Becoming Judy Chicago: A Biography of the Artist

Becoming Judy Chicago: A Biography of the Artist

by Gail Levin

Born to Jewish radical parents in Chicago in 1939, Judy Cohen grew up to be Judy Chicago — one of the most daring and controversial artists of her generation. Her works, once disparaged and misunderstood by the critics, have become icons of the feminist movement, earning her a place among the most influential artists of her time. Early to reject the modernist…  See more details below


Born to Jewish radical parents in Chicago in 1939, Judy Cohen grew up to be Judy Chicago — one of the most daring and controversial artists of her generation. Her works, once disparaged and misunderstood by the critics, have become icons of the feminist movement, earning her a place among the most influential artists of her time. Early to reject the modernist move away from content in art, Chicago first mastered and then transcended modernism’s formalist austerity, before blazing a trail to the new esthetic now known as postmodern.

In Becoming Judy Chicago, Gail Levin gives us a biography of uncommon intimacy and depth, revealing the artist as a person and a woman of extraordinary energy and purpose. Drawing upon Chicago’s personal letters and diaries, her published and unpublished writings, and more than 250 new interviews with her friends, family, admirers, and critics, Becoming Judy Chicago is a richly detailed and moving chronicle of the artist’s unique journey from obscurity to fame, including the story of how she found her audience outside the art establishment.

From her early training as a gifted child at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to the groundbreaking Feminist Art Program she created at Fresno State College in 1970–1971, Chicago has never feared to challenge the status quo. At a time when art history textbooks still omitted work by all women, she led her students on a remarkable journey during which they began to examine the meaning of being a woman, to explore women’s traditional crafts, and to compile a history of women artists. For Chicago, no topic has been taboo—from menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth to men’s abuse of power and the Holocaust.

Chicago has revolutionized the way we view art made by and for women. She has fundamentally changed our understanding of women’s contributions to art and to society. Influential and bold, The Dinner Party has become a cultural monument. Becoming Judy Chicago tells the story of a great artist, a leader of the women’s movement, a tireless crusader for equal rights, and a complicated, vital woman who dared to express her own sexuality in her art and demand recognition from a male-dominated culture.

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Editorial Reviews

Elsa Dixler
Becoming Judy Chicago is a work of large scope and wide research - as well as beautiful illustrations. It brings alive a body of work and an unironic era that seem very far away.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
With Judy Chicago, Levin (Edward Hopper) takes on a subject who has spent most of her career fighting for her place in a male-dominated and masculinized art world. As the title suggests, the book shows how the daughter of a radical Jewish Communist became the power behind The Dinner Party (1979), a work that forces women's history forward on women's terms, expressed through craft and female imagery. Often described as outspoken, confrontational, strong willed and difficult by even her closest colleagues and friends, Chicago carved a path for other women artists. She demanded that her students-all female-live and create a radically new and feminist movement in the arts. Levin captures Chicago's struggle with her emerging feminism in the context of her marriages, her art and her role as teacher and collaborator. Levin handles the complexity of Chicago's relationships with both men and women deftly, in a manner that exemplifies the issues many women have gone through as they attempted to stake their claim in a man's world. Although not an authorized biography, this was written with Chicago's aid. Hagiographic at times and sometimes burdened by its living and larger-than-life subject, the book is an enlightening look at this controversial artist and at feminist art in general. 16 pages of color photos, 15 b&w photos. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
CUNY scholar Levin issues an invitation to innovative artist Judy Chicago's famed The Dinner Party and other intriguing works. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An engrossing, vivid study of the life and work of one of America's most important feminist artists. Levin (Art/Baruch Coll. and The Graduate Center, CUNY; Edward Hooper: An Intimate Biography, 2005, etc.) turns her attention to Judy Chicago (born in 1939), tracing Chicago's early interest in art, exploring her psychological reaction to her father's early death and chronicling her first brief marriage. The artist's commitment to feminism was forged in that marriage: Long before it was fashionable, Chicago insisted that spouses share housework, once exclaiming to her husband, "What makes you think that because, by a biological accident, I was born with a cunt, I am supposed to pick up your socks?" Those feminist convictions soon found expression in her work. Her first major work of feminist art was her 1972 Womanhouse, a multimedia installation that explored the ways in which women have been oppressed by domestic expectations. The author strikes just the right balance between Chicago's oeuvre and her life, offering frank discussion of Chicago's complex second marriage, careful attention to Chicago's relationship with Judaism and a thoughtful examination of Chicago's feminist pedagogy. But the most arresting section is devoted to Chicago's masterpiece, The Dinner Party. Levin captures what an artistic challenge The Dinner Party posed for her subject, and spells out the personal and financial sacrifices she made in order to complete the massive work. Though this is not an authorized biography, Chicago was cooperative and generous with Levin, who seems to have unfettered access not only to Chicago's papers, but to dozens and dozens of people she knew and worked with, including ex-lovers,students, relatives and friends. The book is marred only by Levin's slightly stilted prose. A gift for those interested in the history of American art and the history of feminism.

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Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.69(d)

Meet the Author

Gail Levin is a biographer, art historian, and curator of landmark exhibitions. She is a professor of art history, American studies, and women’s studies at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is the author of many books, including the definitive biography Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography.

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