish.  

The final series, “Extinction,” presents animals without possibility of survival, depicted in pieces that are aptly titled Vulnerable, Battered, Stranded, Poached and Silenced.

The artist has said that she believes “the function of the artist is to help us deal with challenging aspects of the human condition.” These powerful works required physical stamina as well as emotional toil because of  their subject matter for their creation. Likewise, they pose a challenge to the viewer to confront like the artist their own mortality, and that of other creatures. 

Now open at the National Museum of the Women in the Arts in Washington D.C, until Jan. 20, 2020, this is the one of many current shows featuring Chicago’s work, which includes an exhibition of early pieces at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in Los Angeles, a show at Salon 94 gallery in New York City and the opening of Through The Flower, a new non-profit space in New Mexico focused on her practice. A retrospective of her work will be on view at the deYoung in San Francisco in 2020.   


Sheila Wickouski is an art and culture writer.