The Women Who Changed Art Forever

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday October 28, 2021

A graphic novel, The Women Who Changed Art Forever, just out from Laurence King Publishing, offers a fresh perspective on four trailblazers of feminist art: Judy Chicago, Faith Ringgold, Ana Mendieta and the Guerilla Girls. Written by Valentina Grande, an art historian, and illustrated by Eva Rossetti, the book tells the story of how each of these artists have drawn from the strengths of their formative years to build an unwavering commitment to their radical feminist art.

Introductory pages set up the social and political scene into which Judy Chicago strides, in 1970, with ideas that have not been previously seen. She is a Chicago-born artist whose mother always encouraged her art-making against all odds, being a woman at the forefront. Her father, who was persecuted during the McCarthy anti-Communist witch hunt, instilled in her his beliefs that equality was a human right that has been usurped by the political process. This foundation served the artist through every phase of her career, one which, until acceptance of differences has become more normalized, met disregard and disrespect at every juncture of her truth-telling art.


With the Civil Rights and Free Speech movements central to the social and political climate, and with the Black Panthers affirming the rights of people of color, Chicago arrives on the scene with strong ideas that she brings into the art program of CSU, Fresno in 1970. There, she formed the first women’s art program to address signal issues in the movement, including self-presentation and identity. Changing her surname to Chicago, she says, was a way to assert her command of her identity and her destiny, and her intention to be in charge of her life on her own terms.


In furthering her beliefs in female empowerment, Chicago went straight to the cut, taking the vagina as the gender signifier of and for women. Being the first to take command of womanhood from its most elemental sources, Chicago came under fire from all sides of what became known as Culture Wars—even from feminists who accused her of opportunism. Grande portrays the artist’s emergence as a political activist in frames that reveal her close attention to the people she engaged with as well as those who wished her an ignominious end. The author and illustrator also pay close attention to the flowers that inspired Chicago to explore all sides of the natural world in terms of sexual identity and nature, never trivializing the significance of such beautiful natural elements; this allows readers to make connections between the ways in which women have been objectified in art and the ways in which most people view flowers as non-essential ornaments in their lives. 



The book presents Chicago’s best-known and most subversive work, The Dinner Party, through an abstraction (above) that gives readers another opportunity to draw their own conclusions about this monumental work, which is permanently on view at the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art

In a recent ArtNet News interview, Grande spoke about how she came to select the four feminists to feature in the book: “The artists whose lives we narrate have worked their way through to become visible, but the artistic movement they identified with prevented them from displaying their work in exhibitions, galleries, and retrospectives. They have paved the way for future artists to be recognized and listened to. Most importantly, they have brought out the importance of self-representation, through the re-appropriation of their own history, for the sake of a future common heritage relying on a narrative against any discrimination based on gender.”

Grande agrees that this is a story still being written. She says, “Patriarchy is still the dominant narrative. It is just by dismantling it piece by piece, making every single fight intersectional, translating political activism on a daily basis, each one working in our own field of competence, we could reach the radical change we hope for. This applies to the world of art and to the world we live in.”


The story of Judy Chicago is followed by three more chapters, which will be featured here in the coming weeks. For more information about The Dinner Party, including a Teen Guide to Feminist Art and a teacher’s packet, go here 
Read Judy Chicago’s updated memoir, The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago (Thames and Hudson 2021), with a foreword by Gloria Steinem.
In related news, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum Art will present 52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone, celebrating the fifty-first anniversary of the historic exhibition Twenty Six Contemporary Women Artists, curated by Lucy R. Lippard and presented by the museum in 1971. 52 Artists will showcase work by the artists included in the original 1971 exhibition, alongside a new roster of twenty-six female identifying or nonbinary emerging artists, tracking the evolution of feminist art practices over the past five decades. Info Mark your calendar! For now, readers can read more about Second Wave Feminism in the arts at Widewalls.

PRNYAC dartfeature

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