Interview with Judy Chicago conducted at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, September 16, 2019
Greg: Do you feel that our culture has stepped forward at all as far as conversations about death, and death positivity movements?
Judy: Are you kidding (laughs)? What do you think?
Greg: I think it’s been very, very slow, but I do think it’s heartening how death positivity has started to move forward.
Judy: It was interesting. Some years ago, Donald (Woodman, Judy’s spouse) and I were in London and there was an exhibition at this sort of out of the way museum, about death. It was one man’s collection of art on the subject of death. And the thing I found very fascinating: I had just been to a contemporary art gallery that was empty, and we walked in there, and it was mobbed, because it was obvious there’s desire among some people to break the silence, and to stop pretending, to stop keeping our head in the sand. Did you see The Farewell, which was hilarious and wonderful? It’s about a Chinese-American family who still have roots in China, and the grandmother has been diagnosed with cancer. So, all of the family, except for one brother and his family who live in Japan, and the other one lives in America, they all go to be with the supposedly dying grandmother. The granddaughter, who’s very close to her, is shocked by the fact that her family will not tell the grandmother, nobody will tell the grandmother. And of course this goes against American traditions. But there’s a moment in the film where the father’s explained to the children that in China a family feels it is their obligation to carry the emotional weight of the family. Therefore, it is their job to deal with the fact that she’s dying, not her job, which is actually very interesting. So, they all go, they have this incredible time, and then she doesn’t die for six years (laughs). It confronts death from a whole different cultural perspective. So, the question is, does she really have terminal cancer? Was there a misdiagnosis? Does the fact that they didn’t tell her contribute to her continuing to be alive? Or, was she just so sturdy? But, the thing is, it’s an out in the open conversation among the family.
Greg: I was looking at “How Will I Die?,” and was very moved by it. Do you feel that more people now are realizing that they might be able to die at home, rather than hooked up to machinery, and how much of that depends on economic means?
Judy: Absolutely, it depends on it. We have these patrons in the holocaust project, and he has really severe dementia; and she has him at home with twenty-four-hour care. Same thing with my weaver. They had the means. Absolutely, it’s a class issue, what your choices are. So, there’s that. And, the longtime administrator of “The Dinner Party” who’s about to arrive here, her wife of thirty-seven years just died. It took two years. Again, Dianne is a tax lawyer, and she spent a lot of nights staying up till four in the morning, working, in order to have enough money, so that she could have caregivers for her wife. It’s a class issue. If you don’t have that level of means, you’re screwed. You’re put in some place and warehoused.
Greg: You’ve said that you wanted to live long enough to see your body of art emerge from the shadow of “The Dinner Party.”
Judy: It’s happening now, finally.
Greg: And I feel like, with this show, too.
Judy: And, the Jeffrey Deitch show, too. And, I’m having my first retrospective. And it’s interesting, what Susan (Fisher Sterling, Alice West Director, National Museum of Women in the Arts) said, because the title of it is “Judy Chicago: The Process of Empathy,” she didn’t even know that, which I’ll tell Susan that, because there’s this whole thing that’s going on with the politically correct left, that you’re allowed to deal with anybody’s experience except your own. If you’re caucasion, you can’t do anything about African-American experience. You can’t deal with anybody else’s experience but your own. We see a bunch of articles that start with “I am a (this), but…” and it’s like, excuse me, but what ever happened to human empathy? If we can’t deal with anybody’s experience but our own, that just about wipes out the history of art, doesn’t it?
Greg: I’ve heard you talk about how you couldn’t make work about giving birth, having not personally given birth; whereas people who haven’t been crucified make work about the crucifixion.
Judy: Yeah. It’s a complete misunderstanding of art and how art is made, actually, and where art comes from.
Greg: You said earlier that you don’t believe in an afterlife. Have you ever had glimmers of any kind of belief in an afterlife, even amid people dying?
Judy: Mmm-mmm. I think believing in an afterlife relieves you of responsibility to make something important of your life now. I never expected to live this long, and in a way gave a lot of impetus to my studio life. I had no idea.
Greg: You’ve got that quote in there, that I think is a Socrates quote, that death is simply the end of our sense, a long, dreamless sleep, and therefore a sweet prospect.
Judy: Yes, well Camus says something similar. I think certainly one can come to the idea. Agnes Martin, Donald was Agnes Martin’s assistant for seven years, but anyway, there was an interview with her late in her life, and I thought it was so great. The interviewer asked her, “Agnes, looking back on your life, what do you think?” And she said “Agnes, well done.” (laughs) And I thought, what a great way to feel about your life, right? Fantastic, right? So, I can see how somebody would come to the feeling: “I’ve lived a great life, and now I’m tired, and enough’s enough.”
Greg: Do you think that a person can go through this exhibition and perhaps be a bit more comfortable with their own mortality?
Judy: I have no idea. Listen, I’ll never forget when “The Dinner Party” opened in San Francisco to this ecstatic crowd, five-hour lines, looked like it was going to be a big success, and I was interviewed by Susan Stamberg of NPR, and I can remember to this day her asking me, because I was saying “oh, I set out to test the system to see if women can be themselves, as artists, and have their work accepted, and it’s obvious that we’re at that point, and so excited” and she says to me “but Judy, how will you feel when the controversy starts?” And I said, “controversy? What controversy?” (laughs) So, I’ve never been able to predict.
Greg: I understand that your own upbringing was incredibly supportive, and that you were raised by Marxists, and the one thing that they did not prepare you for, you’ve said, is how discouraging the rest of the world can be?
Judy: Yes, my father was a Marxist. Sure.
Greg: Did it take a while to get your bearings with all of that?
Judy: A long time, yes. It took a long time.